New Orleans and the New Urban vision

Progressive architects have left the building.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

In a recent article in the Washington Post, architect and professor of architecture Roger K Lewis bemoans the proposed rebuilding New Orleans. ‘Why, ‘ he asks, ‘do we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that there are places on the earth’s surface – wetlands and floodplains, seismically active regions, arid deserts, steep hillsides and cliffs – where erecting cities endangers not only humans, but also the natural environment?’ (1)

One of the reasons is that, if we followed Lewis’ humble criteria, we would rule out ever building on a large proportion of the earth’s landmass and an even higher percentage of the third world … areas that need urban development as a plain fact of life. It’s not that we’d particularly choose these tricky areas, but often, in architecture, you have to work with what you’re given for a higher goal of providing dwellings and infrastructure in an area that might be logistically, economically and socially worth developing. Environment plays a part in that commonsensical decision but it is not, nor should it be, the determinant.

This is not an abstract discussion. Lewis, of course, was talking about the current redevelopment plans for New Orleans, which, together with 11 regions comprising 120 miles of developed Gulf coastline, had been effectively swept away during Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on 29 August 2005. Although Gulfport was the largest city affected, with approximately 85 percent of its commercial and residential buildings heavily damaged, most media attention has fallen on the environs of New Orleans. This historic and much-loved city has come to be representative of the region, and symbolic of the magnitude of the post-hurricane problems. It is currently going through a debate about how, where, when – and if – the city should be redeveloped.

In many of the areas devastated by the floodwaters, there is certainly a hard pragmatic discussion to be had. Mayor C Ray Nagin’s rebuilding commission is examining whether some of the worst areas should be rebuilt at all. The New York Times quotes the principal author of the commission’s report, Joseph C Canizaro, suggesting that the city should discourage individual residents from returning to their plots to rebuild their homes where they once stood. The Rand Corporation has estimated that in three years the population of New Orleans will have reduced by 40 percent, as ex-residents settle elsewhere. The Louisiana Recovery Authority has thus stated that areas that don’t have a high return rate of residents – deemed to be a ‘critical mass’ of returnees – within 12 months of the disaster will not survive as residential neighbourhoods. Those individuals and families currently rebuilding in those areas will then be forced to leave, as the federal authorities reason that it will not be economical to reinstate the basic infrastructure to an area of randomly interspersed dwellings in an otherwise deserted and ruined area. However, the authorities seem unsure if this is the right thing to do, and protesting ex-residents, demanding to return to their original plots, are causing some embarrassment for the mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

‘There are some very tough decisions that have to be made here, and no-one relishes making them,’ said Janet R Howard, chief executive of the Bureau of Governmental Research. ‘But to say that people should invest their money and invest their energies and put all their hope into rebuilding and then in a year we’ll re-evaluate, that’s no plan at all’ (2). In this sense, people’s genuine fears about whether or not the city could cope with another flood has combined with the general air of disquiet that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt at all in that location – and is impacting on the authorities’ ability to impose clear guidance on some core issues. Even though the practical discussion amongst recovery workers and political agents is slightly confused, it is still qualitively different to the line that Lord May took in his Anniversary Address to the Royal Society in 2005. ‘It is conceivable,’ he said, ‘that the Gulf Coast of the US could be effectively uninhabitable by the end of century’. As a word of advice, he advocates that we stop building on floodplains and recognise ‘that some areas should, in effect, be given up’. (3)

As we have seen, this attitude is by no means limited to foreign commentators. Michael M Liffmann, the associate executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College at Louisiana State University, which examines land-use issues along the Gulf Coast, says that most experts agreed that the roughly one-quarter to one-third of the city located dangerously below sea level should not be rebuilt. ‘There are parts of New Orleans that are not fit for human habitation’, Mr Liffmann said. ‘They never were and never will be’ (4). Given that Pierce Lewis, past president of the American Association of Geographers and a well-respected authority on New Orleans, described it as an ‘inevitable city on an impossible site’ (5), it is obvious that, until recently, the daring nature of New Orleans’ existence was part of its charm and the pride of its residents. Now, with Roger Lewis et al putting forward a matter-of-fact acceptance of limitations on the urban design process, it might be appropriate to explore what this shift in attitudes represents.

