Planning January 2018

300 Years and Counting

New Orleans plans for its next century, with a focus on resiliency.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

By Martin C. Pedersen

This year New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial. I was recently reminded of this milestone when our landlord — who lives upstairs with his wife, infant son, and overactive puppy — planted a "NOLA 300" sign on our tiny patch of front yard. "I Am in that Number," the sign's subhead reads. It also includes a website,, which serves as the home for the civic birthday.

This "official" celebration by city leaders looks resolutely forward. Notably, a three-and-a-half-minute film on the 300-year history of the city includes just nine seconds on Katrina. And perhaps that's a good thing. In the context of the city's deep and rich history, Hurricane Katrina is just one story among countless others, though it was a defining moment of the city we have today and will have in the future.

New Orleans and the Mississippi River in 1885. Photo courtesy Niday Picture Library/Alamy stock photo.
The $165 million Seabrook Floodgate Complex is located at the north end of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal just south of Lake Pontchartrain and the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge. It is part of a system to reduce the risk of a 100-year storm surge for some of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy Team New Orleans, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Two years ago, the city marked the 10th anniversary of Katrina. Locals who lived through the storm tend to dread this yearly ritual of remembrance — much like New Yorkers on September 11 — but the 10th anniversary was different. It was a time of introspection and celebration.

Despite a recovery process that was initially messy and politically fraught, the city had rebounded to a remarkable degree. The rebuilding was flawed and uneven — exposing centuries-old class and racial divides — but it was impressive nevertheless, given the unprecedented nature of the event: After the levees failed, 80 percent of the city was flooded. There was no urban planning playbook for that scenario. Long-term prospects were by no means assured.

'We can totally replan the city, spend billions of dollars building the strongest flood protection system in the U.S., but if the people inside that system are poor and disconnected from opportunity, it doesn't matter. ... You have to manage the water, but you also must have housing affordability and good jobs, and all of these things have to interconnect for the city to actually be resilient.'
—Jeff Hebert, Chief Resilience Officer, New Orleans

Ten years after the storm and the levee breach, the city was substantially remade, although there were valid criticisms about gentrification and equity along the way. By that anniversary, most New Orleanians had successfully fought to save their houses and their neighborhoods, though some did not return home. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restored and repaired the levees (a $14.5 billion undertaking). The Corps also installed giant flood-gates, the Seabrook Floodgate Complex, on Lake Pontchartrain at the mouth of the Industrial Canal, where Katrina's storm surge had raged into, overwhelming the levees.

The city's stormwater drainage system was upgraded (a huge job that is still ongoing). A new streetcar line was installed. The public schools, now part of a charter system, were rebuilt and refurbished. Crescent Park opened, connecting New Orleans to the Mississippi River for the first time in decades. The LaFitte Greenway, a citizen-inspired, 2.6-mile-long linear park weaving through four neighborhoods, became a reality.

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New residential buildings in the Warehouse District popped up, replacing what were for decades parking lots. Louisiana State University and the Veterans Administration completed new medical facilities — controversially, since LSU was abandoning its longtime home at Charity Hospital, which has sat empty since Katrina despite suffering just basement flooding — creating a multibuilding, multibillion- dollar campus near downtown. (Read more on the city's health care sector in "Let the Good Times Roll Once Again.")

The rebuilding unleashed an infectious energy that drew young people from all over the country, and New Orleans continues to attract record numbers of tourists, 10.5 million last year. (That boon to the local economy presents a complication for residents of many historic neighborhoods, where Airbnb and other such companies are flourishing.) At some point during the recovery, the number of restaurants post-Katrina suddenly outnumbered the ones before the storm, a sign of robust cultural health, in a city historically full of fine and not-so-fine dining choices. ("New Orleans is like Italy," I tell visiting friends, "even the bad food here is good.") The live music scene, as vital to the city's identity as its neighborhoods, food, second line parades, and Mardi Gras traditions, roared back, vital and varied, a magnet for musicians all over the world.

'[One] of the most positive outcomes of the storm [is that] it developed a small army of better-informed, planning-savvy community leaders and residents.'
—Jeanne P. Nathan, Community and Arts Activist

The Gentilly Resilience District's community open house in February 2017 gathered ideas to reduce flood risk, improve energy reliability, and encourage revitalization. Photo courtesy Resilient NOLA.

