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Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber

Posted: November 5, 2010 03:32 PM

When Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the flood control system destroyed New Orleans the event became a lens through which to examine the continuing fundamental dysfunctions of America 400 years after European colonization.

If that statement seems an exaggeration, consider these factors that combined to destroy a great city:

  • Ecological destruction resulting from extreme exploitation of the natural environment;
  • The legacies of slavery, including racism and endemic poverty and all that they entail;
  • An anti-urban bias going back at least to Jefferson, which in the 20th century led to public policies that subsidized the abandonment of cities by the middle-class;
  • Political philosophies that scorn collective action which, in the late 20th century when those philosophies were ascendant, resulted in a decline in public investment; andAn ambivalent attitude towards government and public service, and -- the flipside of that ambivalence -- a close relationship between politics and wealth.


All of these factors contributed to the destruction of New Orleans. It's not surprising that these themes are also intertwined in the paths to towards recovery that New Orleans has taken since September 2005.

Those paths are the subjects of Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans, a book written by Robert B. Olshansky and Laurie A. Johnson and published this year by the American Planning Association. The book is a riveting, if necessarily dry, account of the process, or rather processes, for the preparation of plans for New Orleans' recovery.

As recounted in the book, there were several planning processes, reflecting the various interests involved in the recovery. There were not only the federal, state, and local levels of government, and various agencies at all three levels, but also important private sector interests, such as the business community. And then there were local politics, too, for which New Orleans is famous.

In the beginning of the planning process efforts to plan resulted in negative attitudes toward planning from the residents of the city. In January 2006 the Bring New Orleans Back Commission put forward the first plans for rebuilding. Although the mayor of New Orleans had appointed this commission and in that sense it had public authority, the group was dominated by private interests and received little input from displaced residents.

The BNOB plan left open the possibility that areas of the city would be abandoned, and residents inferred that its purpose was to rid the city of poor (and black) people. This fostered suspicions that dogged efforts to plan for recovery. (To be clear, the book takes the position that to a large extent these suspicions based on the early plans were unwarranted -- but then these suspicions of the white elite by the city's majority black population are some of those legacies mentioned above.)

There was in fact plenty of suspicion to go around, and not only at the grassroots. There was tremendous suspicion between the Republican leadership in Washington and the mostly Democratic politicians who ran New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.

As a book written by planners and published by the APA, it's not surprising that planners are the "good guys" in the book: honest and intelligent men and women trying to do good work. The book reaches its dramatic climax when a conscientious group of planners finally have a plan -- the "United New Orleans Plan" (UNOP) -- approved.

However, before one gets too excited, it's important to recollect that although planning has been instrumental in the creation and development of New Orleans, New Orleans still exists as a great city because of a failure of planning, and planning was instrumental in creating many of the city's great problems.

Notwithstanding its freewheeling reputation, New Orleans is a planned city. Beginning with the original 18th century street grid, and continuing with all the systems that allowed the expansion of the city into swamplands and the building of a great port, planning shaped New Orleans. There is nothing "natural" about the city, beyond the fact that its location is a necessity given that a river draining the wealth of half a continent needs a port.

But the rejection of a classic mid-20th century plan -- a plan to run a freeway along the river -- saved New Orleans because the freeway would have destroyed the French Quarter and downtown. Yet in the same era, planning of the suburban sprawl variety turned a city that was relatively integrated by race and class into one that was dramatically segregated on both counts.

Planning is value neutral. It is the content of a plan that is good or bad.

Perhaps as consequence, perhaps paradoxically, today planning processes are more often evaluated based upon how well the public accepts the resulting plan, as opposed to how good the plan may be. As illustrated by the rejection of the BNOB plan, residents today are not willing to accept dictates that emanate from elites. As mentioned above, the various overlapping planning processes for New Orleans culminated in UNOP, a plan that finally succeeded (as recounted in the book) because the process that resulted in it was inclusive, and residents bought in.

New Orleans has now returned to three-quarters of its pre-Katrina population. Many thousands of people have made individual decisions to live there. The narrative of Clear as Mud ends with the adoption of UNOP in 2007, and Olshansky and Johnson do not address in detail the question of what impact UNOP had. But it's reasonable to expect that the adoption of a plan that said there would a future encouraged people to act as if there would be one.

Whether the plans in the plan are good seems -- by the end of the book -- irrelevant (and the merits of the plan are beyond the scope of this review).

As the title of the book says -- it's all as clear as mud.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.