Partners (Number 2, 2007)


In spite of the chaos and tragedy produced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the summer of 2005, a few brave visionaries have dared to look beyond the destruction and grasp the opportunity to build a new and improved Louisiana.
community development group in Louisiana
Photo by Marvin Nauman, courtesy of FEMA

Bolstered by world-class planners Calthorpe & Associates, motivated by the drive of local partners like Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas, executive director of the Center for Planning Excellence, blessed with the assistance of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, infused with the investment of funding and human capital from several national and local foundations and think-tanks, this group embarked on a regional planning process that encompasses southern Louisiana from Lake Charles to St. Bernard parish.

One of the hallmarks of the initiative has been its unwavering and uncompromising commitment to secure and respect the opinions of its most important stakeholders—the residents of southern Louisiana. Over the last 18 months more than 27,000 citizens in 32 different states participated in South Louisiana's Regional Vision poll. This represents the largest and most inclusive regional planning outreach campaign ever conducted in the United States.

The Regional Plan was officially adopted in May 2007, and already the initiative has persuaded the Louisiana Legislature to act upon several key recommendations from the plan.

From tragedy to transformation
The Regional Plan grew out of the struggles of many who, like myself, had to put grief behind them to pursue the promise of the future. When the levees broke, I watched from my stairs as the water rose in my home soaking hardwood floors, rugs, furniture, my electrical system and equipment. The "City that Care Forgot" lay under water and burdened with troubles. That morning I lay in 90-degree heat in my upstairs bedroom and thought about the city's future—my future.

In spite of the initial shock, it dawned on me that this disaster might have created the bold opportunity we needed. As a community development professional I could see the potential for reinventing a healthier, safer city while preserving and promoting our unique culture and considerable assets. Apparently I wasn't the only one who was dreaming big.

Others were thinking broadly about what it would take to create and encourage healthy communities: smart growth; environmental protection; efficient, high-speed transportation systems; robust economic development that capitalizes on "cluster industries"; inclusive zoning that encourages safe, affordable workforce housing; public spaces that promote healthy living and human interaction; cradle-to-grave educational systems that encourage lifelong learning and meet the demands of a variety of employment sectors.

Top priority for inclusive planning
To accomplish their goal of creating an agenda that reflected the priorities of Southern Louisiana residents, regional planners turned to experts such as the New York-based nonprofit AmericaSpeaks. This organization had experience in reaching out to far-flung members of disaster-affected communities: in the wake of 9/11, it was responsible for guiding the conversation for the recovery in New York. AmericaSpeaks went to extraordinary lengths to get participation from all segments of the community, from the high-powered Wall Street banker to the homeless man temporarily relocated to New Jersey.

This nonprofit applied its expertise in outreach to spearhead a similar effort in Louisiana. The LouisianaSpeaks initiative included three stages of public participation: surveys, stakeholder workshops and public opinion polling. Each of the outreach efforts made use of all forms of media and technology to reach the public: Internet, printed media, e-mail blasts, radio, television and word-of-mouth were just a few of the methods used to publicize the project.

The group's initial goal was to get a sound understanding of the wants, concerns and awareness of Louisiana's residents and leaders. A random sample telephone survey in February 2006 reached 2,500 residents, and 100 of those surveyed participated in detailed interviews over the next six months. Several key themes emerged according to the report: "the importance of financial, storm and personal safety; a desire for greater prosperity; preservation of Louisiana's cultures; and the need for greater public participation in the planning processes."

Determining shared goals
Anyone working in the public arena knows that getting people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to work towards a common vision can be daunting at best. But the LouisianaSpeaks team saw this as a unique and critical opportunity to craft a plan that would serve the region for the next 50 years. Almost a thousand people from all sectors of the region came together at locations in five major cities to share their creative solutions to the region's problems and, in many cases, put aside their personal biases for the benefit of the plan. During the full-day workshops, citizens crafted a "cohesive set of strategies for creating a safer, smarter, more prosperous Louisiana."

For a resident of New Orleans who is also a community development practitioner, the process, progression and results of LouisianaSpeaks were fascinating both to observe and participate in. For me this movement represented one of the most optimistic and meaningful symbols of the recovery.

Could it be that our residents really want high-speed, low-emissions public transit that connects Baton Rouge and New Orleans? Would they really be willing to give up their two-acre backyards in favor of more high-density, interactive development? Are we really eager to walk to our workplaces, grocery stores, schools and greet each other on streets built for people instead of cars? Could we agree on or at least support the kinds of industries we want to provide our livelihood over the next ten years? And even more daring: based on public input, could we actually hold our elected representatives accountable for putting our scarce resources where they make the most sense—for everyone? We were ready for one of the most important tests of democracy, the voting poll.

Citizens face complex decisions
The planning group managed to accomplish the almost-impossible goal of distilling down the hopes and dreams of thousands of citizens and leaders to five distinct areas of strategic direction. The survey asked respondents five basic yet critical questions (see sidebar). While it might seem easy on the surface to make these choices as individuals, these decisions, like human relationships themselves, involve repercussions that extend beyond the individual.

