When the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina were finally pumped out of New Orleans in the fall of 2005, something unexpected emerged from the sludge and blistering sun: a massive, bowl-shaped petri dish in which a culture of local urban planning has grown and, by some measures, flourished.
Professional planners, sympathetic nonprofits, neighborhood groups, and citizen committees—sometimes working together but often not—have come up with dozens of ideas for reviving New Orleans. And ideas were needed: The flood inundated 80 percent of the city; fully half of its structures, totaling more than 100,000, took on at least 4 feet of water.
The first high-profile citywide planning prescription, released just a few months after Katrina, was from the Urban Land Institute, prepared at the request of the city's Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Commission. The plan, which was painted in broad, bold strokes, was a warning against random redevelopment. Among the ideas: Let many of the lower-lying neighborhoods revert to green space, and move those residents to higher ground.
It did not go over well.
“Folks were like, ‘No way!'” says LaToya Cantrell, president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association. “It's safe to say the report sent shockwaves through the community.” (The center of the Broadmoor neighborhood appeared on the planning map as “proposed park.”) Accusations flew that the BNOB plan was part of an underhanded effort to make New Orleans whiter and wealthier by eliminating poor and largely African-American neighborhoods. Political support for the plan evaporated. Nagin disavowed it and announced that, henceforth, all neighborhoods would be open for resettlement.
The city council soon after went into action, mandating a series of community-based neighborhood plans. This planning effort was overseen by Lambert Advisory, a Miami-based real estate and housing consulting firm. Forty-nine of the city's 73 officially recognized neighborhoods completed “Lambert plans” in a matter of months. (Neighborhoods that lacked an organization or a critical mass of returning residents had more urgent priorities.)
These neighborhood plans, in turn, were distilled into 13 district plans, which later served as the foundation for the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), created by a public-private partnership (which included the city leadership) to set priorities for $14 billion in capital investments. The unified plan was refined in large part through three high-tech “community congresses,” in which thousands of New Orleanians (those already home and those in several cities with large evacuee populations) participated in daylong events to voice their opinions.
The planning process was reasonably smooth, given the scale of the rebuilding. But a long 16 months after the flood, residents were eager to put away the PowerPoint and pick up the power tools. So Nagin finally established the Office of Recovery Management and appointed Blakely its director. New Orleanians were hungry for someone who could lead a citywide exodus out of the thicket of planning and into actual construction. And with Ed Blakely, they thought they could hear the sound of hammers.