But the recovery was paradoxical, if nothing else. Because New Orleans now faced, in 2015 and today, a new set of challenges, some of them caused by the very success of the rebuilding (gentrification, a proliferation of short-term rentals, battles between developers and neighborhood groups), others by the recovery's notable failures (rising rents, a lack of public housing, access to good jobs and education). At the same time, the city's famously precarious location didn't get any less so. Yes, the Corps rebuilt the flood-protection system (itself a marvel of early 20th century engineering), but the wetlands to the south were eroding at an alarming rate, as sea levels continued to rise. On the 10th anniversary of the storm, "rebuilding" no longer seemed sufficient.

"We consciously produced the Resilient New Orleans plan for the 10th anniversary of Katrina," says Jeff Hebert, the deputy mayor and chief resilience officer for the city. "So much of our previous planning was focused on how we would rebuild after the storm. But, after our engagements with the Clinton Global Initiative, the Bloomberg Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, it became clear to us that we had to strategically pivot to resilience."

Planning — a post-Katrina legacy

It's a "pivot" that probably would not have been possible 20 years earlier. Indeed, one of the legacies of post-Katrina planning might be the idea of good planning itself.

Prior to the storm, the city had a long history of political corruption and, from a planning perspective, operated under a master plan, enacted in 1970, that was oddly not place-specific. America's most architecturally distinctive city, in other words, was guided by a planning document that was vague and ripe for exploitation.

"It was with very few exceptions an off-the-shelf ordinance, not really written for New Orleans," says Robert Rivers, executive director of the city planning commission. As a result, the city had, Rivers says, "a reputation for unpredictable land-use decisions."

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans was by necessity caught up in an urban planning frenzy. The city had to pull together and agree to a formal plan for rebuilding, before the state and federal governments would release billions of dollars in recovery aid. It was a bruising process. Two of the early efforts, the Bring Back New Orleans Commission and the Lambert Plans, failed, amid great acrimony. But the battles ultimately resulted in two important achievements: the adoption of the United New Orleans Plan in 2006 and an unprecedented level of civic engagement.

"That was one of the most positive outcomes of the storm," says Jeanne P. Nathan, a longtime community and arts activist, "because it developed a small army of better-informed, planning-savvy community leaders and residents."

During that intense period of citizen participation, planning endeavors had one overriding goal: ensuring the future viability of neighborhoods. In 2010 the city created a strong comprehensive master plan with the explicit intention of doing just that. (Plan for the 21st Century, as it was called, also carried the force of law, thanks to a voter-approved change to the city's charter in 2008 that required all zoning and land-use decisions to conform to it.)

In many neighborhoods, a lot of the housing stock had been lost to flooding, blight, and in some cases, reckless demolition. (This includes the city's decision in 2007 to knock down its public housing developments in favor of mixed-income projects that ultimately served far fewer poor residents.)

"The master plan was really a post-Katrina document," Rivers says. "The theme that ran throughout was to maintain the status quo, to enable everyone an opportunity to get back to what they had before the storm."

If the fractious years immediately following the storm represented the "planning" phase of the recovery (a process eventually led by neighborhood groups), then the election of Mitch Landrieu as mayor in 2010 marked the unofficial start of the "rebuilding" era. Landrieu, a former lieutenant governor, son of a beloved mayor (Moon) and brother of a two-term U.S. Senator (Mary), took firm control of that process. (His weak predecessor, Ray Nagin, would later be convicted of corruption charges and land in federal prison.)

Although Landrieu will leave office later this year with high approval ratings (his successor, New Orleans's first female mayor, LaToya Cantrell, takes office on May 7), the mayor does have his detractors. Some neighborhood activists think he's too "developer-friendly." Others are still angry about his successful campaign to remove the Confederate statues. (See "Monumental Concerns," December 2017.) And political opponents have for eight years complained about his autocratic, my-way-or-the-highway, style. A couple of these criticisms have truth to them, but they're also what people say about all strong big city mayors.