For example, traditionally the oil and gas sector has driven a large percentage of Louisiana's economy. But let's say you support your family by working offshore on an oil rig, and yet you enjoy the beauty and peace of fishing at dawn in the local marshes. Many believe that the oil and gas economy contributes to the shrinking of our wetlands. Is there a compromise solution that can serve both your economic and personal interests? Is it possible to attract new companies while simultaneously growing small businesses locally? Wouldn't this strategy strain resources and business incentives? How would we restructure our tax code to encourage small business development?

Although New Orleans alone hosts more than five universities, we continue to suffer from "brain drain" that draws our best and brightest to greener economic and professional opportunities. In the absence of local job development here, would strengthening our universities only lead to having our talent and energy cherry-picked by out-of-state companies?

Old patterns or new solutions?
What intrigues me the most are the choices we must make about how we want to grow and move forward as a region. Historically Louisiana citizens and elected officials have held onto very strong individual property rights. Even before the storms New Orleans was losing an average of four percent of its population every decade to the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain and emerging bedroom communities in surrounding areas. Baton Rouge- area residents were purchasing homes in the nearby towns like Gonzales and even sleepy Hammond was experiencing increased growth. Evacuees from Hurricane Katrina exacerbated the problems associated with housing, transportation and educational infrastructures.

Few high-density residential buildings exist in our major cities. Condos and warehouse/loft redevelopments were seen as appropriate housing primarily for the pioneering young, urban professionals, artists or retirees. Cars are required to get to work easily, to pick up the kids from school and to shop. Few of us are aware that this type of development is an increasingly expensive way to grow. Our quality of life, possibly even the length of our lifespan, is being compromised by spending more time in traffic, getting less exercise and less fresh air. In addition we face increased stress because of higher property taxes and gasoline costs related to sprawl. The best choice for moving forward might seem clear, but moving forward might be easier said than done.

Weighing the costs of future approaches to growth
One of the most powerful statistics on the LouisianaSpeaks ballot were several analyses of the cost to communities for each of the possible growth patterns.

If we continue to grow as we are we can expect:

  • To have over 445,000 new people living in a floodplain

  • To log an average of 69 miles of traveling per household each day

  • To pay over 60 percent more in fuel costs than if we lived in denser, closer communities.

And, as the graph below shows, we can expect to pay over $24 million more in public funds over the next 45 years to support infrastructure and roads.

Total Infrastructure Cost (2005-2050)
Billions of 2007 Dollars
Source: Louisiana Recovery Authority

But if we agree on the third option, "focusing development on existing cities and towns," our housing modes would shift to more condominiums, apartments and townhouses, and more public funds would go to build light rail systems rather than roads.

Even though now only one out of every four families in American can afford to purchase their own home, most of our potential first-time homebuyers pursue the dream of a single-family, detached home with a front yard and porch of their own. I'm a professional who preaches the message of homeownership as one of the best asset-building strategies for low-wealth families. By channeling their desire for homeownership into a more affordable living situation such as a condo, would I be perpetuating the frustrations of renting?

I pondered these issues as I cast my own ballot over the Internet. In spite of my apprehensions about how this movement would translate into my own work, I found myself infused with a sense of hope and optimism for Louisiana's future.

More to come
In the next issue of Partners I'll discuss the resulting regional plan and how it fits with other plans and the 17 Targeted Neighborhood Zones adopted by the City of New Orleans' Office of Recovery Management. I'll also provide updates on key legislation that can affect the implementation of the plan and relay how leaders and citizens have reacted. And lastly, I'll share stories about how this has affected the work we do as community development professionals and rebuilding residents. To be sure, I'm looking forward to being a part of the regional vision that will be with me for the rest of my days here in New Orleans. As a professional and resident it's a journey and adventure that, eagerly and cautiously, I undertake.

This article was written by Nancy Montoya, regional community development manager in the Atlanta Fed's New Orleans Branch.

LouisianaSpeaks Poll Questions
Below are the five questions posed to Louisiana residents in the LouisianaSpeaks Regional Vision poll:
1. What are your top priorities for economic development in Louisiana? (pick three)
  • Pursuing new opportunities in traditional sectors
  • Fostering knowledge-based businesses
  • Expanding trade and shipping
  • Attracting and retaining companies
  • Nurturing entrepreneurs and small companies
  • Expanding job-skills and vocational training
  • Strengthening colleges and universities
2. Which values in the state's proposed plan are most important to you? (pick three)
  • Community preservation
  • Commercial fishing
  • Navigation and ports
  • Recreational hunting and fishing
  • Oil and gas infrastructure
  • Wildlife habitat and flyways
3. How important do you think funding and implementation of the state's proposed plan is to the recovery? (pick one)
  • Very important
  • Somewhat important
  • Somewhat unimportant
  • Not at all important
  • Not sure/No opinion
4. How should we grow? (pick one)
  • Keep building and developing as we are
  • Modify development patterns
  • Focus development on existing cities and towns
5. What is the right mix of property rights and community risk? (pick one)
  • Emphasize property rights (i.e, no increased restrictions on how or where people build, shared risk increases)
  • Balance property rights and community risk
  • Emphasize reducing community risk (i.e., development prohibited in unprotected, flood-prone areas )