New Orleans

The sun is hidden away by darkening skies and a faint drizzle starts to fall. Suddenly my cellphone alights: Flash Flood Warning. The rain starts pouring down and everybody out on foot starts to run for cover. From the white-painted window in a café I can see the manhole covers dancing on jets of water. New Orleans has the same predicament as large tracts of the Netherlands, its under the sea-level, all downpour has to be pumped out. While at the end of the 19th century the system managed to clear 85 per cent of the rainfall, today all buildings and roads has reduced the capacity to a 20 per cent. And now not only New Orleans but also the US government brings in Dutch experts in order to cope with the effects of global warming. Although it's almost ten years since the hurricane Katrina flooded 80 per cent of the city with 103 000 lost homes, New Orleans is still far from being rebuilt. The architect and critic Michael Sorkin has together with Carol McMichael Reese and Anthony Fontenot assembled an imposingly rich anthology of voices in ”New Orleans under reconstruction: the crisis of planning”. Along with a thorough in-depth description of various mostly green projects, which ranges from privately founded like Brad Pitt's Make it Right, university initiated focusing on rebuilding as well as cultural landscaping, to the city's so called Goody Clancy master plan, the 544 page book gives an insight in the challenges of urban planning today with in-dept. analysis by the likes of Christine Boyer, David Dixon, Laura Kurgan, Byron Mouton, and many others. The urban sociologist Mike Davis is as usually excellent when talking about demography, racism, economy, and planning when he in the foreword states that 40 per cent of New Orleans population, mainly Afro-Americans, has been forced into exile. The politically forced shrinking of the city's socio-economical footprint was also an important input for Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, from which a chapter is reprinted describing the way business leaders and others tried to bypass the city council. The former mayor Ray Nagging, sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption, stated his own version of the war on poverty in an interview for AP just after Katrina: "As a practical matter, these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn't have the resources to get out of our city. So we won't get all those folks back. That's not what I want, it's just a fact." But New Orleans is not ordinary city, the protests were strong and Fats Domino's defiant sign "save our neighborhood: No bulldozing!" is still left at Holy Cross in the vulnerable low-laying Lower Ninth Ward. The new urbanism Andrés Duane writes that Chicago was rebuilt three years after the big fire 1871, but in New Orleans it hadn’t even started a year later, it took FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) 9 months to decide which areas could be rebuilt, a slowness paired with a rushed demolition which caused many people to leave the city once and for all. The book shows the richness of plans, but also how the planning culture has been left to collapse since Reagan in a pattern similar to the deregulation of Wall Street. As the rain halts, the architect Daniel Winkert, which has been working as a city planner before he joined John Williams Architects, one of the most active local offices, joins me. He sits down with a coffee and explains that such a varied and densely multicultural city, as the old center of New Orleans would be impossible to build with the suburban zooning code which rules today. The planning culture has much to learn, not only in coping with raising sea levels, but also in a reevaluation of modernism. That insight resonates quite well with Michael Sorkin who in his introduction to the anthology claims that the inability to achieve consensus around a single planning ideal is actually quite good, that allows for different solutions which right here can mirror New Orleans' richness of cultural variety.

New Orleans under reconstruction: the crisis of planning published by Verso 2014

Published in Topos 2014