Landrieu, love him or hate him, was certainly that. To his credit, the mayor assembled a small but smart team that emphasized the importance of forward- thinking planning and, perhaps more importantly, was open to ideas from around the world. Early on the mayor hired William Gilchrist, a respected planner, as director of place-based planning, the job title an indication of the importance the administration placed (at least symbolically) on preserving the unique character of the city. (Gilchrist left New Orleans and became the head of planning in Oakland, California, in July.) Hebert, a planner by training, ran the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority during the mayor's first term, and was appointed deputy mayor and chief administrative officer in Landrieu's final term, while continuing to serve as the chief resilience officer and spearheading the resilience plan. (Rivers was hired by the city planning commission in 2013.)

'For the first time, the city is requiring developers to manage water on-site, rather than do what we've done for the last 90 years, which is pump it out.'
Robert Rivers, Executive Director, Planning Commission

Redefining resilience

The Resilient New Orleans Plan (which won the APA 2016 National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice) is a fascinating document, especially in the context of rebuilding. Underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of its 100 Resilient Cities program, the plan is a comprehensive mission statement for a new New Orleans (a phrase much favored by Mayor Landrieu). It's a decidedly postrecovery document. And given the challenges facing coastal cities in an era of climate change and rising sea levels, it's also a boldly optimistic one.

So how does New Orleans thrive well into the 21st century? The resilience plan expands the definition of that now ubiquitous term, breaking it into three parts.

ADAPT TO THRIVE. Climate change adaptation is the first priority, because all other points are moot if the existing systems designed to keep the water out don't function properly. But that century-old infrastructure of levees and pipes and pumps won't be sufficient for the challenges ahead. It needs to be integrated with a softer, citywide approach, aimed at storing and retaining water, the so-called "Dutch model" espoused by David Waggonner of Waggonner & Ball Architects, a local firm. To further complicate matters, those two approaches need to be coordinated with the state's coastal restoration master plan, which is currently being revised. "The city can't really operate as an island unto itself," Hebert says. "The coast is our natural protection against storms, and it's part of our local economy."

CONNECT TO OPPORTUNITY. The second part is centered on equity. It's a sort of tacit admission that the rebuilding skewed along racial and class divides, leaving a number of people behind. New Orleans remains a poor city (the median household income was $37,000 in 2015), in need of expanded job training and opportunities, affordable housing, and access to both good health care and healthy lifestyles. How much of this agenda can be achieved through the resilience plan is an open question. But the plan does have a number of smart ideas, including one that's likely to have implications for all cities: tying job training to the emerging jobs related to green infrastructure and climate mitigation.

"It's about connecting economic opportunity to the jobs of the future," Hebert says.

TRANSFORMING CITY SYSTEMS. Part three looks at integrating smart technology into a city long famous for creaky and dysfunctional infrastructure. The resilience plan is a blueprint, a road map, a mix of the pragmatic and the visionary. Its full value may be the holistic way it looks at the city. "What I tell people is, we can totally replan the city, spend billions of dollars building the strongest flood protection system in the U.S., but if the people inside that system are poor and disconnected from opportunity, it doesn't matter," Hebert says. "And you can't separate these things. You have to manage the water, but you also must have housing affordability and good jobs, and all of these things have to interconnect for the city to actually be resilient."

Resilient New Orleans

The strategy is organized around three guiding principles:

Adapt to Thrive

We are a city that embraces our changing environment.

We will:

  • Advance coastal protection and restoration
  • Invest in comprehensive and innovative urban water management
  • Incentivize property owners to invest in risk reduction
  • Create a culture of environmental awareness at every stage of life
  • Commit to mitigating our climate impact

Connect to Opportunity

We are an equitable city.

We will:

  • Invest in household financial stability
  • Lower barriers to workforce participation
  • Continue to promote equitable public health outcomes
  • Continue to build social cohesion
  • Expand access to safe and affordable housing

Transform City Systems

We are a dynamic and prepared city.

We will:

  • Redesign our regional transit systems to connect people, employment, and essential services
  • Promote sustainability as a growth strategy
  • Improve the redundancy and reliability of our energy infrastructure
  • Integrate resilience-driven decision making across public agencies
  • Invest in pre-disaster planning for post-disaster recovery
  • Develop the preparedness of our businesses and neighborhoods

Source: Resilient New Orleans Strategy

Water — and why good planning matters

New Orleans today is a nationally recognized leader in water planning. It's also a case study in how planning, even if it's speculative and not connected to a specific project, can with vision and persistence become policy. A case in point: In 2006, as the Corps was busy repairing the levees, Waggonner & Ball, in conjunction with APA, began organizing the Dutch Dialogues, a two-year-long series of exchanges, begun in 2008, which involved policy makers in the Crescent City and water experts in the Netherlands.

