Rebuilding and Revising New Orleans

Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association — and a native of Shreveport, La. — offers a vision for a new, smaller New Orleans. He believes the city will be rebuilt.

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What will the next New Orleans look like? How do you rebuilt a city that's older than the United States without making it look and feel like just another town in the United States? Paul Farmer is executive director and CEO of the American Planning Association. He's worked as a city planner in Eugene, Oregon, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. Mr. Farmer is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. PAUL FARMER (American Planning Association): Thank you.

SIMON: Where would you begin if this was your project?

Mr. FARMER: First of all, with kind of observation that we will rebuild New Orleans. When you look at the overall nature of our country, the position that the New Orleans has at the mouth of the Mississippi leading from the area of greatest grain production in the entire world to the Gulf, you kind of start to understand the role that it will continue to play. And the petrochemical industry certainly is part of that also. So I think there are a variety of reasons why New Orleans will have an economy in the future and it will come back. I think that inevitably it will come back as a rather smaller city.

SIMON: Where's the investment going to come from?

Mr. FARMER: Well, the investment's going to come from public and private sources. On the private side it's going to come from insurance to some extent, although that's not going to by any means cover the losses. It's going to come from people willing to reinvest in the city. We shouldn't lose track of the fact that New Orleans had the highest percentage of native-born people of any major US city before Katrina struck. And I think there's going to be a real effort by many of those people--not all--but many of them to come home and re-establish social networks.

SIMON: How do you rebuild New Orleans and keep it New Orleans?

Mr. FARMER: There was a diversity of architecture, which is one of the things that made New Orleans more unique than an awful lot of cities and certainly suburbs. So that very diversity is a characteristic of New Orleans, and I think that one will see much of that diversity come back, even though kind of the mixture within the diversity may change. I think that there will be character maintained in the French Quarter, the Garden District and some of those areas, and I think that in many other areas one will see a new character emerge, and it's a little early to say what that character will be. Will it have characteristics of the French influence and the Caribbean influence, the Southern influence? Will it look at the issue of practical difficulty of withstanding a flood in the future, so will more homes be elevated? That is an architectural type that's already present in areas of New Orleans. Will we see that become more prevalent, which would certainly change the character of some of the neighborhoods.

SIMON: Is there an opportunity now for New Orleans to undertake new building that will attract new interest, offer tax incentives?

Mr. FARMER: Before Katrina, the incident that probably caused the greatest loss of character in New Orleans was the land speculation that followed the announcement of the building of the Superdome. Many, many buildings were torn down as speculators moved in thinking there was going to be this massive demand for downtown office sites because of the Superdome, and we saw a lot of parking lots sit there for a long, long time. I'm not so sure that folks in New Orleans will really be looking to try to build major new corporate towers. And quite frankly, I'm not sure that the corporate tenants would go there anyway.

SIMON: If you were tapped for such a position, what might you say?

Mr. FARMER: I like to start with public open spaces. I think that far too often we start with the hard infrastructure of where are we going to put the roads and the freeways and the overpasses and things of that nature. That's important, but I think that the civic spaces of where people come together is extremely important in any city, and those should not be added on after the fact. I was planning director of Minneapolis for many years, and a hundred years ago some very wise people in Minneapolis decided that the diagram that was to define that city was going to be along where the chain of lakes would be forever public, and so all the lands around the lakes and Minnehaha Creek and much of the Mississippi River is all public. They luckily didn't turn those lakes into back yards, as most of the suburbs did around Minneapolis over the years. So I think there's room for revisioning New Orleans while still respecting the history of New Orleans.

SIMON: Paul Farmer, who's executive director and CEO of the American Planning Association. Thanks very much.

Mr. FARMER: And thank you very much. Enjoyed the conversation.

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