The Commissioner — Winter 2010

Commissioner's Voice

Leadership in Post-Disaster Recovery

By Timothy H. Jackson, AICP
Consulting planner and former member of the New Orleans planning commission

When I was a planning graduate student at the University of New Orleans 20-something years ago, professor Dr. Ralph Thayer gave the class an assignment: Research a topic in the City of New Orleans's Master Plan. For a week the first-semester graduate students searched the city's libraries, city hall, and the city planning commission offices looking for the plan. It was a trick question. The city had no master plan.

Until April 2009 I was a member of the commission, having served for eight and a half years, and the message of Dr. Thayer's assignment stayed with me. Nearly everyone in New Orleans assumed the city had a master plan to guide policy and regulations when, in fact, it did not. What the city had was hard­working commissioners and a staff trying to follow good planning principles while reviewing development proposals, only to have the administration or city council overturn their recommendations. This fueled the city's reputation for making backroom deals at the expense of good planning.

As I write, this is about to change. The New Orleans City Planning Commission was scheduled to vote on the master plan, a project in the works for the last year, in January 2010.

How did this happen? In 2005 Hurricane Katrina changed everything in New Orleans, including planning. In the chaotic months that followed, with most of the nine commission members and staff displaced, recovery planning was a confused mess. The commission, mandated by city charter to adopt a master plan and plan post-disaster rebuilding, was sidelined and marginalized by the administration. Our staff was cut by more than half and a new agency was formed to take on recovery planning. Yet there was a silver lining in the chaotic recovery. It became very apparent to almost everyone, not just Dr. Thayer's former students and the city planning commission, that New Orleans needed a real master plan and an inclusive planning process.

Adoption of a master plan, I believe, will be a significant event for New Or­leans and the city planning commission. The commission, its staff, and the consultant team have worked hard holding public meetings and nailing down the details of the plan. Additionally, work on revising the existing cumbersome and outdated zoning ordinance to implement the new plan has begun. These are major steps for our city and necessary for recovery. The commission should be commended for the courage to lead the city down this somewhat messy and contentious path to produce what New Orleans has never had — a master plan.