The sun is hidden away by darkening skies and a faint drizzle starts to fall. Suddenly my cellphone lights up: 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 is in the same predicament as the Netherlands, it’s below sea-level, the entire downpour has to be pumped out. While at the end of the 19th century the drainage system managed to handle 85 per cent of the rainfall, today all the buildings and roads have reduced this capacity to 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 Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 per cent of the city, with 103,000 lost homes, New Orleans is still far from being rebuilt. 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 a variety of mostly green projects, which range from privately founded ones like Brad Pitt’s Make it Right, university initiated ones focusing on rebuilding and cultural landscaping, to the city’s so-called Goody Clancy master plan, the 544-page book gives an insight into the challenges of urban planning today, with in-depth analysis by the likes of Christine Boyer, David Dixon, Laura Kurgan, Byron Mouton and many others. Urban sociologist Mike Davis is, as usual, excellent when talking about demography, racism, economics and planning when in the foreword he states that 40 per cent of the 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 part of 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. Former mayor Ray Nagin, sentenced to ten years in prison for corruption, stated his own version of the war on poverty in an interview for the 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 an ordinary city, the protests were strong and Fats Domino’s defiant sign “Save Our Neighborhood: No Bulldozing!” is still up at Holy Cross in the vulnerable, low–lying Lower Ninth Ward. New Urbanism’s Andrés Duany writes that Chicago was rebuilt three years after the big fire 1871, but in New Orleans rebuilding hadn’t even started a year later. It took FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) nine months to decide which areas could be rebuilt, a slowness paired with rushed demolition that caused many people to leave the city once and for all.
The book shows the richness of plans, but also how planning culture has been left to collapse since the days of Ronald Reagan in a pattern similar to the deregulation of Wall Street. As the rain stops, architect Daniel Winkert, who worked as a city planner before joining 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 populated multicultural city like the old centre of New Orleans would be impossible to build with the suburban zoning code in place today. Planning culture has much to learn, not only with regard to coping with rising sea levels, but also concerning a re-evaluation 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, because it allows for different solutions which, in this case, can mirror New Orleans’ richness of cultural variety.
New Orleans Under Reconstruction: The Crisis of Planning.
Anthony Fontenot, Carol McMichael Reese and Michael Sorkin (eds.)
Verso (New York and London), 2014