Urban designer lends expertise to national initiative on New Orleans
By Jane Ford
Only five jets sat on the normally crowded runway. Brown haze hung low over the city from the construction equipment removing debris.
Describing a drive around the deserted neighborhoods in New Orleans, William Morrish said, “It was quiet. But what you saw was shrill.”
Morrish, professor of architecture, traveled to the hurricane-ravaged city in mid-November to conduct extensive research and evaluation of the catastrophe as part of a 50-member Urban Land Institute initiative. The ULI is a nonprofit group dedicated to research and education issues related to developing and redeveloping neighborhoods, business districts and communities across the United States and around the world. The multidisciplinary group included leaders in economic development, culture, government effectiveness, planning, infrastructure, housing, urban planning and design — all seasoned experts in urban and post-disaster development. The group’s task in New Orleans was to evaluate the damage from Hurricane Katrina and propose recommendations for rebuilding to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. During the weeklong visit they met with more than 300 people in a public forum and interviewed more than 150 citizens representing a wide variety of community interests.
Although the initial catastrophe occurred in late August, Morrish said, “This disaster is not over yet. The process of renewal and recovery hasn’t even started. It takes one to two years before you even get an economy going at a minimal level and eight to 10 years, if you have green lights, to get it up and running.
“The city that had been there for 300 years was basically and radically changed, and it will never be the same.” It is estimated that 75 percent of the city is gutted.
Morrish is not new to the task of making cities better places to live, work and play. He has more than 30 years of experience as an urban designer that includes research and planning following earthquakes in Los Angeles, the 1993 Mississippi River flood and the World Trade Center disaster. But post-Katrina New Orleans presented a new set of challenges. “What I saw in New Orleans was time frozen,” said Morrish, referring to the complete breakdown of the infrastructure supporting a city with a global, interconnected economy. “The city was knocked out of the world economy. We need to understand that.”
Morrish believes that the collapse of so many of the infrastructures including transportation; water; power; and civic, government, community and human services, not just the levees, revealed what could happen in any large U.S. city as a result of a major shift in priorities by the federal government. He traces the roots of this shift to the 1960s and 1970s, when Californians voted to reduce property taxes under Proposition 13, a practice that was quickly adopted in communities across the United States as well as in Washington, D.C. These
taxpayer revolts left communities with inadequate funding to support services and infrastructure on any level. With people unwilling to
pay for big-ticket items, the maintenance and building of infrastructure — including highways, levees and public utilities — shifted to more local levels, where taxes are unable to keep up with needed infrastructure initiatives. The result, Morrish said, is that the private sector has stepped in, but often the solutions they provide serve the private sector and not the community. He pointed out that the levee system, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, was basically built to serve industry — to move ships and barges more efficiently.
“The hurricane has revealed some very important things that have been there at the level of our cities in general in this country,” he said. “A huge catastrophe accelerates the processes that are already under way. What happened in New Orleans is a microcosm of what’s happening in cities all over America.”
The scope of the challenges facing the city, and the demands that rebuilding the city will place on local, state and federal agencies, have cities across the country keeping a close eye on New Orleans. “It’s a testing ground for a number of things cities are looking at,” said Morrish, who is quick to caution those who expect a quick turnaround.
“Recovery is a long and hard story,” he said. “The biggest question is: Will it stay in the public eye?”
In the end, rebuilding New Orleans demands “a new city narrative,” Morrish said. “It’s a time to rethink our relationship as citizens to government.” He sees a sea change in public opinion starting with the Crescent City. “In New Orleans and elsewhere people are saying that we are better than this, and we’re going to do something about it.” He also sees his students echoing the same sentiments. “The young people have a real desire to use this as a tool to learn from, to be engaged and learn to build community.”
|“The Next New Orleans?”
Feb. 10, 5 p.m. • Campbell Hall, Room 153
William Morrish, The Elwood R. Quesada Professor of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning; and Dell Upton, The David A. Harrison Professor of Anthropology and Architecture, will talk about the forces that shaped New Orleans and the challenges that lay ahead in rebuilding and revitalizing the city.