In The News › New Orleans and the New Urban VIsion

Feb 9, 2006

Source: Spiked Online, London

New Orleans and the New Urban VIsion

Essay 9 February 2006
New Orleans and the New Urban vision
Progressive architects have left the building.
by Austin Williams

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 rebuilding
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, locallysourced
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 similaralbeit
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 mail@futurecites.org.uk
(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
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file://C:\DOCUME~1\apease\LOCALS~1\Temp\IBPNDLI1.htm 2/9/2006
(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

Feb 9, 2006

Source: Spiked Online, London

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