It's a tall order to transform New Orleans by 2030, but that's the aim of the city's new master plan—five years after Hurricane Katrina hobbled this historic place and the surrounding Gulf coast region.
“New Orleans is a city whose economy for the last 20 or 30 years has been built around natural resources—its ports and growing tourism,” said David Dixon, who leads the planning and urban design division of the Boston architecture and preservation firm Goody Clancy, which created the new, 20-year plan.
“This [master] plan emphasizes a whole series of steps to help the city diversify its economy, largely by creating new economic development partnerships, taking the steps, bringing knowledge in-house, into city hall, the partnerships with the private sector to really nurture small creative businesses.”
The plan, adopted on August 12, grew from a decision two years ago by the city’s planning commission to create a blueprint for improving New Orleans economically, environmentally and politically. More than 5,000 of New Orleanians' 337,000 residents contributed to the plan.
It will take the will and grit of the New Orleans people and lots of private and public funding to make this happen. Maybe the will is there but, so far, the money isn't.
Nonetheless, if New Orleans is successful, the city will one day be prosperous and forward-looking and boast a diversified economic base, solid infrastructure, many parks and lush shade trees, high-quality affordable housing, good roads and alternative transportation.
“Every city that has really succeeded in the last 10 years is a city that has led this [urban renaissance] process with good planning, and made, and moved development decisions away from the political arena to the planning,” said Dixon.
But New Orleans has a very, very long way to go.
Even before Katrina hit, the city practiced a type of “tribal politics” that perennially left it in a state of stagnation.
After the oil and gas bust of the mid-1980s, this Mississippi delta city of sweet tunes, spicy eats and a cultural heritage all its own slide downhill, compounding the deep-seeded poverty and the sustaining racial divides.
While New Orleans slept, other decaying cities, like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, injected solid planning and business incentives to bring them back from the brink. And the results there have been positive.
Conditions in New Orleans are now so dire that Dixon said it has the “worst infrastructure in America, in terms of streets and sewers,” and about one third of city properties remain vacant.
Yet, in spite of its many drawbacks, New Orleans, being New Orleans, and the heart and soul of Louisiana, has always possessed a cool, stemming from its music, food, architecture, history and people, that keeps visitors coming back.
And, recently, that cool has attracted a fresh population of 20- and 30-year-olds who've made New Orleans their home. Dixon characterized the new transplants as the “building blocks of the [New Orleans'] economic future.”
“If the city can take the right steps to create incubator businesses and provide the kind of economic assistance that helps encourage young folks, with great graphic design or advertising or digital firms” it’s on the right path, said Dixon.
Among other new industries, the plan also foresees life-science research, TV and music production and sustainable building and design. To close the gap between the skilled and unskilled local labor pool, the plan recommends job and workforce training and adult education. (Watch video report about New Orleans as an "economic laboratory" over the past five years.)
In addition, adoption of new comprehensive zoning rules are recommended by the plan as are the reestablishment of "vibrant neighborhoods," each with a park within walking distance, mixed-use corridors and commercial centers.
Other ambitious recommendations are the implementation of a green infrastructure, such as restoring the tree canopy to cover 50 percent of this humid subtropical town, and the revamping of transportation that includes adding bicycle lanes and more public transportation and maintaining roads regularly.
And, naturally, the plan lays out the mechanisms to safeguard its residents in the event of such natural disasters as another hurricane and rising sea levels. It includes using advisors from the Netherlands and local experts to come up with effective ways to counter flooding.
Some of New Orleans’ inherent traits, though, encourage both large and small businesses, said Dixon.
According to a market study done in connection with the master plan, it concluded, said Dixon, that the city's neighborhoods “are walk-able, are charming, have history, [and] New Orleans, for the first time, has the prospect of attracting these folks [those who moved out] back into the city, of having net market demand.”