This is part of TheCityFix’s series, “Cities in Flux,” about demographic shifts as a result of development, immigration, migration, politics and the environment. We look at how city planning and transportation policies respond to this movement.
How can transportation and urban development—from housing to public spaces to landscaping—repair a blighted American city?
New Orleans faces a slew of challenges, but the city is successfully capitalizing on the upheaval caused by Hurricane Katrina even with the additional economic and environmental damage caused by the more recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Part of the revitalization of the city is centered on a comprehensive recovery that considers transportation and urban planning. Last week we highlighted, in our interview with Dick Alexander of Veolia Transportation, the recent switch-over to private management of the city’s transportation system. Beyond this shift from public to private management, a number of projects are underway that may bring rebirth not only to specific neighborhoods but also to our general understanding of this unique and important American city.
New Orleans has about 43,000 abandoned homes, making it by some accounts the most blighted city in the country. But this number has decreased dramatically in the last few years. For more information on post-Katrina trends, the Brookings Institution released an overview of challenges and opportunities in the city, called “The New Orleans Index at Five.” (Download the PDF here.) The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center also has varied and in-depth figures and information about the city’s recovery.
The Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), a citizen-led framework, looks at recovery in the city through livability, infrastructure upgrades, citizen engagement and education. The framework points out that recovery will not occur unless two key factors are understood: the rate at which residents return and the level of preparedness of the city to deal with future hurricanes. The city’s population has been declining since 1960, and UNOP implies that this is due perhaps in part to the many hurricanes that have damaged the city. The plan attempts to balance revitalization efforts by providing resources and infrastructure that will be used in the long-term and services that will successfully repopulate destroyed sections of the city.
Transportation is a Key Piece of Revitalization
A 2008 document produced by the Regional Planning Commission, Louisiana Public Health Institute, City of New Orleans Department of Public Works and the University of New Orleans Center for Urban and Public Affairs says this of the transportation in New Orleans: “The creation of an integrated, green transportation system forms the core of post-Hurricane Katrina transportation plans for New Orleans.” The city aims to “provide safe, convenient non-motorized choices for the diverse New Orleans population” centered on an active transportation network.
Similarly, a 2008 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy case study of New Orleans notes that the pre-Hurricane Katrina city boasted a modal split on par with Portland, Ore., the U.S. archetype of good walkability and community design. In 2000, 21 percent of city trips were made without cars, by bicycling, walking or the use of public transportation. According to the report, New Orleans’ “active transportation mode share has dropped slightly” since the storm, but New Orleanians, planners and transit experts still see transportation and smart development as a cornerstone of the revitalization. Another challenge the city will have to address is the sprawling location of jobs and the general mismatch between where residents live and the locations of work.
Examples of Transit Improvements
The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) found that removing much of the I-10 corridor that passes through Greater Tremé and Lower Mid-City would restore some of the vitality to the region of the city north of the French Quarter and Central Business District. Rather than sinking $100 million into rebuilding the elevated freeway, CNU suggests removing segments of the freeway to develop a “restored urban boulevard” that would promote the economic and social rebirth of the “once-vibrant Claiborne Avenue and its surrounding communities.” The destruction of the oak-lined avenue for the expressway in the 1960s “was intimately tied to the overall decline of Claiborne’s surrounding neighborhoods and occurred against the wishes of the area’s largely disenfranchised African-American residents,” CNU says. “Removing the elevated expressway would free up more than 50 acres for use as public neutral ground, bike paths, transit corridors,” and free up more land outside the boulevard itself for redevelopment.
In 2008, the city cut the ribbon on its first official bike lanes that run from Elysian Fields to the St. Bernard Parish. Now, there are 12.6 miles of bike lanes in the city with at least 25 more miles planned on major thoroughfares. According to the city’s Department of Public Works, state and federal recovery cash to resurface roads “has provided an unprecedented opportunity to add new paths and lanes.”
Light rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is another project that has legislative support in the city, though Governor Bobby Jindal has yet to indicate that he supports seeking the necessary federal funding for such a project. An inter-city light rail between the capital and coastal city is projected to generate a $1.40 return for every dollar invested in the project.
Some of the plans have been in the works well before Hurricane Katrina; some simply stalled; and some to never reach construction. And, of course, many plans are newly conceived to repair the post-Katrina “Big Easy.” But transportation—connectivity and mobility—holds more meaning in a city tasked with bringing back its residents and with a history of wrenching social and environmental justice issues. With each completed project, no matter how small, the city moves forward, compared to how it was crippled largely by the inability of residents to leave their flooded city in 2005.