The End of People Power Planning?

<p class="MsoNormal">Thousands of New Orleanians have participated in planning their post-Katrina future – likely more than in any single American city-planning effort, ever. Unfortunately, the New Orleans experience definitively demonstrates the limits of orthodox community-focused planning, the kind that has been neighborhood-based and consensus-driven.</p>

Read Time: 2 minutes

February 27, 2007, 7:39 AM PST

By James S. Russell


Thousands of New Orleanians have participated in planning their post-Katrina future – likely more than in any single American city-planning effort, ever. Unfortunately, the New Orleans experience definitively demonstrates the limits of orthodox community-focused planning, the kind that has been neighborhood-based and consensus-driven.

Though the city now has a $14-billion Unified New Orleans Plan, it still has still not set clear priorities and has no compelling road map to the future.

I was taken to task in my criticism of UNOP because I did not praise the detailed rebuilding strategies that communities themselves created. Many of them are indeed creative, innovative, and sensitive, but consensus-based processes make it very difficult to take on issues that create winners and losers, and almost every dilemma in New Orleans (and there are many) does just that.

In one conversation an insightful local planner, Renia Ehrenfreucht (she took a position at the University of New Orleans after Katrina because she wanted to participate in rebuilding), pinned down why planners, and planning are "stuck": One of the key struggles is how to deal with a city that may not soon return to anything near its former population. "Ideally, planning can set these priorities," Ehrenfreucht said to me, "but when everyone is participating, no neighborhood is going to decide not to accept city services or to come back slowly. But if neighborhoods do return slowly, then people will turn around and say what do I do?"

I think it's shameful politicians can't lead on such a tough questions. If not the city's leadership, who else? Ehrenfreucht, among others, steered me to the political reality: "It is simply impossible for the mayor or the city council to say to constituents that some part of the city cannot be rebuilt," she said. The final plan skirts the issue by proposing incentives to encourage homeowners on low-lying land to rebuild in a clustered fashion on high ground within their neighborhoods. (An idea, I should say, generated at the neighborhood level.) It's more nuanced than earlier schemes that proposed to shrink the city's footprint. However, as people face up to the complications of such a plan, the very same issues of who goes, who stays, and what happens to failing neighborhoods will bubble up again.

The city will have to embrace innovation, like that cluster plan, but innovations need to be tested somehow before they are adopted by the entire city. "People power" planning, which can be conveniently shunted aside as naïve, is not enough for New Orleans.


James S. Russell

James S. Russell is the architecture critic for Bloomberg News, which reaches 260,000 professionals and 350 publications worldwide. Mr. Russell's commentaries also appear on the Bloomberg Muse website. He is a regular guest on Bloomberg radio and TV. For 18 years Mr.

Hyperloop

The Hyperloop’s Prospects Dim

The media is coming around to the idea that the hyperloop is not a near-term solution for the country’s transportation woes. It’s too little, too obvious, too late.

September 27, 2022 - James Brasuell

Miami and Key Biscayne

The Great American Exodus: A Conservative's Perspective

During his keynote speech on September 11 at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis describes the demographic shifts in America since he became governor in 2019 in what he calls the 'Great American Exodus.'

September 27, 2022 - The Wall Street Journal

A crowd of people cross the street with a sign for the entrance of Disneyland in the background

Disneyland Is Too Crowded. Is More Capacity Needed?

Disneyland has a plan to create more supply to meet contemporary demand, a strategy reminiscent of contemporary debates surrounding housing and transportation.

September 29, 2022 - James Brasuell

A crosswalk activation button is shown in the foreground with two pedestrians show blurred while crossing the street in the background.

Jaywalking Decriminalized in California

Another day, another historic planning-related bill signed into law in the Golden State.

October 4 - Los Angeles Times

Aerial view of Walla Walla, Washington

Smart Growth Plan Hopes to Rein in Sprawl in Walla Walla

The Washington city reformed its zoning code to support more multifamily development and a diversity of housing types to meet the needs of its growing population.

October 4 - Planning Magazine

Man with leather messenger bag riding CitiBike bike on New York street

The Resilience of Bikeshare

The inherent simplicity of bikes makes shared mobility systems a crucial transportation option during natural disasters.

October 4 - Bloomberg CityLab

New Case Study Posted on HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

The World’s Leading Event for Cities

Smart City Expo World Congress

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.