The Unified New Orleans Plan is a comprehensive plan for the city of New Orleans developed following Hurricane Katrina. The Plan was drafted using participatory methods including grass-roots outreach, online consultations, district meetings and community congresses.
Problems and Purpose
The drafting of the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) was organized to create a highly detailed plan addressing the specific actions necessary to facilitate the recovery and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. The UNOP was established because both the City of New Orleans and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) require the creation of a recovery plan for all future natural disasters in order to capitalize on both federal and state aid. The goal of the plan was to integrate various recovery efforts into one consistent document for the LRA.
A deliberative process was used in reaction to heightened tensions within communities following Katrina. Pre-existing divisions along race, socioeconomic status, and belief were exasperated by the recovery effort, the devastation of major infrastructure, and massive financial losses. In response, the city of New Orleans decided to draft the recovery plan using an inclusive, deliberative process in the hopes that the resulting document would guide the repairing and rebuilding of New Orleans in a way that creates stability, resilience and community cohesion.
The Unified New Orleans Plan includes input from: individual neighborhoods and districts, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, FEMA, and the City Council’s Neighborhood Planning Initiative also known as the Lambert Plans. Overall, the UNOP allows city and state officials to coordinate post-disaster recovery more efficiently and effectively and enables New Orleans to comply with necessary federal mandates. The plan also identifies critical investment needs, so private and public entities know how to best provide help in New Orleans.
Background History and Context
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina crossed over Southeast Louisiana, causing severe destruction over the Gulf Coast region from Central Florida to Texas. Katrina was both the deadliest and costliest hurricane in United States history, causing over 1,800 deaths and $81 billion in property damages. The city most devastated by the hurricane was New Orleans, where eventually, 80% of the city became flooded and the floodwaters lingered for weeks.
First Planning Attempt
One year later, in August 2006, the Unified New Orleans Plan was developed as a response to the devastation that still remained in the city. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, Louisiana, assigned the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Committee to formulate appropriate plans. The committee conducted their activities alongside national experts from the Urban Plan Institute (UPI), but their endeavors were unsupported by the public. The public reasoned that the situation demanded public participation. To avoid further public distrust, the mayor asked the BNOB and associated parties to step down from the assignment.
After the first failed attempt of disaster recovery planning, the City Council promoted the Lambert Plan. The Lambert Team was consisted of local planners and architects who worked closely with residents to envision feasible plans to rebuild certain neighborhoods. However, because the City Council did not have major stakeholders and excluded other neighborhoods, the City Council struggled to commit to plan with large enough impact.
Preparing for the UNOP
For organizational purposes, the UNOP was broken into two levels of planning: District Plans and a Citywide Recovery Plan. District Plans are stand-alone documents, intended to be used as a guide for city officials and citizens, regarding subsets of the city such as individual neighborhoods and districts. The Citywide Plan focuses on projects that are important beyond a single neighborhood or district. The District Plans helped to build up the Citywide Plan, and are encompassed within the Citywide Plan. The District Plans and the Citywide Recovery Plan were necessary for two main reasons:
- The City did not have the financial or manpower assets to fix everything at once; therefore, priorities had to be set and choices made about the allocation of scarce resources over time, and
- It is unlikely that every former resident will return, which means that new settlement patterns that encourage the efficient use of resources, and that provide security and a sense of community, need to be employed to rebuild the City.
The Citywide Recovery Plan estimates the time frame for recovery at ten years. At the end of ten years, the UNOP hopes that: the physical damage of the storm has been removed, repaired or rebuilt; the major physical infrastructure serving the residents of the City (water, sewerage, drainage, streets, and electricity) has been renovated to modern standards; the essential social infrastructure (schools, healthcare and public safety) is of high quality; the economy is stable and growing; and the quality of life in New Orleans is back to or better than what it was before Katrina.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Louisiana Recovery Authority was the ultimate party responsible for managing federal funding for the best recovery plan. They began to network with local political actors to advocate a Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) that would heavily rely on civic engagement. Various foundations agreed to contribute financial funds to run such a plan if the organization promised public participation. While at first the UNOP faced opposition from competitive parties, the UNOP continued to move forward and appointed non-profit and non-partisan organization AmericaSpeaks to lead the proposed congresses. By October 2006, AmericaSpeaks raised $2.6 million and facilitated a highly anticipated city-wide public participation process.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
In order to unite the District Plans and the Citywide Recovery Plan, a two-tiered planning process was created. At one level, teams of nationally recognized architects and urban planners worked with neighborhood residents to create thirteen Planning District Recovery Plans. At another level, a Citywide Team of local urban planners and engineers analyzed citywide systems and issues, and also informed and guided the District Planners in their efforts. The Citywide Team and the District Planners held weekly meetings to coordinate activities and exchange information. Other events such as the three Community Congresses were open to the public and organizers made a significant effort to reach as many residents as possible using satellite technology, online consultation, call-centers, and surveys.
