The Third World Within: Rebuilding New Orleans

Of the Louisiana parishes (counties) impacted by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, Orleans was the last to draft a plan guiding its recovery – a document necessary to qualify New Orleans for its fair share of federal and state resources available for recovery.
Abandoned home in the Tulane-Gravier neighborhood
Abandoned home in the Tulane-Gravier neighborhood

Over nearly a two-year period, New Orleanians, both returnees as well as those who have yet to come home, participated in three distinct, but not necessarily sequential, planning efforts, of which the most decisive and important was known as the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP).

While most of projects and policies described in UNOP will never be fully implemented, the plan’s release in January, 2007 marked a new chapter in the city’s recovery. The plan will likely not be physically determinative of the shape of New Orleans reborn, but its psychological impact – a realization that the city must take a hard look at its priorities given a limited set of resources – has allowed policy makers to begin to make the tough choices that will guide the pace and directionality of reconstruction. Based largely on the UNOP document, the city’s Recovery Czar Ed Blakely – formerly the chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at Berkeley – released in March a priority list of areas to be targeted by the city for redevelopment using local funds. In addition to directly utilizing the preliminary design documents from UNOP, the list also reflects the idea of “clustering” the returning population in nodes and steering it towards places adjacent to already recovered neighborhoods. This approach is designed to both efficiently restore utilities and to target funds in areas where they will be most likely to support economic recovery.

In addition, the energy and interest that coalesced during the UNOP process shone a spotlight on the city that has continued to inspire the design community. Frederic Schwartz (BArch 1973), who led the UNOP effort in two of the city’s fourteen districts, is currently sponsoring a design competition for neighborhood parks in devastated portions of the city. His colleague Allen Eskew, who studied at Berkeley under professor Alan Jacobs and worked closely with Schwartz during UNOP, recently was honored when his locally-based firm was chosen as part of a team led by Chan Krieger Sieniewicz to redevelop the city’s long-neglected riverfront (an effort unrelated to UNOP).

Down, but not out: revelers march passed a hurricane damaged home in late 2005
Down, but not out: revelers march passed a hurricane damaged home in late 2005

It would be dishonest, however, to describe the recovery planning process in New Orleans as smooth. After FEMA’s early attempts at prioritizing reconstruction projects fell flat, the first local planning effort was Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Commission, which began immediately after the storm. Much maligned for its top-down approach – the most controversial of its recommendations was a moratorium on rebuilding in certain portions of the city – BNOB fell out of favor with both policy makers and the public at large by the end of 2005.

In the vacuum that ensued, the City Council proposed a process of its own in the spring of 2006. The Council’s plan, overseen by Miami-based Lambert Advisory, involved the participation of thousands of local residents in the drafting of forty-nine separate documents for each of the flooded neighborhoods in the city (approximately 80% of its land mass). Ultimately, however, it was necessary to produce a single document covering all of New Orleans (including the un-flooded central business district and historic French Quarter), and to think at a city-wide level about policies that would prioritize recovery in a sustainable manner. At the behest of state decision makers, the Unified New Orleans Plan began its work in the summer of 2006, almost one year after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

The UNOP process, which divided the city into fourteen districts, each planned by separate teams of nationally recognized planners and architects, proved ultimately successful in bringing together the city’s fractious political establishment and polarized communities in support of a single vision of recovery. The entire document, released in January, 2007, is available online at

During UNOP, community participation at the city-level relied heavily on three “Community Congresses” run by the consulting firm American Speaks. David Campt, a recent graduate of Berkeley’s PhD program in City and Regional Planning, was heavily involved the America Speaks´ local effort. The Congresses were large meetings of over 1,000 participants that included video-uplinks to members of the Diaspora (not adequately represented in other efforts). For most people, these events were the first time they were given the opportunity to discuss citywide recovery issues in a public forum, and the broad-based agreement reached during the interactive polling sessions suggested that the city was more amenable to a guided (and slower) recovery than was previously thought. While UNOP avoided the determinism of the earlier Bring New Orleans Back process, the ultimate vision – a rationalized process of rebuilding beginning with those areas that have been best able to recover on their own – is largely similar.

With the culmination of UNOP—and the hiring of Recovery Czar Ed Blakely—New Orleans is beginning its third-year after Katrina still devastated but cautiously optimistic about its future. Schwartz and Eskew both believe that, properly implemented, New Orleans’ recovery can be a model for how our cities in general think about rebuilding their respective infrastructures, many as damaged by years of abandonment and neglect as New Orleans was during a single day. This hope continues to inspire the as-yet-unwritten story of the rebirth of a great American city.

The Re-Envisionists

Questioning Urbanization in the Delta

Images of flooding New Orleans – literally the destruction of a major American city and loss of much of its population – have increased awareness of flood risk in the US. In California, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been much in the news recently, as the fragility of its levees (long understood by experts, but only recently appreciated by the public) has attracted the governor’s attention, leading him to propose massive re-investment. But even with higher, heavier levees, will the Delta be safe from flooding? Given the unique characteristics of the Delta, does it make sense in the long run for us to build houses below sea level there? Or could alternative scenarios that preserve open-space and infrastructure values provide more benefit and less risk to the San Francisco-Sacramento-Stockton metropolitan region of the future?

