Rebuilding New Orleans: Twenty Big Ideas and a Postscript

Rebuilding any city is a complicated business. As soon as the flood waters began to subside in New Orleans, suggestions for what to do with a devastated city started coming from everywhere. Two local citizens suggest twenty points of entry.1) Reassemble and Restore Social Capital With almost 300,000 in exile, and some 200,000 of them […]

Rebuilding any city is a complicated business. As soon as the flood waters began to subside in New Orleans, suggestions for what to do with a devastated city started coming from everywhere. Two local citizens suggest twenty points of entry.

1) Reassemble and Restore Social Capital
With almost 300,000 in exile, and some 200,000 of them facing what may be the permanent loss of their homes, the social structure of New Orleans is devastated. To keep the culture alive so that what is rebuilt has some vital connection to what New Orleans has been, we must find a way to restore the bonds that created the culture—including neighborhood ties, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, ethnic groups such as Deutsches Haus (German) and the Contessa Entellina Society (Sicilian), churches (some of which have been truly central to the culture), right down to the people who once hung out together at a corner bar or restaurant and would now like to find each other. That is possibly the greatest challenge New Orleans will face. If those ties are not restored, New Orleans will not return.

2) Create a Virtual New Orleans
To accomplish the restoration of social capital, and to create a process by which locals and others can contribute to the rebuilding of the city, create a Web site where people can associate around the identities and social structures that tied them together in New Orleans. Such a site, a hub of podcasts, chat rooms, bulletin boards, forums, and other tools, will come to mirror the vitality of the city itself, and keep its culture alive through the diaspora.

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3) Use Both Sides of the River
The high ground will be the starting point for rebuilding New Orleans, and there is high ground on both sides of the river. Algiers (the name accurately indicates its historical relationship to the French Quarter, as Algiers was to France) will be as important as the East Bank, with ferries and water taxis going back and forth constantly. No high ground can be wasted.

4) Build a Broadband and Wireless City
Connectivity is the key to the future. Other cities are recognizing this. Taipei is trying to become the world’s first fully wireless broadband city, Philadelphia is engaged in an experiment to bring WiFi to its entire footprint, and Google has offered to create a free wireless network for San Francisco, experimenting with an advertising-supported model. This is the time for New Orleans to pull together the best minds and design its own future communications system. Would the Media Lab at MIT like to design the urban communications network of the future? New Orleans needs it right now.

5) Build a City of Streetcars and Trolley-Buses
One of the best things about New Orleans is its streetcars, which lasted much longer than in most other cities, but were torn out except for the St. Charles Avenue line. A riverfront line and a Canal Street line have already been added, and the new, smaller city will be a perfect candidate for a model public transportation system. People like streetcars and they like smaller, trolley-looking jitney buses, more than they like the standard city buses—which in New Orleans could often be seen lumbering along with three or four passengers.

6) Build a Bicycle-Friendly City
Rebuilding New Orleans is going to require a lot of work on transportation systems, and that may provide an opportunity to create ways for bicycles. A surprising number of people have always ridden bikes in the city (perhaps because they cannot afford cars, or because of density), and bikes on city streets are a nightmare for New Orleans drivers fearful of killing a peddler headed the wrong way down a French Quarter one-way street. Transportation planning should include bicycles. Segways can be treated like bicycles, as they should be, rather than as if they were motorized pedestrians.

7) Use Light Rail for Regional Transit
New Orleans was a railroad city, and it is rich in grade-separated crossings and rights of way. A light rail system to connect the city with its suburbs, its airport, the state capital 90 miles away in Baton Rouge, and perhaps to connect separated parts of the redeveloped city, will be the perfect completion of a better, lighter, friendlier urban transit system.

8) Design for People to Live Where They Work
At rush hour some of the city’s transit lines were very crowded because so many people worked in the center of the city, especially in hotels and restaurants, and lived in other areas—many of which may not recover. The rebuilt New Orleans should reduce the need for that kind of mass movement of people by designing for a better integration of living and working.

9) Use the Unused Spaces in Existing Buildings
The second and third stories of buildings on Canal Street and throughout the French Quarter are mostly empty or used for storage. The challenges of creating fire exits and other factors of safety or convenience have blocked development, despite several attempts to look at the issue and despite some successful single building renovations. As New Orleans is rebuilt, higher density will be necessary and wasting space of that sort impractical. There is probably more unused potential residential space on Canal and in the French Quarter than is presently in use there.

10) Bring Back the Music (Part 1): Make Places for Music
Music is one of the things that always made New Orleans different, and the music has been part of local life. Except for a handful, the best clubs have always been in residential neighborhoods, not in the central business district or even the French Quarter. The original Tipitina’s, for instance, was on Tchoupitoulas Street uptown, and only the imitation was in the Quarter. There has often been conflict between residents and clubs over parking, noise, hours, and the like, and some may hope to impose more rigid separations in the rebuild. Instead, competent planning should be done to protect residents and still allow clubs throughout the city.

11) Bring Back the Music (Part 2): Make a Place for the Musicians
Whether by setting aside a place or places in the city, or simply by offering New Orleans musicians priority in housing, facilitate their return and support them with the kind of practice spaces, gathering places, and other amenities that will make recovering New Orleans a nurturing space for musicians. Bring our musicians back and invite the world’s musicians to join them. They will come.