Methods and Tools Used
Despite the effort put forth by the various teams of professionals, the citizens of New Orleans are credited for the success of the UNOP development process. Several mechanisms were used to engage as wide a group of residents as possible, including residents who remained displaced but had a vested interest in the recovery of New Orleans. These efforts included:
- Grass-roots outreach in New Orleans and other key cities where displaced residents live
- Three newsletters
- Call-centers and surveys
- An extensive website
- Four rounds of District Meetings held in each of the thirteen planning districts
- Three “Community Congresses”
Public input and attendance at neighborhood, district, and citywide community congresses enabled the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard and their desires made known.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Over a four-month period, the Unified New Orleans Plan, assisted by the organization AmericaSpeaks, held three different Community Congress meetings where the most extensive aspects of deliberation, decision-making, and public interaction occurred.
Community Congress I
On October 28, 2006 Community Congress I was held at the New Orleans Convention Center where 275 citizens, planners and community activists in attendance were encouraged to offer their input into the direction the city's rebuilding efforts should take. The first Community Congress had the purpose of highlighting the motives of UNOP and to gather general input from the public of the issue. The attempt resulted in unfavorable public responses because of poor attendance and skewed representation.
Community Congress II
With the objective to gain public trust, AmericaSpeaks conducted Community Congress II (CCII) with more monitoring and speculation. AmericaSpeaks used a campaign approach to reach the supporters in four cities, plus 16 other cities via satellite technology. To address the problem of skewed population, AmericaSpeaks worked with over 50 local grassroots organizations to attract prospective participants from low-income neighborhoods. Furthermore, neighborhood associations, professional groups, and social service agencies also helped out by encouraging individuals in their communities. To block some of the barriers that would prevent participants from attending, AmericaSpeaks provided necessary child care, as well as breakfast and lunch.
AmericaSpeaks used the 21st Century Town Meeting approach, which aims for large group decision-making through small group discussions and technology. On December 2, 2006 participants gathered at tables of eight to ten with a facilitator, and discussed given questions in 15 to 30 minute intervals. Participants were encouraged to refer to the discussion guide and weigh the pros and cons for each option, alter necessary changes, and propose new solutions. Ideas were then collected and sent to a ‘theme team,’ who would organize them and send them back after each interval for further deliberation. By the end of the day, participants were faced with an expanded list that best condensed the diverse ideas into nine final options. The participants were asked to select the top five options they felt belonged to the agenda. The five selections were as follows:
- Flood protection is the most important issue
- Support should be given to voluntary standards for rebuilding to reduce future flood risk
- Residents should be able to rebuild in stable and safe neighborhoods with their former neighbors, but prefer being given financial incentives to do so, rather than having where people can live mandated
- Residents recognize the need for a range of affordable housing and support the development of low- and moderate-income public housing – but they also like linking such housing to job training and support services
- Residents support the reopening and/or rebuilding of public facilities (like schools, healthcare centers, libraries and parks) based on repopulation and recovery rates, but also support the use of temporary and mobile facilities in less populated areas
The majority use of the key pad produced quick results for real-time access. The following information outlines the results of the majority decisions:
- Flood risk: 71% agreed that creating and enforcing standards on reducing high flood risk 64% agreed to provide incentives for individuals to reduce risk, and 58% agreed that Category 5 levees have to be built faster.
- Neighborhood Stability: 65% agreed to provide incentives for homeowners to build near each other, 62% agreed to provide adequate information for homeowners to help them make decisions about where and how to build, and 57% agreed to allow homeowners to buy destroyed property quickly and easily.
- Rental and Affordable Housing: 73% agreed to provide incentives to developers, and 53% agreed to fund low and moderate income public housing.
- Schools and Health Services: 73% agreed to reopen and rebuild public schools and health centers based on re-population and recovery rates, another high majority agreed to build multipurpose school facilities to reduce cost.
