No More “Planning by Surprise”: City Planning in New Orleans Ten Years after Katrina

Robert A. Collins  (Dillard University)

Published: Jun 24, 2015

The city planning process in New Orleans during the decade following Hurricane Katrina was arguably one of the most challenging periods of city planning in any city, at any point in U.S. history. The first five years were spent primarily in recovery planning phase, and the second five years were spent dealing with complexities and conflicts of the comprehensive zoning process. The challenges were made more daunting by the fact that before the storm the city lacked a history of strong traditional urban planning practices. As a result, most processes had to be constructed from scratch. Despite few financial resources and a series of stops and starts, New Orleans now has a Master Plan as of August 2010, and a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance as of May 2015. The New Orleans recovery experience can inform other communities about what to do and perhaps more importantly, what not to do when planning to rebuild after a disaster.

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The Recovery Planning Process

Having a predictable, orderly land use plan is critical to post-disaster recovery in any city. It is necessary for informing and prioritizing spending as public and private money is invested in the city after the disaster. Limited resources mean that not every rebuilding project can be funded. Planning can help identify the projects most critical to rebuilding. A predictable land use plan assures citizens that their neighborhoods will remain neighborhoods. Also, real estate developers and private investors need a stable and predictable land use plan to guide their decisions. Finally, a land use plan can ensure that buildings and infrastructure will be rebuilt in a stronger and environmentally sustainable manner. At the time the recovery planning process began, New Orleans did not have a predictable land use plan.

The recovery process in New Orleans was extremely confusing in part because many different recovery plans emerged simultaneously and most of these plans did not directly relate to each other. There was a short-term Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spending plan (called an Emergency Support Function, or ESF plan), a school facilities master plan, and a plan from the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) for infrastructure construction. In addition, there were three competing citywide plans and a large number of neighborhood plans.

In the absence of a decisive, popular mayor communicating a clear and concise vision of what the city should look like, urban political processes will tend to fragment into chaos with sub-groups of self-interest formed around neighborhood identity, ethnic identity, and socioeconomic status. This is what happened in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

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Citations and sources can be found in the PDF copy of the report.