Last January, hundreds of New Orleanians took time away from the mold, sediment and other unmentionables in their homes to convene for a defining moment in our post-Katrina city. That day, the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Commission's "Urban Planning Committee" unveiled broad proposals for rebuilding neighborhoods. Depending on one's perspective, the proposals represented a host of sketchy ambiguities, a blueprint for progress, or a call to arms. The infamous colored dots and bisecting lines offered up that day launched a thousand neighborhood meetings -- and more than a few campaign speeches -- aimed at making sense of "footprints," "green space," and other jargon that sent chills through an injured city. The controversial BNOB maps touched off a chain reaction. Initially, they ignited grass-roots campaigns, which triggered the City Council's "Lambert Planning" process, which in turn spurred a "Unified New Orleans Planning Process" (UNOP) to put it all together. More than anything else, 2006 was the Year of the Plan.
Today, more than a year later, the collective efforts of the various planning endeavors have created an impressive array of recovery priorities and community improvement ideas. For all the rancor, confusion and fears expressed along the way, citizen-led recovery planning efforts have been the true success story in New Orleans' recovery to date. In our first post-Katrina editorial ("By Our Own Bootstraps," Nov. 1, 2005) we stated that "the vision that decision-makers ought to be discussing is one that includes the best elements of 'old' New Orleans -- our neighborhoods, our architecture, our best and most productive industries, and most of all our people. All of them." The UNOP process reflects that vision and commitment to inclusion.
Through courage, advocacy and consistent participation, New Orleanians have created blueprints aimed at ensuring a complete and equitable recovery. Those efforts bore fruit last week as UNOP presented its final recommendations to the City Planning Commission. The recommendations include many "bottom-up" ideas for rebuilding New Orleans. Most of all, the UNOP report reflects citywide priorities that were vetted by the citizens themselves at neighborhood and citywide meetings -- some of which included New Orleanians still displaced in other states. Truly, this is the people's plan.
While the Unified Plan drew upon citizens' priorities, it does not include each and every neighborhood project. As such, UNOP stands as a citywide "to-do list" rather than a compendium of local "wish lists." At the same time, neighborhoods are encouraged to continue advocating for projects that are important to them, because once the city's basic infrastructure is restored, the time will be right for each neighborhood to put its unique stamp on the city's new landscape.
Looking ahead, 2007 is going to mark a critical juncture for New Orleans. Now more than ever, it is essential that local institutions use the UNOP process as well as the various neighborhood recovery plans to maximize government recovery funds, channel private investment, and redevelop neighborhoods in a safe, fair, and equitable manner.
To be sure, since Hurricane Katrina, city officials have tried to identify recovery needs and secure governmental and private funds to make necessary repairs. While these efforts have generated some progress, dramatic results have eluded us. To get to the next level, New Orleans needs to unite behind a comprehensive recovery plan. UNOP represents such a plan, because it provides an opportunity to prioritize and integrate city funding requests and land use decisions. It also provides a step-by-step roadmap of infrastructure repairs and the return of city services. These are basic but very significant steps; they remain the most important steps toward rebuilding our city and its neighborhoods.
The newly created Mayor's Office of Recovery Management and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) should lead the charge and be the most important players in rebuilding the city. Thanks to new legislation pushed by Mayor Ray Nagin, NORA has broader powers than ever, an invigorated new board, and the opportunity to remake New Orleans without sacrificing its neighborhood charm. In fact, by partnering with other local governmental bodies -- including the Mayor's Office of Planning and Development, the City Planning Commission and the City Council -- NORA and the Recovery Office should let neighborhood recovery plans drive the local recovery process.
But that can happen only if citizens remain engaged.
A year ago, citizens' efforts were rightly focused on the format and content of recovery planning documents. Going forward, it will be just as important for citizens to monitor and participate in the formation of public policies that will dictate how NORA, the Recovery Office and other public bodies will use citizens' recovery plans to secure recovery funds and implement repairs and improvements.
The Unified Plan now goes to the City Planning Commission, whose staff will study the proposals and possibly offer suggested changes. Public hearings will be part of the process. Citizens have driven this process thus far, both by serving as volunteers on various oversight committees and by participating in neighborhood and citywide meetings. If UNOP is going to remain the people's plan, then New Orleanians must remain engaged. Above all, we must demand that our public officials make difficult but necessary decisions that will allow our city to stand itself back up. Again quoting our Nov. 1, 2005, commentary: "This is a time of tremendous challenge -- and virtually unlimited opportunity. Let's not squander it."