- Police and Fire Fighters: 71% agreed to support of building facilities according to greatest need. Infrastructure: 67% agreed to concentrate funds in areas with greatest need. Note: The ambiguity of “greatest need” mentioned in issues of neighborhood stability, police and fire fighters, and infrastructure was determined unclear, and the issues were later disregarded.
Community Congress III
The agenda was reorganized and presented again just six weeks later on January 20, 2007 at Community Congress III (CCIII). Approximately 1300 participants gathered, and were asked about their concerns for the Citywide Plan and the City in general. While 92% of them supported UNOP, their responses indicated that:
- Poor governance and lack of accountability would harm the recovery
- There wouldn’t be enough money to fund the Citywide Plan
- Issues of equity would arise from the increased cost of living in the City (due to high insurance and utility rates, high housing costs, and increased construction costs and labor rates)
- The Road Home Program, in order to be effective, would have to be overhauled
- Meaningful citizen input should continue into future planning and recovery
To ensure public trust, the City Planning Commission, city council and mayor, and Louisiana Recovery Management all approved of the decision thereafter. Planner Ed Blackely of Louisiana Recovery Management implemented UNOP in the final proposal for design, illustrating the projects, dollars, and timetable for it. The first steps for the plan included a $216 million budget mostly provided by federal funds.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Despite the concerns voiced at Community Congress III, the majority of citizens expressed support for the UNOP. Thus, the plan moved forward with a $14.5 billion dollar budget plan, allocated over the ten-year timeline. Overall, the Unified New Orleans Plan process demonstrates the fact that a large number of citizens can engage with decision makers under challenging circumstances and positively contribute to a solution. At the second community congress, 60 percent of participants felt conversations were “very thorough,” 85 percent were “very satisfied” with the quality, 80 percent said hearing from people in the other cities made a “big impression” on them, and one in three participants felt their views had actually changed as a result of deliberation. These numbers suggest that using the Community Congress method was a successful way to get input from the public and create a more comprehensive and unified plan, inclusive of many diverse opinions. Although the recovery process based on what was planned at the community congresses were dissatisfying, the support for civic engagement was promising. There was an increased sense of social trust and healing. The event served as a forum that built new relationships. As one participant notes, “everybody was skeptical at the beginning. No one knew each other before and at the end everyone was friends and hugging.” It connected those who were displaced from their old communities, and those who were affected by Hurricane Katrina but lived elsewhere. It enhanced the meaning of team work and the importance of cooperation with community members to reach progress. It permitted co-governance so that participants would feel empowered. It led to the occasion of mutual and greater understanding. And finally, it also strengthened community ties and the pledge to engage in further public participation.
Unfortunately, although adequate funding for reconstruction arrived in June 2007, the public was soon voicing disappointment over government accountability. Some issues outlined during the congresses were disregarded due to 'ambiguity of the wording' which upset the public and undermined their trust in public officials. The slow recovery process led to frustration and fading hope. Nearly three years after Community Congress III met in 2007, the 2010 budget for the city of New Orleans still reflects the priorities of the citizens outlined in the Unified New Orleans Plan. The fact that the city budget was developed to achieve the goals of the UNOP is impressive and proves that the plan continues to be a success. However, the combination of the lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina, combined with the severe downturn in the national economy has led to severe budget cuts, making recovery process more difficult than anticipated. Since the UNOP still has over six years until its estimated completion date, it is difficult to comment on the final outcomes and effects of the plan.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
In-depth Analysis of the Second Community Congress
CCII demonstrated that the challenges of effective public participation including: cynicism, unfamiliarity with the system, unwillingness, mistrust, social division, etc. did not result in a low-quality deliberation. Although the community congresses were voluntary, the topic and the urgency associated with the community congresses established an optimistic opportunity for deliberation. Many agree that CCII was a successful effort of political deliberation and informed decision-making because of wide public access and high attendance. In addition, the event included more than structured discussion activities such as motivational speeches from locals, artistic performances, live interviews, and music. These customized features connected New Orleanians with their home and compelled them to reflect on their values for the best of their community.
To promote the deliberative aspect of CCII, AmericaSpeaks asked participants to respond to issues by explaining why each option seems viable or not, and suggest any new solutions that address the problem better. They were also not restrained by just one option; the challenge of ruling out other possible solutions clearly does not equate with participants’ positions. Thus, the ability to select five options from the list of nine allowed for more openness and a transparency of important agenda items. The effect of having ongoing rounds was that it synthesized the various ideas into fewer practicable solutions that sought to respond to the ideas of all participants. The participants felt empowered by the amount of contribution allotted to them, allowing for more trust in the system more when options displayed collective interests.