Designing within limits

This city on the banks of the Mississippi – like many cities that sprang from early American (French) settlements – took advantage of the trading opportunities manifest in the access to the sea as well as the river-routes to the mid-Western frontiers. The Mississippi riverboat, ferrying passengers, goods, gambling and culture (from cotton to ‘Carousel’), is still an icon of the city and places the river at the heart of New Orleans’ identity. Admittedly, in recent times the river has simply become a place of scenic tours and a mooring point for casinos avoiding on-shore taxation rules, but there is still something magical about the river setting. However, if Lewis’ criticism of the folly of re-building in inauspicious geographical areas reflected his desire to relocate around more auspicious areas, like the airport or Interstate 110, you might have thought he would have advocated moving to improve trade relations, for example. Indeed, relocating a city to a more effective, attractive but perhaps less aesthetically pleasing location has its logical merits if it improves its strategic aims. New Orleans is reported to be striving to become a world centre for neuroscience research, for example, with many scientists from around the world flying into this putative nerve centre; a nerve centre that doesn’t need a riverside setting.

However, this technical planning consideration does not seem to be Lewis’ real concern. Instead of charging ahead with bold new relocation plans for a city that has lost itself to the force of nature, Lewis prefers to sound the cavalry’s ‘retreat to higher ground’. Or as Andy Coburn, associate director of Duke’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, says, ‘I think we’d be better off as a society if people didn’t live so close to those fragile areas’ (6).

So with such confusion about whether, when and if to rebuild, what is to become of New Orleans? As Lake Douglas, co-author of Gardens of New Orleans, argued in Metropolis magazine, ‘much of East New Orleans, which was severely flooded, was at one point swamps. Maybe it should become swamps again’ (7). While some people wallow in the fact that nothing can be done, a rising number of observers blame political mismanagement and political chicanery to justify their belief that it is just too difficult. The anti-Bush criticisms early on in the disaster has turned to cynicism. Slate‘s renowned architectural commentator, Witold Rybczynski, summed up the fact that post-war reconstruction of Europe happened miraculously successfully but that ‘given weak demand and weak governmental leadership, the prognosis for recovery (in New Orleans) is not good’.

While all the politicking is being played out, some people have realised that something needs to be done, and urgently. However, there is no contemporary equivalent to the reconstruction modernists that took the bull by the horns in Britain in the late 1940s. In fact, mainstream architects are nowhere to be seen. Most, if they do offer an opinion, tend to decry that desire to rebuild at all. Rather than famous name architects clamouring to make an impact on the city, a more surprising grouping has arisen to put forward a vision for the coastline.

Ironically perhaps, the usual suspects that are short-listed at most international competitions are not chomping at the bit to remodel an entire city. Bright, young, forward-thinking reconstruction architects – desperate to experiment with the blank slate that is the flattened New Orleans – are nowhere to be seen. Leading architectural figures in Hi-Tech, modern, iconic styles, or any aspiring newcomers with genuinely new ideas have been noticeable by their absence and deafening in their silence. Instead, the very people that have stepped into the breach – offering to present a new vision for the future in New Orleans and revelling in the opportunity presented to test out their urban theses – are the New Urbanists.

A moment for New Urbanism?

While the name sounds ‘new’, their reputation until now has not been flavour of the month in architectural circles. Over the years, ‘progressive’architects have been in the ascendancy and have never had to justify their position or formulate a philosophical defence of their designs. Meanwhile, the New Urbanist movement – most famously criticised in the UK for Prince Charles’ quasi-Romantic residential development in Poundbury, Cornwall, designed by Leon Krier – have been marginalized.

However, the ideas behind New Urbanism have seldom been intellectually destroyed, with detractors preferring to sneer at the clichéd attempt at Classicism (or Romanticism). The two other famous exemplars of New Urbanism are Seaside in Florida, built 25 years ago (best known in Britain as the picket-fenced setting for ‘The Truman Show’); and Celebration, the town completed 10 years ago as Disney’s wholesome urban paradise. (Celebration, incidentally was built on swampland). New Urbanism primarily advocates close-knit communities based on ‘neighbourhoods [that are] compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use [which] bring diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.’ (8) They decry suburbia, car-prioritisation and sprawl.Today, in the particular setting of New Orleans, progressive architects are refusing to engage, deeming ‘progress’ to be part of the problem rather than the solution. Consequently, the more romantic vision of community design emanating from the New Urbanists is in the ascendant. And they are keen to make the most of their time in the limelight.

New Urbanism is fundamentally a reactionary movement for urban stasis. However, the vacuum of architectural discourse, the inability and unwillingness of leading architects to bother to provide a theoretical framework to their designs, together with the acceptance of environmental limits, has cleared the way for New Urbanism to look like a dynamic organisation with exciting ideas. It has also been helped by the fact that New Urbanists do have a moral framework that has been unchallenged by the architectural mainstream. Indeed, such is the acceptance of the ethical codes of community-building that infuses most New Urbanist thinking that most architects are complicit with the tenets of car-reduction, reduced environmental intrusion, locally-sourced materials, participatory design, a sacrosanct urban-memory and the privileging of nature of humanity. It’s hardly surprising, then, that after years in the wilderness, New Urbanists believe that their time has come.