In hopes that this fresh experience created a ‘teachable moment,’ the Department of Landscape Architecture and the College of Environmental Design held a two-day symposium, ReEnvisioning the Delta, to consider the implications of the Delta’s ongoing urbanization and to explore alternative futures for the region. The symposium featured presentations on the physical characteristics and unique functions of the Delta, emphasizing its key role for infrastructure, agriculture, and open space within the San Francisco-Sacramento-Stockton metropolis, and on the dynamics of urbanization in the Delta and the surrounding region.

Urbanizing lands below sea level in the Delta strikes many as manifestly unwise and dangerous. Nonetheless, it is occurring now, at a rapid rate. Hans Johnson presented population data showing that the Delta is the fastest growing region in California, with population increasing at rates even faster than developing nations. Panel presentations by Carol Whiteside (former mayor of Modesto), Marci Coglianese (former mayor of Rio Vista and member of the Delta Protection Commission), and John Cain (Natural Heritage Institute) explained how escalating housing prices and a pro-growth political environment in local government are creating the enormous pressure to urbanize flood-prone lands. The author of the Delta Protection Act, former State Senator Patrick Johnson, showed how even the Delta Protection Commission established by the Act is not immune from these incentives to sprawling growth.

Bob Twiss presented an overflight of the Delta landscape that showed how these developments are consuming critical lands at the edge of the Delta that may be essential for future ecosystem management. Graduate student research completed for this symposium also projected future urbanization from general plans, proposed development footprints, aerial imagery, and other relevant GIS data layers. This is the first spatially explicit analysis of urbanization below sea level in the Delta and the likely consequences of that urbanization in the event of catastrophic flooding.

And that disaster potential is escalating. UCB Engineering Professor Ray Seed, who has just completed an NSF-funded study of levee failures in New Orleans, argued that the levees in the Delta are extraordinarily vulnerable to an earthquake-induced mass failure (although techniques exist to make them safe through extended public investment). The current 100-year flood protection standard to which the levees are built, meanwhile, leaves a very significant “residual risk” of a larger-than-100-year flood that could be immensely destructive. Tom Philp of the Sacramento Bee moderated panelists Mike Webb (California Building Industry Association), Ron Baldwin, (Director San Joaquin County Emergency Operations), and Tom Zuckerman (University Pacific, former counsel Central Delta Water District) in a discussion of the varying opinions on how to moderate disaster risks and who should be responsible for levee safety and potential liability.

The second day examined potential futures for the Delta, focusing on the Delta not as a set of problems, but as a place with its own unique history and character. As Jane Wolff, author of the Delta Primer, pointed out, it is a place that can be seen in several different ways — as at once an open space, an agricultural region, a wetland habitat, a recreational region, and an economic resource.

Subsequent talks shared the experience of land conservation efforts for each of these types of landscapes. Louise Mozingo argued that the creation of Central Park in New York and the Emerald Necklace in Boston show that recreational open spaces can be formed in advance of urbanization. Phyllis Faber showed that the history of agricultural land conservation in Marin County contains valuable lessons for the situation Delta farmers are facing. Bob Twiss talked about the land-use controls undertaken at Lake Tahoe to protect water quality, another pressing issue for the Delta today. Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy director Joe Edmiston advocated the use of a state-sponsored Conservancy model to protect conservation values in the Delta. Joe Bodovitz recounted the balancing of conservation and development in San Francisco Bay planning, and Pete Rhoads talked about the enormous planning effort underway to restore the Everglades. The Delta bears important similarities to each of these cases. Other panels, including such notables as John King of the San Francisco Chronicle, Margit Aramburu, formerly of the Delta Protection Commission, and Tom Waters of the US Army Corps of Engineers, expounded on some of these similarities and offered suggestions for moving forward in the Delta.

Innovative ideas for preservation of the Delta’s critical infrastructure, agriculture, and open-space access were also presented by Jennifer Brooke on behalf of the graduate students involved in the annual Tommy Church Design Competition. Interdisciplinary student teams developed plans and designs for a Delta park, recognizing its central role in the San Francisco-Sacramento-Stockton metropolis of the future. The jury awarded two first prizes to the teams of “Wet Feet Wanted,” (Elke Grommes, Mei Minohara, and Zachary Rutz), and “Delta Byways,” (Brooke Ray Smith and Stephen Miller).

Between historical precedents and visionary designs for the Delta’s future, there was no shortage of thought-provoking ideas for this critical region of California. What is needed, participants agreed, is better planning data and, more importantly, a widely shared vision for what the Delta should look like in the future. With the urbanization problem now on the political radar screen, planning efforts can now turn to the challenge of creating that vision of a more secure and resilient Delta region.