Reactions to Rebuilding the Big Easy

Readers respond to Gary Esolen and Valeri LeBlanc’s “Rebuilding New Orleans: Twenty Big Ideas and a Postscript” with questions, encouragement, and suggestions of their own.

These are some of the best ideas I have heard yet. Sounds like Valerie LeBlanc and Gary Esolen really understand the unique character of the Crescent City. I certainly hope New Orleans will become a cutting-edge city of the 21st century and a model for the rest of the world. Vive la Nouvelle-Orleans!


A few notes regarding your suggestions for rebuilding the Big Easy:

1. Many people are trying to compare the “future” levee system of New Orleans to the current system in the Netherlands. Please remember the entire country of the Netherlands only has 280 mile of coastline to protect.

2. Any levee rebuilding effort must take into consideration that many predictions show the intensity of future storms is increasing (category 6 in the future?).

3. Does anyone predict any legal difficulties when building permits are being issued in accordance with plans that were laid out over 200 years ago?

H. Hoisington
Yukon, OK


In the lowest areas of the city a system of hills and valleys could be built that would put houses eight to ten feet higher (or higher yet) than they were, while at the same time providing low areas where the water could drain to during heavy rains or floods. City blocks or areas containing many blocks could be surrounded by moat-like areas that would be mowed to keep down weeds, and these islands could be connected by bridges. During dry times they would provide park space. Homes in these areas could purposefully be built as low-cost housing to replace the kind of housing being removed due to damage.

Paul Shaffer


This kind of place-based, “solution concept” oriented thinking should be encouraged. Metropolis could invite others to generate similar “do this in order to achieve that” statements. Indeed, a facilitated event that brought more than just the two authors (who seem to have a broad and deep understanding based on a rare type of common sense) together might begin the process of stimulating a plan for enlightened redevelopment.

Bruce Coldham AIA


It’s not just spaces for musicians to live and play that New Orleans needs. It’s the attitude that music can be a big business.

What the people working in the regional music industry need is small business loans, low rate/group rate health insurance, legislative lobbying and marketing groups—all the things that build and support an industry.

Mary Hogan
New Orleans / Savannah, GA


As a 14-year resident of New Orleans—the city where I earned my planning degrees and experience—I am shocked, nearly daily, about how people are latching on to what they think are new ideas. Much of what is presented has been part of the pre-Katrina planning discussion and is simply being echoed and shared with a larger audience. I am thankful that some New Orleanians are forcing the dialogue since it is so apparent that many professional planners currently involved (or trying to get involved) know very little about the unique physical and social geography of the area.

In the post-Katrina chaos, there is a sad absence of New Orleans professional talent. While those people were still reeling and trying to make sense of their—and I repeat, theirnew world—planners from elsewhere came rushing in and elbowed those who know the city best right off the playing field and into geographic and professional exile. The visions being presented have created a new storm that not only will delay the recovery process but will likely create a New Orleans that is unrecognizable to those who love, know, and understand the place beyond the edges of the tourist playground.

Sky Weir is absolutely correct in her comments [below]. Good planning is ultimately about people. Too much of the planning community is little more than private developers in disguise. Planning for the “desirable” demographic is not economic development and no matter how hard we try to perfect our physical environments, we must be cognizant of the needs of all populations and of human behavior.

New Orleans has an amazing opportunity to fix some of the urban problems that exist in nearly every city. The people of New Orleans have been working on it for years, just like every other city. So while we appreciate all the help, we are a bit insulted by the arrogance that has emerged from the failure to recognize that local talent and knowledge was not destroyed with the storm. It has merely been displaced.

I read recently about the planners descending on the city to conduct charrettes. Perhaps it would serve the city and the planning community well to review the public participation and sessions that helped create a new master plan a few years back. Perhaps it would serve the city and planning community well to consult with New Orleans trained planners and the area’s urban experts. Perhaps it would serve the city and planning community well to hear what is really being said by the displaced people of New Orleans. I’ve heard it time and time again. After all the talk, the expressions of frustration, the rage about what has happened, it nearly always ends with a tearful, quiet “I want to go home.”

To everyone who is working to help make that happen, thank you. But please be respectful in doing it. While it is your vision, it isn’t your home.

Denese M. Neu, Ph.D.
HHS Planning & Consulting


As a native New Orleanian I applaud all of your suggestions. My question is: What organizations are raising money to realize these ideas?

I am dismayed by the Red Cross and disgusted with FEMA and would like to funnel potential funds to where the real New Orleans spirit is honored and helped. I know many other people who would like to contribute to the right approach to rebuilding.

