August 27, 2015 - From the September, 2015 issue

Katrina + 10: It's Engaged Citizens Who Saved New Orleans

With the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaching, public discourse is still trying to make sense of the disaster—thinking through lessons learned and the steps still necessary to achieve recovery. TPR adds the following original interview to the conversation, featuring New Orleans-based architect Steven Bingler, founder and president of the community-centered planning and design firm Concordia, and Martin Pedersen, who has written about architecture and cities for decades, formerly serving as executive editor of Metropolis magazine. Bingler and Pedersen highlight citizen mobilization after Katrina, citing this civic participation as critical to the rebuilding effort. They also reiterate their perspective on the fields of architecture and planning overall, calling for these professionals to focus on "the common edge," with an ear to what the people they're building for actually want.


Steven Bingler

"Authentic engagement would mean having that meeting before you design the building—asking communities what they want, what they need, what their dreams are for the building, and how it should work. Architects almost never do that with the public.” —Martin Pedersen

"You don’t have to spend a lot of time looking at sea-level rise maps to see that New Orleans’ experience right now is one we need to learn from. We need to learn from it quickly, because we’re going to have to apply our hard-earned experience in a lot of other places in the next 40–60 years.” —Steven Bingler

Martin, you and Steven  penned an op-ed for the New York Times on how to encourage citizen planning and architecture, as opposed to “starchitecture.” Could you comment on what might be learned by architects and planners from the response over the 10 years to Katrina? Who saved New Orleans?

Martin Pedersen: There is not one answer here. What was amazing about the post-Katrina experience—watching it from afar—was that the city didn’t have a huge civic infrastructure of democratic involvement. They had to grow it on the fly. They were figuring things out as they went along. So they got some things very right and other things wrong.

Steven has said to me many times that the answer to “Who saved New Orleans?” is really that New Orleans saved itself. The neighborhoods that came back the strongest are the ones that organized and participated fully. The ones that didn’t were often dispersed, displaced, and without a voice.

Everybody’s reflecting on the 10-year anniversary. New Orleans is now something of a boomtown. There’s construction all over the place. It’s doing extraordinarily well when you remember that 80 percent of it was underwater and its long-term viability was very much questioned in November 2005. Yet there are neighborhoods that have not come back, and arguably are worse off.

Steven, your whole architectural career has been about involving citizen planners and activists. Could you elaborate on who saved New Orleans?

Steven Bingler: As Martin mentioned, it was the citizens of New Orleans who saved New Orleans. If you ask around, there is no shortage of politicians and businesspeople who will take the credit. It’s interesting that, for the most part, those people tanked and failed. Some of them are in federal prison as we speak.

The people in the trenches were the heroes. They stepped up—literally out of four or eight feet of water, or off of a rooftop—then picked themselves up and got engaged in the recovery. Our community has completely rebuilt its school system from the ground up, rather than relying on a school superintendent.

The Chamber of Commerce wasn’t the first to look at innovative ways to attract businesses to New Orleans. It was a small group of people who met regularly at a bar in the Central Business District who created Idea Village. Every year, Idea Village has an Entrepreneur Week that invites and attracts some of the most powerful venture capitalists in the country to come to New Orleans and invest in new businesses.

A friend of mine put together Kids Rethinking. She believed that if we were going to rebuild $2 billion worth of schools, we should add children’s input to the process. The kids she brought together convinced the superintendent to listen to them about ideas for how schools should be rebuilt. They had quite an interesting voice in that process.

The people who rebuilt New Orleans were the people you would least expect. Before, we had a very small, tightly knit, tightly controlled club of leaders. Now we have a massive system or army of leadership that goes through every aspect of the city’s existence.

Martin Pedersen:  And I would argue that it’s wiser and more just at the grassroots than it is at the top-down level, even today. Most of the top-down planning decisions post-Katrina were problematic at best. The genuine rebirth happened in the neighborhoods.

Steven, your firm Concordia, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, was integral to the development and execution of what became known as the post-Katrina  “People’s Plan” for recovery.  With 10 years’ hindsight, share the evolution of the many initiatives to save New Orleans.

Steven Bingler: It’s an instructive history. The Unified New Orleans Plan was the third plan for recovery. The first—the Bring New Orleans Back plan that Mayor Ray Nagin sponsored and that Wallace, Roberts and Todd of Philadelphia designed—didn’t make it to the finish line. It said that certain parts of the city should be redlined for no-growth in the future and people should be moved out of their neighborhoods. It was called the green-dot plan because there were big green dots on the maps showing those neighborhoods that would essentially revert to open space. Residents stood up in arms and shut the whole thing down.

City Council then decided that, since the mayor’s plan didn’t work, they would take on the challenge. Their plan was racially divisive because it essentially eliminated all the white neighborhoods. The third plan was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and a bunch of others. It was administered by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and we were responsible for coordination. We brought in a dozen urban planning firms and had 50 neighborhood meetings, plus three citywide meetings. Out of that process came what’s called the “People’s Plan.”

The process engaged broad sections of the community. There were 9,000 people involved. We had to use extreme technology, since some people were living in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, and other places. Our citywide meetings had 1,500 people at the Convention Center, with giant screens like you would see at a football event that provided two-way broadcast connections to those four cities. Using clickers, everybody voted on the same question at the same time. We confirmed to the mayor and City Council that we accomplished 65 percent African-American participation in the planning process.

I think the most important thing about the plan was that it was inclusive. One of the people who emerged as a neighborhood leader in that process, LaToya Cantrell, is now a city councilperson, and may be our next mayor.

