Clear As Mud

Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans

By Robert Olshansky, FAICP, Laurie Johnson, AICP

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Planning the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has been among the greatest urban planning challenges of our time. Since 2005, Robert B. Olshansky and Laurie A. Johnson, urban planners who specialize in disaster planning and recovery, have been working to understand, in real time, the difficult planning decisions in this unusual situation. As both observers of and parti...

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Date Published
April 1, 2010
APA Planners Press

About the Authors

Robert Olshansky
Robert B. Olshansky, Ph.D., FAICP, is Professor and Department Head in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he has taught for 26 years. His teaching and research cover land use and environmental planning, with an emphasis on planning for natural hazards. He has published extensively on post-disaster recovery planning, planning and policy for earthquake risks, hillside planning and landslide policy, and environmental impact assessment. Professor Olshansky has studied recovery planning and management after several major disasters, including ones in California, Japan, China, Haiti, India, Taiwan, and Indonesia. His co-authored research report, Opportunity in Chaos: Rebuilding after the 1994 Northridge and 1995 Kobe Earthquakes, is available online, and his book, Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans, co-authored with Laurie Johnson, was published by APA Press in April 2010. His latest book, co-authored with Laurie Johnson and published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, is After Great Disasters: How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery.

Laurie Johnson
Laurie Johnson is an internationally-recognized urban planner specializing in disaster recovery and catastrophe risk management. She began her planning career working with San Francisco Bay Area communities that would soon be struck by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Since that time, she has developed an extensive portfolio of disaster resilience and recovery expertise in planning for and rebuilding following earthquakes, landslides, floods, hurricanes, and man-made disasters across the U.S. and the world, including the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch New Zealand, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku Japan, the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan China, and 1995 earthquake in Kobe Japan. She authored two chapters of the APA Planning Advisory Service guidebook, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation and is coauthor of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy focus report, After Great Disasters: How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery. She is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and holds a Doctor of Informatics from Kyoto University, Japan as well as a Master of Urban Planning and B.S. in Geophysics, both from Texas A&M University.

Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables


Chapter 1. The Hurricane Katrina Catastrophe

How Katrina Became a Catastrophe

Foreshadowing the Katrina Catastrophe

The Challenges Ahead

Chapter 2. Order from Chaos: Planning at the State and Federal Levels

Money, Politics, Mistrust

State and Federal Planning Initiatives

Getting Professional Help: The Role of the Private Sector

-Louisiana Speaks+: Merging State, Federal, and Private-Sector Planning

Chapter 3. Planning for New Orleans: October 2005-March 2006

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission

Making the Case for Federal Funds

Public Unveiling of the BNOB Planning Strategy

Moving Forward: Organizing for Neighborhood Planning

The Federal Funding Battle, Act 2

Whither the Neighborhood Planning Initiative?

Final Chapter in the BNOBC Process

Chapter 4. Return to Chaos: Spring 2006

The Election

Neighborhood Planning from the Bottom Up

The City Council Takes Action

Rockefeller to the Rescue

A New Planning Process Begins to Emerge

Request for Qualifications

A Week in June

Selection of the Consultants

The Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP)

Chapter 5. The New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan

Chapter 6. The Unified New Orleans Plan

Citywide Team Orientation

Other City Events

CSO Orientation

District Planning Team Orientation

UNOP Goes Public

ACORN Housing Fired

Community Congress I

Beginning Phase Two: Recovery Scenarios

Community Congress II

The Holiday Season

Second Meeting of the UNOP Resource Team

Final District Planning Meetings

The Last Stretch

Community Congress III

Final CSO Meeting

Official Handoff

The Plan

Chapter 7. Passing the Planning Baton

Ed Blakely Comes to New Orleans

The Target Areas Plan

Planning Commission Hearings for UNOP

Interlude: Continuing Federal Funding Issues

Interlude: Louisiana Speaks

City Planning Commission Approval of UNOP

City Council Approval

LRA Approval

Chapter 8. Conclusions

Planning Tensions: Speed versus Deliberation

The Opportunity to Correct Past Wrongs

Planning While in the Fog of War

Planning for the Wrong Battle

Time Compression

Coordinating and Improvising


Planning and Plans after Disasters

Into the Void: Lack of Leadership and Communication

Public Perceptions of Planning

Public Involvement in Planning

Value of Prior Planning

Did the Plans Make a Difference?

The Future





"Olshansky and Johnson gamely dive into the muddy waters of post-Katrina planning to bring us the real story of New Orleans's patched-together recovery. They are uniquely qualified to untangle the puzzling web of competing plans generated through massive neighborhood participation, Big Easy politics, and a frantic quest for federal funds."

David R. Godschalk, FAICP
Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Clear As Mud is a masterful work that gives an insider's perspective into the complications and intricacies of planning in a postdisaster context. The book holds lessons for planners, policy makers, and citizens concerned with redevelopment, regeneration, and renewal anywhere in the world. The authors' understanding and grasp of macro planning issues and micro community issues gives this book power and authenticity that is often missing from academic publications."

—Darren Walker
Vice President, Foundation Initiatives, the Rockefeller Foundation

"This invaluable book deftly clarifies the complexity of the multiple planning processes in post-Katrina New Orleans. Sorting out the chronology of contested planning is itself a significant achievement, but Olshansky and Johnson have also produced an account of the design politics that is reflective rather than scolding. This book is an affirmation of the need and possibility for deliberative planning in highly contentious settings. For practicing planners and scholars alike, this is the best account yet available on post-Katrina planning, and it is a significant addition to the literature on disaster resilience."

—Lawrence J. Vale
Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning, MIT
The Resilient City