Ck Kuebel


In other words, you can in once sense start from scratch with New Orleans. This means that there is the opportunity to build a sustainable city. The other opportunity is to allow the incredible richness and history, the success stories of the past, to inform the design of the new city.

Andrea Hamann
Landscape Architect



Will there be a need for social workers and other human service providers during this long rebuilding process? What can the universities do to enhance a desire to go there to live and help? These are considerations, of course, only if the ocean can be kept out.

Jim Ryan



William S. Saunders, Editor
Harvard Design Magazine
Harvard Design School
Cambridge, MA


You might be surprised by how many ideas are flying under the radar right now, organized in the various “camps” and “forts” used to indicate outposts of a society—from here (Chicago) back to the south, and around to the west coast (California, where many exiled citizens of New Orleans have congregated).

What is interesting is the amount of national and international professional insight which is gravitating toward this task (or at least attempting to). If some insightful leaders can harness this creative and professional talent you may see a New Orleans renaissance after all.

Wes LeBlanc
Economics Research Associates


This vision put forth by Gary Esolen and Valerie LaBlanc offers the best kind of thinking—that led by a true heart and a sensible soul. They obviously love their city and want to rebuild for the right reasons. I encourage the powers that be to get these folks on planning committees right away!

Regards—a yankee from the Finger Lakes who loves New Orleans.

Wynelle Stein
Co-Owner Moosewood Restaurant
Ithaca, New York


Hi, I just wanted to say that I like your suggestions for rebuilding our wonderful city! I especially like those aspects that bring people together, build community, and incorporate the city’s many diverse backgrounds. I also support any suggestions with an environmentally-friendly approach to rebuilding.

Finally, I love the idea of a state-of-the-art mass transit and light rail system, which would be a benefit on a daily basis (and in case of evacuation). I hope you continue to put your ideas out there for further support.

S. Janine Beniger


With the natural saturated condition of the substrata around New Orleans, and the river’s tendency to flow where people don’t want it to go, why not use the natural conditions and plan a New “Venice” Orleans with canals, piazzas, water taxis, and even musicians in gondolas? Light rail could link commuters to the business district; local marinas could provide access to the river; and Bourbon Street and the Cathedral square could be maintained as a traffic-free, pedestrian-only environment. There are many such combinations that could make New Orleans once again the most unique city on the continent.

Gerard Meyer


What of more wheelchair-friendly, less-discriminatory housing, using universal design principles? This type of housing would be safer, too. Please think more about adaptable, accessible, and visitable homes.

Mike Conroy
San Diego


As a former resident of New Orleans, I would like to suggest the monthly art gallery circuit as another excellent point of entry. Before Katrina, the first weekend of every month was devoted to a “Vernissage Crawl,” where the general public could enjoy wine and cheese in neighborhood galleries.

It is very sad to know about the devastation caused by the hurricane. My heart goes out to all of the city’s unfortunate population.

Archee Waters


These twenty ideas are wonderful. They should win a lot of awards. But the underlying problem is the need for a clear separation of flood-prone areas from those areas where people live. We should not build on lands which are not suitable for building (for further information, see Design with Nature by Ian McHarg). This is not a new idea; yet, most low-cost housing is still built in flood-prone areas because the land is cheap.

Ludwig Hilberseimer, who taught city and regional planning at the Illinois Institute of Technology from the 1940s to the 1960s, proposed planning ideas which did not conflict with appropriate land use. He proposed building compact cities, emphasizing continuous open spaces and environmentally-friendly design, living within walking distance of work, and so on. But most urban planners and city officials today seem to have have ignored Hilberseimer’s ideas in favor of the bottom line.

Raz Khan
Retired Chief Architect and City Planner
United States Air Force
Palmdale, California


Sustainable development is the trend these days—but the third arm of sustainability is the human component. Now is the perfect time to introduce radical new changes to the social fabric of New Orleans.

Introduce a high quality, universally available, state-funded medicare and education system—and re-introduce an honest, compassionate, democratic political system. If people are healthy, educated and have some responsibility for their existence, natural disasters will still happen but the effects of these disasters may be quite different. The New Orleans disaster is the perfect example of what happens when we forget to work as a team.

I think that a complete, devastated block should be left as is, as a public monument to the disaster. Scientific interpretation explaining how a hurricane develops and travels, as well as how past decisions and human land use affected the physical outcome, would be an interesting addition to this monument.

Urban planning, physical design, and development are important—but there is a danger that the actual people affected by the hurricane are forgotten. In rebuilding, please don’t place too much importance on tourism and structured development. Allow enough space for New Orleans to re-develop with respect, compassion, and integrity.

Sky Weir

Recent Programs