It was these exchanges that hatched the idea of "living with water." Out of that process, and almost constant proselytizing by Waggonner, the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan emerged in 2013. That same year, the Rockefeller Foundation launched the 100 Resilient Cities program, which created chief resilience officers in cities all over the world. Hebert stepped into that role and one year later organized a winning competition entry to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development National Disaster Resilience Competition.

The city was awarded more than $141 million to implement the Gentilly Resilience District. Located in a low-lying neighborhood that was severely flooded by Katrina, the district includes 12 projects of varying scales, from the Mirabeau Rain Gardens, a sprawling 25-acre site located on the grounds of a former convent to various water retention strategies at the street, neighborhood, and residential levels. The district, which is scheduled to begin construction later this year, is likely to serve as an easy-to-replicate model for wider implementation. In fact, a truly resilient New Orleans would have dozens of these districts woven into it like a watery quilt. (Read more on New Orleans's water plans in "The Water Within.")

In 2015, in conjunction with the resilience plan, the city adopted a new stormwater retention ordinance, a hugely important zoning change. "For the first time, the city is requiring developers to manage water on-site, rather than do what we've done for the last 90 years, which is pump it out of the system," Rivers says. "If you have a site that's over an acre, or have more than 5,000 square feet of impermeable surface, you will be subject to the requirement. This includes driveways and parking lots."

Should the commercial ordinance prove successful, it might prompt the city to offer tax breaks for home owners, in a move that would significantly scale up stormwater retention and save the city money. As Waggonner says, "The best scale is the smallest scale that works."

The culture of New Orleans: its neighborhoods

The issue of gentrification in post-Katrina New Orleans is a fraught one, and for good reason: a number of neighborhoods — Treme and Marigny, in particular, two historically African American communities — have undergone significant change in recent years, as newcomers arrived and rents spiked. (According to the Data Center, the city currently has 92,000 fewer African American residents than before the storm.) Even though the city council recently passed an ordinance regulating short-term rentals, the explosion of them has further complicated matters by taking countless units off the market.

New Orleans was once a low-rent town, but no more. For Rivers and the Landrieu administration, the response has been to push for a change to the master plan, allowing for increased densities and a mix of housing types. It's a long-term planning solution to a pressing problem.

The Landrieu administration has pushed as a key priority a zoning change that would encourage denser residential development along the Mississippi, the so-called "sliver by the river," on large unused, and underutilized industrial sites. "We call it the Riverfront Overlay District," Rivers says. "It seeks to incentivize development in those areas."

This initiative has been met with mixed reactions from neighborhood groups, from a court challenge (from the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association) to acceptance from their next-door neighbors in Bywater. New Orleans has a long and venerable history of fighting unwanted development. Some of it is perfectly rational and even heroic (in the 1960s preservationists blocked the Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway that would have destroyed the French Quarter). Some of it is based on a fear of change.

The best strategy for the incoming mayor might be to move forward with riverfront developments and exchange increased heights (from a current maximum of 55 to 85 feet) for a significant number of affordable units. In the meantime, the city could then turn its attention and resources to underserved neighborhoods.

And it's in those neighborhoods where the rich culture of New Orleans continues to reside. I'm reminded of this nearly every day during an afternoon ritual on my block. Most days it starts around four, following school dismissal. In other cities I might hear the roar of traffic or, if I'm lucky, some fleeting connection to nature, a flock of birds, maybe a barking dog, but in my neighborhood I'm likely to hear the energetic thumping of drums. On some days I hear two sets — one group practicing on a grade school playground a half-mile away and another closer by, augmented by trumpet and tuba.

Lately I've noticed an occasional counterpoint to this unique aural mix: a young trombonist living in a house no more than a block away, practicing scales. The songwriter T-Bone Burnett once said of Paul McCartney, "Music comes out of his pores." Something similar can be said about the neighborhoods of New Orleans. Maybe here it comes out from under the floorboards. Either way, let's hope the drumming continues for decades to come.

Martin C. Pedersen is executive director of the Common Edge Collaborative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit dedicated to public engagement in architecture, design, and planning.