'New Orleans Saved Itself': Cutting-Edge Community Planning Post-Katrina

Ten years ago, a number of architecture firms went to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina for a humanitarian "experiment"—rebuilding part of the underserved Lower Ninth Ward as an innovative, LEED Platinum, affordable community.

2 minute read

August 28, 2015, 7:00 AM PDT

By Elana Eden

Today, tour buses regularly visit the hundred or so cheerfully colored, creatively shaped houses designed by high-profile architects like Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne—where residents may pay as little as $25 a month for utilities.

The "starchitects" were invited by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. So was community planning and design firm Concordia, which also coordinated the New Orleans' "People's Plan"—a recovery plan grounded in input from the residents of the vulnerable and long-neglected Lower Ninth Ward.

"The people in the trenches were the heroes," according to Concordia founder Steven Bingler. "They stepped up—literally out of four or eight feet of water, or off of a rooftop—then picked themselves up and got engaged in the recovery."

Two previous attempts at recovery plans sparked suspicion of racial bias and fear that communities of color in the Lower Ninth would be wiped out altogether. Finally, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with Concordia, which undertook an extensive citizen engagement process to revive—not replace—the community.

Bingler remembers a crowded Convention Center, where two-way broadcast connections and classroom clickers enabled people who had fled as far as Atlanta to participate in the planning process for their home neighborhoods.

Martin Pedersen, a longtime architecture journalist, notes that this commitment to inclusion is rare in the field. "Architects’ idea of community engagement is to first think of a design and then sell it to an oftentimes-reluctant public. That’s called 'bringing them around.' But really, is that any different from what a used-car salesman does?" he says.

For Pedersen, New Orleans is proof that "authentic" community engagement can transform whole cities. He tells The Planning Report:

"What was amazing about the post-Katrina experience—watching it from afar—was that the city didn’t have a huge civic infrastructure of democratic involvement. They had to grow it on the fly… The neighborhoods that came back the strongest are the ones that organized and participated fully. The ones that didn’t were often spread out and without a voice."

Much has been accomplished in New Orleans since the storm, but the city still has a good deal of recovering to do—as well as preparation for future weather events. Looking back on what occurred 10 years ago, Bingler issues a warning to other cities to look forward, too: "We’re going to have to apply our hard-earned experience in a lot of other places in the next 40–60 years."

Bingler and Pedersen are co-authoring the forthcoming book Building on the Common Edge. Read their full joint interview in The Planning Report.

Thursday, August 27, 2015 in The Planning Report

View of Mount Hood at golden hour with Happy Valley, Oregon homes in foreground.

Clackamas County Votes to Allow ADUs, Residential RVs

County officials hope the zoning changes will help boost the housing supply in the region.

June 18, 2024 - Mountain Times

Single-family homes in a suburban neighborhood in Florida.

New Florida Law Curbs HOA Power

The legislation seeks to cut down on ‘absurd’ citations for low-level violations.

June 16, 2024 - The Guardian

Aerial view of intersection in New York City with yellow cabs and zebra crosswalks.

Planners’ Complicity in Excessive Traffic Deaths

Professor Wes Marshall’s provocatively-titled new book, "Killed by a Traffic Engineer," has stimulated fierce debates. Are his criticisms justified? Let’s examine the degree that traffic engineers contribute to avoidable traffic deaths.

June 13, 2024 - Todd Litman

Digital drawing of person holding city skyline with wifi symbols and lines indicating smart cities or data.

Cities Awarded for Data-Driven Projects

The What Cities Works Certification recognizes cities for using data to solve real problems.

June 21 - Smart Cities Dive

The Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose, California.

Faith-Based Housing Movement Grows

More churches and municipalities are saying ‘Yes in God’s Backyard.’

June 21 - Vox

Close-up of red and white BUS LANE sign painted in street lane.

Why BRT Can Benefit Cities More Than Rail

Bus rapid transit lines offer a less expensive, quicker-build alternative to rail that can bring other infrastructure improvements with it.

June 21 - Governing

City Planner I

Department of Housing and Community Development

City Planner II

Department of Housing and Community Development

City Planner Supervisor

Department of Housing and Community Development

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.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.