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A new New Orleans

By Edward Blakely - posted Tuesday, 13 September 2005


The burning issue on most people’s minds is how and why you would rebuild New Orleans in an area below sea level. Well, people in New Orleans declared that they were in the only place in the world built below sea level that looked down on the rest of the world.

Some Australians were trapped there because they had gone to New Orleans for a holiday. If the same tragedy had unfolded in Omaha, Nebraska, there would be few Australians anywhere nearby. So, rebuilding New Orleans is the rebuilding of a spirit, not just a place. New Orleans was poor economically. It depended almost entirely on low-wage tourism as the prime source of the economy. Keeping wages low was an asset in this environment, as were the usually warm weather and exceptional food.

But New Orleans' greatest asset was its mystery and magic. That will have to be restored - and soon.

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As a person who has been through four big disasters, I have found the prime ingredient for recovery is how fast you are able to convince people that their homes and the spirit of their community will be restored - to what it was - and not as a planner might want it to be.

Therefore, the first thing we will have to do for New Orleans is to provide the hope and the plan to rebuild it near or almost exactly as it was originally. We will have to build the place with new materials and new local planning rules, but the character will have to look and feel much like it did before.

One of the things needing to be done is to put small New Orleans planning offices and rebuilding centres in every place where significant numbers of former residents are congregated. In each of these places, the planners will have to start working with the people and their memories of what made the community a good, and not so good, place to live.

Then, a process will have to be put in place so that people can revisit the city in small numbers as soon as it is safe, to be able to collect their belongings and their memories. Many of those returing will hold on to the belief that their place was not hit, or that it can be rebuilt easily. They will need to see for themselves the extent of the damage.

At the same time, people with local jobs that no longer exist will have to find ways to work wherever they are. Hopefully, the federal government will provide employment grants to businesses that take on New Orleans residents. This will provide them with a sense of self worth and will also retrain them for new skills in new work places.

Small New Orleans settlements will need to be created on unused military bases so people can restore their social ties among neighbours and develop new neighbours. This form of social capital will be essential because the rebuilding process is going to take ten years, and maybe longer.

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There is little doubt that the “essential” New Orleans will be rebuilt and probably resettled. More than one third of the residents will not return for a host of reasons, including the traumas of the incident. But most will return. The best way to cater for this is to rebuild the city section by section, so large numbers can come back and resurrect their neighbourhoods again.

In this process each neighbourhood should be rebuilt with locals taking part, including working with one another, to help rebuild their homes and parks. My experience is that this process binds neighbours back to the neighbourhood. Therefore we should avoid contractors doing all the work.

Physical inputs and planning designs from the community - and even from the children - are therapeutic and make the community a community again. The communities we rebuilt in Los Angeles and Oakland are stronger today than they were before the events.

Obviously, the central business core will need to be rebuilt too. It should be rebuilt around some form of New Bourbon Street, just like San Francisco created New Montgomery Street after the 1908 fires that destroyed the entire city.

So, the new will come out of the old with the old forming the template for the new. The new New Orleans will start next month and I hope to be part of it. I am not sure what will happen or if my skills are going to be useful in this great crisis, but I have been involved in rebuilding cities before and I hope I can help my countrymen do it again.

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About the Author

Edward J. Blakely is Honorary Professor of Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University. Professor Blakely is an international expert on urban planning and development and most recently head of recovery in New Orleans. He also served as the Chair of the Sydney Metropolitan Plan Reference Panel 2003-2004. He can be heard on the radio Sunday nights at 8PM on internet radio 1000mikes.com. Blakely City Talk broadcasts the same podcast anytime.

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