Concordia was one of the architectural firms invited by the Make It Right Foundation to help create prototypes for sustainable affordable homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by the hurricane. Why the Lower Ninth Ward? What was the goal of this effort? 

Steven Bingler: Poor people there had been “green-dotted” in the original plan for recovery and told that they couldn’t come back. But the Lower Ninth Ward is actually higher in elevation than some white neighborhoods out on the lakefront, which didn’t get green-dotted. Brad Pitt came to town and said, “What’s wrong with this picture? We have to make this right.”

He put together this project—inviting 13 architects from all over the world to do prototype affordable homes to fit on our 30-by-120-foot lots, regardless of the number of bedrooms. If you look on the website, you’ll see a broad cross section of different designs and architects—everybody from Thom Mayne to Frank Gehry, and everything in between. More than a hundred very architecturally distinct houses are now there.

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What was Concordia’s design approach, and what was learned from the Make it Right Initiative?

Steven Bingler: Concordia believes in something that’s not radically neo-traditional nor radically outer-space. We come down in the middle. A lot of features of our design come from our knowledge of the New Orleans community—for example, an eight-foot-deep front porch. The community has commented that four-foot-deep front porches aren’t big enough for their rocking chairs. Flat roofs in New Orleans didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to the community, because it rains so much here. Some of the mid-century modern designs were adjusted based on input like that from the community.

People see this new development in a lot of different lights. For one thing, there are 40 tour buses going through there every day now, partially because of Brad Pitt’s notoriety, and partially because all the houses are brightly colored and different.

It’s also one of the largest LEED Platinum neighborhoods in the country. Bill McDonough, who was one of the earliest green building advocates, was very involved in the initiative from day one. The projects are “cradle to cradle,” meaning every material in the buildings has been run through an exercise to determine whether it’s socially correct, environmentally correct, and energy correct. It is an experiment—a research project on how to build affordable homes to LEED Platinum and greater energy standards, so that the people who live in these homes are paying $25 a month on their utilities. The money they would be sending to the energy company can instead support their daily lives. 

The two of you are working on a forthcoming book, Building on The Common Edge. Could you share your thesis? 

Steven Bingler: The book is about the experience we’re having in architecture and planning as professions. I claim that we’re divided. On one side are those who think architecture should be like it was before the 19th century—neo-classicists who have now taken interest in “new urbanism.” On the other side are those who think architecture should be futuristic and ignore history—people who see themselves as being on the creative edge.

If you look at the common ground of universal design principles, and then at the creative edge of artistic discovery and innovation, we’re like the US Congress. We’re neither one nor the other. If you put those two ideas together, you come up with something we’re calling the “common edge.” Martin calls it the “radical middle ground.” We’re exploring what that looks like.

Martin, with 20 years of experience looking at planning and architecture, could you add to that, and elaborate on the notion that architects most need to learn how to listen?

Martin Pedersen: It feels like a cliché to say it, but of course that doesn’t mean it’s not true. The profession thinks it listens. Some architects do, but generally, I’m not sure the profession does a very good job of that. Architects’ idea of community engagement is to first think of a design and then sell it to an oftentimes-reluctant public. That’s called “bringing them around.” But, really, is that any different from what a used-car salesman does?

Authentic engagement would mean having that meeting before you design the building—asking communities what they want, what they need, what their dreams are for the building, and how it should work. Architects almost never do that with the public. They’ll do it with a client that shares their point of view or who they can “bring around.” True, authentic community engagement, where they talk to the public before they decide what they’re going to design, is rare.

That has to occur a lot more often to get democratic design—which doesn’t mean design by committee or watered-down design. It means actually listening to what people need and then coming back with something that reflects their needs and wants. That’s not selling out.

As Katrina’s tenth anniversary approaches, what remains to be done in New Orleans?

Martin Pedersen: In terms of social justice, the recovery has been uneven and skewed racially. Far more African-Americans than whites have not returned to the city. New Orleans’ success has come at a price, because certain neighborhoods are gentrifying and the rents are going up. New Orleans is not alone in dealing with these urban issues, but it’s happening at a pretty rapid pace here in a relatively contained, finite city. Things are changing fast. Those big issues need to be addressed.

The second issue is environmental. The city is going to have to figure out its relationship to water. How is it going to survive, 30 or 40 or 50 years out, if the Gulf is just 20 miles away? That’s more than a theoretical threat—it’s life or death, survival or extinction. But unfortunately it’s a threat that most politicians don’t pay any attention to, because they’re only thinking as far out as four-year election cycles.

We have to do something about the disappearing wetlands, because that’s our protection from future storms that are likely to be stronger, with already rising levels. People ask me: “How do you think New Orleans is doing?” I always say that there are two answers. The short-term answer is “good.” But the long-term answer is: Unless we address our environmental challenges, it’s going to be very tough.

Steven, your thoughts? 

Steven Bingler: I agree with everything that Martin said. I would add that, in the larger view, New Orleans is the canary in the coalmine. These are not issues that are at the forefront only of New Orleans’ continued recovery. Miami is in bigger trouble than New Orleans, to be honest. And who would have thought that lower Manhattan would have suffered the kind of devastation that Sandy brought?

You don’t have to spend a lot of time looking at sea-level rise maps to see that New Orleans’ experience right now is one we need to learn from. We need to learn from it quickly, because we’re going to have to apply our hard-earned experience in a lot of other places in the next 40–60 years. We still have a lot to learn, but the challenge is much larger than New Orleans’ unique geography.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.