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New Orleans Planning Update: The Unified New Orleans Plan

Disaster recovery expert Robert B. Olshansky reports on the latest planning effort in New Orleans.
December 11, 2006, 7am PST | Robert B. Olshansky
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Robert Olshansky

For planners, New Orleans continues to be an amazing story. To the casual observer, it has taken a painfully long time to produce and adopt a plan. In reality, much of this time has been necessary, in order to identify issues, engage citizens, sort through extraordinarily complicated political issues, and finally develop a plan that encompasses scores of destroyed neighborhoods and an entire city's broken infrastructure.

Over the past year, New Orleans has gone through several planning efforts, each informing the public in its own way. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission plan, prepared by Wallace Roberts & Todd, presented big ideas, not all of them welcome. A neighborhood planning process, led by planning consultant Paul Lambert, helped residents begin to think of desired futures. The current planning process -- the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) -- builds on these efforts, fills in the gaps, identifies citywide needs and funding sources, addresses flood risk issues, and integrates all the neighborhood planning efforts. In January, the city will deliver this plan to the state, in order to facilitate recovery funding. Rather than being too slow, UNOP is proceeding far faster than human beings were meant to do planning.

UNOP is audacious in both its scope and its absurdly short 4-month time frame. It is being invented as it proceeds, at a pace that is unforgiving of errors (metaphors: Ralph Thayer says it is like "building an airplane while flying it." Steven Bingler says it is like "drinking from a fire hose while using it to put out fires"). Dozens of planners and architects have organized themselves into a structure of thirteen district planning teams, coordinated through a citywide team led by Villavaso & Associates, Henry Consulting, and disaster recovery planner Laurie Johnson. All are proceeding simultaneously, sharing their wisdom as quickly as they can. And, so far, the process seems to be on track. This is news. What excites planners, however, doesn't seem to grab the national news media.

On Saturday, December 2nd, there was a landmark event: UNOP's Community Congress II involved over 2,500 participants in five cities, electronically linked via the magic of America Speaks, a non-profit that uses audio and video technology to connect public hearings in different areas. To a planner, the New Orleans Convention Center was a stunning and historic sight. Imagine one thousand people, at over one hundred tables, generally representing the demographics and neighborhoods of pre-Katrina New Orleans, all actively engaged in planning conversations with fellow residents. Imagine them electronically linked to halls in four other cities, all doing the same thing. They discussed, voted, and created their own ideas. They did this from 9 am to 4 pm, on a Saturday. All they got was a free lunch (some also got a free bus ride or child care). Most participants stayed until the end. This all transpired in a town that supposedly suffers from planning fatigue. I dare you to try this at home.

Community Congress II also had political significance. At the core of the Unified New Orleans Plan is the idea that citizen voices are important, and that the city needs to have a broad and intelligent conversation regarding its choices. People have heard enough political grandstanding, and they are eager to converse. With the success of the Congress, local politicians now have no choice but to support this process. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, for example, led off the Congress ambiguously, but ended the day with a show of support.

But it was not just about process. The substantive elephants in the room are permanent risk reduction and population shrinkage. Over the past month, the consultant teams working throughout the city have tried very hard to broach these delicate subjects, with some (though not always) success. At the Congress, several questions addressed these issues, such as concentrating infrastructure funds in areas of greatest need. Regarding shrinkage of neighborhoods, residents generally felt that homeowners should make their own rebuilding decisions, but most also supported providing financial incentives for people to rebuild near one another. Regarding flooding, citizens gave high support to reducing flood risk, via both financial incentives and standards. To an outsider, these general questions hardly seem a breakthrough. But, in fact, they are. The subjects of risk and shrinkage are now back on the table, and people are willing to engage in these challenging issues thoughtfully and creatively. The next month will tell how far this discussion can go.

Meanwhile, homeowners are working through the Road Home decision process, in which the state will fill the gap between insurance and property value up to $150,000. Owners can decide to use the funds to repair, rebuild, or relocate. More likely, owners will remain undecided for a while, waiting to see what actions the city and their neighbors take. Billions of dollars in insurance settlements are sitting in New Orleans banks, as owners ponder their next move. Thus, although progress is being made, significant uncertainty remains. The same is true of rental housing programs.

Finally, this week saw the welcome news that (a) the Mayor's office will finally be a central player in the recovery planning process, and (b) the recovery implementation office will be run by one of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning's own, Ed Blakely. Ed has a challenging job ahead to organize a disjointed city bureaucracy, collaborate with a City Council that has only recently begun to work with the Mayor, expedite the flow of funds, and repair as much as possible as quickly as possible for an impatient and weary populace. Ed wrote the book on economic development planning, but never has one of our colleagues faced a bigger economic development challenge.

As with my previous reports, it is clear that New Orleans is strongly moving in positive directions, which is quite exciting to see. But, as before, many uncertainties still remain. In this still-turbulent environment, it continues to be difficult to predict what will occur even one week ahead. The long-term success of the planning process rests largely on its ability, over the next month, to make progress on the issue of risk reduction. And the new recovery office is yet to be born, so we can't be sure how it will play out (we are rooting for Ed). Finally, thousands of individuals have yet to decide how to invest billions of dollars. So, as has been true for some time, the mantra of planners in New Orleans continues to be, "We should have a much clearer idea over the next couple of months or so."

Robert B. Olshansky is a Professor and Interim Department Head of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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