The Governor’s Commission for Recovery Rebuilding and Renewal organised a charrette (a design brainstorming meeting) within a month of the disaster, which brought together over 120 New Urbanist practitioners from around the world to fight it out over various design possibilities. New Urbanists clashed intellectually with local engineers, transport planners and politicians to hammer out a solution and the need to get started. Contrast this with double Stirling Prize-winning architect Chris Wilkinson’s hackneyed generic comment that: ‘I prefer the aboriginal concept of treading lightly on the earth’. More specifically, local architect Errol Barron complained that ‘it’s not the [New Urbanist] aesthetic that’s wrong, it’s the artificiality of something planned all at once.’ (9)

In this way, the positive desire of New Urbanist architects to confront and remedy a disastrous under-provision of housing in as quick a time as possible is turned on its head. It suggests that speedy determination is something that future generations may not thank us for, and something that more thoughtful, mainstream architects should have no truck with. In architectural magazine Metropolis‘ ‘Twenty Big Ideas’ on rebuilding New Orleans, the item entitled ‘build hurricane-proof houses’ comes a poor seventeenth, after ‘build fishing camps’ and before ‘design with the environment’. (Big Idea number 14 suggests that we ‘restore the wetlands’: an ironic suggestion, surely?)

John Thompson, the architect and chair of the Academy of Urbanism, the UK group set up with a manifesto closely allied to the Charter for New Urbanism, was quoted in the Guardian as saying that ‘the disaster presented New Orleans with an opportunity to create a new kind of city.… Throughout history, cities have been hit by disasters and that can provide an opportunity for a rebirth rather than just a restructuring’. (10)

While others pontificate, the New Urbanists are getting on with it with a missionary zeal. In the preliminary report of the Governor’s Commission for Recovery Rebuilding and Renewal, Andres Duany said simply that ‘the building has to survive a category 3 hurricane and it has to dry out. Whether you do that by building high or building well, doesn’t matter’. (11) Duany’s pragmatic and determined logic puts the erstwhile critics of New Urbanism to shame. Over nearly two weeks, the design charrettes – which Jim Barkside, chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal said comprised ‘over-caffeinated architects’ – worked up to 20 hours a day. Andres Duany called it an ‘epic journey.’ John Norquist, chair of the Congress for New Urbanism, quoted Chicago Tribune journalist Blair Kamin: ‘In scope and style, as well as speed, this was a “make no little plans” effort worthy of Chicago’s Daniel Burnham’. (12) By referring to the man who drafted the Plan for Chicago (the world’s first planning document for Chicago in 1909), Kamin was acknowledging the magnitude of the task and the visionary intervention that was needed.

In a similar way, the Green Party of America in some respects sounds more positive than the scientists and the commentators advocating that we avoid challenging nature’s limits and that we constrain the human-centred arrogance that supposes that we can build where nature never intended. In their 4 September newsletter article ominously entitled ‘Unnatural Disaster: Louisiana’s Crisis in Policy and Planning’, which was published immediately after Hurricane Katrina, they contrast the New Orleans motto, ‘built where God never intended a city to be built’, with ‘the Dutch who have a similar-albeit more assertive- motto: “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”‘. The authors conclude with the rallying call: ‘Let’s rise to this monumental challenge-with creativity, enthusiasm, optimism, future focus, and prudence’ (albeit, also with sustainability at its core) (13).

However, my congratulations are only made in the light of a comparison with the lack of alternatives on offer. New Urbanism has a dynamic get-up-and-go to it, but it has got up and gone in the wrong direction. In their own terms, the new design proposals for New Orleans are twee and, in some senses, regressive. On the charge of tweeness, it has to be said that the areas of New Orleans normally frequented by the tourist trade has always been twee, to some degree. Notwithstanding the beautiful and ornate French Quarter, the slums and the business districts; for years, the city has marketed itself as a slightly Disneyfied version of the ‘authentic’ Jazz and casino experience. The fact that Preservation Hall, the home of trad jazz, survived the hurricane may be a metaphor for the desire to rebuild and recreate a preserved ‘traditional’ replica of what went before. But even on this charge, it is the critics of New Urbanism, to certain extent, who seem to be at the forefront of advocating a vision of ‘Orleans in aspic.’ The New Urbanists have at least got vision, which, at least, is providing a dynamic focus for redevelopment. The architectural style may be not to everyone’s taste, but it is the underlying philosophy of New Urbanism that is the problem.