12) Fill New Orleans with Community Gardens
New Orleans is a place where things grow. Build a brick wall, leave it alone for a year, and it will have green things growing from it. The cypress and tupelo swamps are filled with acres of irises. And people in New Orleans grow their own food—including a local squash known as a mirliton, grown on back fences and served stuffed with crab or shrimp. There cannot be a city in the world that will take more enthusiastically to a network of community gardens.

13) Build a System of Community Aquaculture
Most New Orleanians, black or white, rich or poor, love seafood, and many of them make live-caught fish and shellfish part of their regular diet. They put down crab traps, crawfish traps, or slat traps for catfish or they fish, net shrimp, dig oysters or otherwise forage in the waters of bayou, river, lake, and marsh. Designing a network of managed nurseries for a variety of kinds of marine life, which can be harvested by ordinary people with ordinary tools, could make New Orleans a model for a sustainable city in a difficult place. Use the place, don’t fight it. The people of New Orleans always have.

14) Restore the Wetlands
New Orleans visionary artist, planner, and engineer Bob Tannen designed a lighthearted poster a few years ago that has a different resonance after Katrina. It was built on an old map of the city when it was a small residential area surrounded by marshes. Whether or not some neighborhoods in New Orleans ought to be rebuilt where they stood in the past is a difficult question that will be debated and decided over time. But there can be no doubt that the wetlands in New Orleans, and south and east of New Orleans, must be restored. Two simple steps will make a start: using an already successful model, divert silt from the river to build up wetlands; and fill in the disastrous network of canals built by the oil and gas industry that have let in the ocean. From the present devastated condition, more heroic measures will also be needed, but the goal is clear. Restore the living wetlands.

15) Restore the Estuarine Habitat
Closely related is the need to restore the estuarine habitat around Lake Ponchartrain. The wealthy Lake Vista neighborhood was created through one of the largest public works projects in American history, which filled a Cypress-Tupelo swamp. Designed by the visionary Robert Smith, it was a bungalow court community, with the houses located on cul-de-sac streets. The homes faced greenways and you could walk all day inside the neighborhood without ever crossing a street. Anyone who suggested returning that place to its natural state would be burned at the stake, but there has been too much destruction of lake edge swamps and marshes, and in rebuilding New Orleans we should be alert to possibilities for restoring some of it.

16) Build Fishing Camps
People will want to live outside the areas that can be prudently protected from monster hurricanes like Katrina. A model for how to live in that precarious environment exists: the Louisiana fishing camp. Houses on stilts cannot be protected and those who inhabit them know this. If you live in a fishing camp you know everything there (perhaps excluding what you can fit on your boat, which is tied to one of the piers that support your house) is at risk. But you have an enviable lifestyle, surrounded by beauty and abundance. Only those who have lived in New Orleans will fail to be surprised by how many people would choose to live or have second homes outside hurricane protection, given the choice. Fishing camps are the answer, not rebuilding ordinary houses and neighborhoods in places that cannot be protected.

17) Build Hurricane-Proof Houses
Build some houses that are designed to withstand major hurricanes, including storm surges. How? FEMA has sponsored designs that look like standard residences but are hurricane resistant, with strong ties holding roof and walls together, and with concrete and block safe rooms that can withstand 225 mph winds, but storm surges will do them in. A more radical notion is based on architect Charles Deaton’s aerodynamically designed sculptured house on pylons on Genesee Mountain in Colorado, or variations of that design based on the aerodynamics of missile designs that have be relatively light and yet strong enough to face Mach One airspeeds. Some developers are already exploring the concept.

18) Design with the Environment
There is plenty of groundwater and not far down it is nice and cool. Why not cool by heat exchange with groundwater? Can the relatively smooth but relentless movement of water in the Mississippi support power generation that does not depend on mill-race water speed? An entrepreneur in Plaquemines Parish southeast of New Orleans has been working on a system to combine freshwater diversion from the Mississippi (to rebuild the wetlands) with slow turbine power generation.

19) Build Industries Around Recovery Necessities
The housing that will be needed to make New Orleans whole again can be created through standard short-term construction projects, or it can be manufactured using industrial processes and creating a new industry in Louisiana. While rebuilding New Orleans, we should be alert for every opportunity to build a lasting economic base. Everything New Orleans will need should have a place in a larger market.

20) Bring Back Corner Stores
The corner store was the anchor of New Orleans neighborhoods for more than a century. The convenience store for pedestrians, it was a place where people ran into each other, and a place where bulletin boards made connections possible. The store is so important an institution that the New Urbanists suggest subsidizing it as a gathering place and center of community in their developments. Perhaps the functions of the corner store can be combined with those of a café-bakery or gourmet food store, to fit the contemporary market.

Postscript: Forget About More Casino Gambling
To build a Las Vegas-style casino can easily cost a billion dollars. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, new casino-friendly regulation will bring mega-millions in investment. Letting a few hotels in New Orleans put gambling in their ballrooms will do nothing to attract significant numbers of visitors, and it will probably be a wash in tax revenues when compared with the present Harrah’s casino’s obligations, which will be wiped out by the expansion. And it will slow the restoration of the restaurant culture that is so critically important to New Orleans. The hotels that get the gambling may like it, but it will not help the industry or the city. The mayor’s program for more casino gambling is a non-starter, and he has already withdrawn it, but watch out, because this cat may have nine lives.

Gary Esolen was the founding publisher of Gambit, an award-winning weekly newspaper in New Orleans, and the chief executive for more than a decade of the city’s leisure tourism marketing program. Valeri LeBlanc has been a technical consultant to the city on media and communications for thirteen years.

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