The introduction to the scheme proposals states that ‘the latter half of the 20th century has badly frayed American communities… It is simply not a sustainable living pattern… the scarcity of petroleum and consequent rise in its price is permanent. It will catalyse the restoration of communities to what they were historically – places that are traditional, walkable, mixed-use, mixed income, neighbourhoods, towns and villages.’ The fact that in many instances this scenario refers to cities, points to the more parochial vision of urban scope exemplified in the New Urbanists’ proposals. The Seattle Times posited one side of the debate when it asked whether New Urbanism might ‘represent a pox of dreary taupe and putty coloured apartment complexes, spaced around little-used green spaces, festooned with skin-deep architectural flourishes’. (14) The strategic proposals for Biloxi require that the authorities ‘pre-approve building designs that support the community character – making it ‘easier to do the right thing’.

Designing for conformity

It is this conception of the ‘right thing’ that underscores the proscriptive nature of New Urbanism’s planning programme. There have been many pointed criticisms of the social control implicit in New Urbanism, not least David Harvey’s 1997 Harvard Design Magazine essay (one year after Disney’s Celebration was built). Admittedly, Harvey recognised that ‘there is much in this movement (New Urbanism) to commend it’ but he expressed concern that ‘all the things that make a city so exciting – the unexpected, the conflicts, the excitement of exploring the urban unknown – will be tightly controlled and screened out with big signs that say “no deviant behaviour acceptable here”‘. (15)

While Harvey is rather too soft in his criticism (effectively suggesting that New Urbanism’s proscriptive car-reducing, underclass-taming, suburb-sprawling objectives won’t work, rather than arguing that they are wrong), he still identifies the authoritarian nature of the behaviour modification obligations lurking behind its dainty facade. The Charter for the New Urbanism looks to forming ‘identifiable areas that encourage citizens to take responsibility for their maintenance and evolution (where) streets and squares…enable neighbours to know each other and protect their communities.’

While these sound like pleasant homilies and an innocent nostalgia for the reinvigoration of neighbourliness, there is a less tolerant aspect to the pattern-book approach of the New Urbanists, in which disharmony can be designed out and neighbourliness engineered in. Societal fragmentation is an ongoing political concern, developed by Robert Puttnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’ thesis in the USA and recently expressed by Tony Blair’s ‘Respect’ agenda in the UK, so it should be expected that the design remedies apparently offered by New Urbanism should gain a hearing. But the fragmentation of communities is a political problem allied to a lack of political vision; it is not a ‘design issue’ that can be remedied by porches, pedestrianisation or the provision of faux-French facades. Community spirit may well form in many of these newly-built, New Urban areas, but the failure to address the underlying fractiousness in society means that we may be building communities of isolated individuals, in which the appearance of unity can only be maintained by excluding those who won’t play the game.

Given that so-called ‘progressive’ urbanists have fled the stage, the New Urbanists have been thrust into the limelight in New Orleans. While I am impressed by the New Urbanists’ new-found dynamism, my enthusiasm is tempered by the realisation that New Urbanism in general – and New Orleans in particular – are rushing headlong into an urban policy agenda of proscriptive practices and social restraint. The fact that some of these constraints will manifest themselves as moral opprobrium and self-regulation makes it all the more worrying.

Austin Williams is coordinating the ‘New Urbanism or Old?’ session at the Future of Community festival, Central St Martins College of Art and Design on Saturday, 4 March 2006. Email [email protected]

(1) ‘Rethinking New Orleans as a series of lagoons, elevated houses’, Roger K Lewis, Washington Post, 7 January 2006

(2) ‘All parts of city in rebuild plan of New Orleans’, Gary Rivlin, New York Times, 8 January 2006

(3) Threats to Tomorrow’s World, Robert May, Royal Society, 2005

(4) ‘All parts of city in rebuild plan of New Orleans’, Gary Rivlin, New York Times, 8 January 2006

(5) New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape, Pierce Lewis, Ballinger, 1976, reprinted University of Virginia Press, 2003

(6) ‘Flirting with disaster’, June Arney, Baltimore Sun, 11 September 2005

(7) ‘Voices of New Orleans’, Metropolis, 22 November 2005

(8) Charter of the New Urbanism; From the ruins, an opportunity for rebirth, Duncan Campbell, Guardian, 2 September 2005

(9) ‘New Orleans: new urbanism?’, Doug MacCash, Seattle Times, 16 November 2005

(10) From the ruins, an opportunity for rebirth, Duncan Campbell, Guardian, 2 September 2005

(11) ‘New Orleans: new urbanism?’, Doug MacCash, Seattle Times, 16 November 2005

(12) Summary Report, Mississippi Renewal Forum

(13) Unnatural disaster: Louisiana’s crisis in policy and planning, Brian Azcona and Jason Neville, Green Party, 4 September 2005

(14) ‘New Orleans: new urbanism?’, Doug MacCash, Seattle Times, 16 November 2005

(15) The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap

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Topics Politics


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