Patricia A. Wilson claims that, “the event resulted in a new level of trust in the recovery process, trust in the future of New Orleans itself, and trust in the ability of New Orleanians to come together and make collective agreements for the common good.” Nearly three out of four participants felt more confident with New Orleans’ recovery plan than before CCII. The experience that participants gained from the opportunity changed or reinforced their values as citizens. The exit survey reveals compelling results of both successful social and analytic processes necessary for effective deliberation. Socially, out of the 28 that were surveyed, 27 felt very comfortable with speaking their mind in front of the peers, while 23 felt that participants listened carefully to each other. Analytically, 25 said they gained a somewhat or much clearer understanding of the choices and the difficult tradeoffs, and 25 said that they either agree or strongly agree with the choices made during CCII.
In contrast to the CCI, CCII’s participants mirrored the diverse profile of pre-Katrina. Furthermore, the household income was also comparable to pre-Katrina. For instance, Pre-Katrina Orleans was composed of 67% African Americans, which is fairly consistent with 64% of African Americans present at CCII. AmericaSpeaks’ application of the outreach program effectively drew in the proportion of the population that is relatively difficult to approach, as proved by CCI. This may have contributed to the diverse opinions that arose because the variety of groups produced a more meaningful instance of deliberation. More disparity attached to the same aim of a disaster recovery plan in a constrained time period resulted in high quality social and analytic deliberation. In addition, 350 qualified facilitators from around the world traveled to guide table discussions. Elected officials were also asked to come to magnify the legitimacy and to maintain government accountability for the actions that are implemented in the final decisions.
However, others would claim the quality of deliberation did not reach its fullest potential because of the time constraint. The unpredictable event of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it gave rise to proceeded in a pressured decision to conduct a deliberation process that improved public trust quickly. The exit interviews showed that while difference of opinions about solutions were raised, there was not enough time to thoroughly discuss each one. Therefore, while to some extent better understanding emerged, participants were discouraged from trying to persuade their colleagues because of time constraint. Two out of three participants stated that their opinions have not changed after table discussions. One table observer notes, “they expressed frustration, not with one another, but with the enormity of what they were trying to do in a limited time.”
The Unified New Orleans Plan was a deliberative process in that the plan was developed using numerous organizations both local and national, as well as a highly diverse group of people ranging from engineers, urban planners, lawyers, professors, politicians, and most importantly the citizens of New Orleans. The ability of such a wide variety of people to come together in an organized fashion and create a comprehensive and influential plan indicates that high quality deliberation occurred.
The highest quality deliberation occurred at the three Community Congresses. The results provided at the end of Community Congress III, stating that 85% of participants were satisfied with their conversations, shows that the UNOP was remarkable in the field of civic engagement. However, it is worth noting that some measures display unbalanced participation throughout the deliberation process. For example, observers recorded that white females spoke most frequently out of any other groups. In contrast, one in four African spoke once or not at all compared to one in eight whites who spoke once or not at all. Yet other evidence is more hopeful in terms of successful deliberation. For example, less than 10% of the table conversations were dominated by one person.
Aside from using the Community Congress method to rally participants, the Citywide Team, used grassroots outreach, newsletters, calling campaigns, and surveys. Even if New Orleans citizens were unable to attend meetings in person, there were plenty of ways to contribute to the plan and stay informed. Overall, the UNOP gave even the most disenfranchised of people equal opportunity to voice an opinion.
The main criticism felt by the participants of the three Community Congresses expressed in the exit interviews was that there was a serious time constraint. This is indicative of the fact that the entire UNOP plan was developed within a short 5-month period. Thus, many individuals did not feel that they there were able to discuss everything thoroughly. The biggest criticism of the UNOP plan overall is that there is very little information on the current status of the UNOP aside from what is briefly noted in the budget. Even the highly informative website for UNOP has not been updated in years. There is little information on the current feelings of those who participated in the development of the UNOP. It would be interesting to see if the majority of the people who approved and supported the Unified New Orleans Plan still agree with the overall recovery and rebuilding of the city. In 2016 ten years after the plan began, an assessment of the plan should be held in the same fashion as the Community Congress meetings. That way those involved in developing the plan would have the opportunity to analyze and discuss the overall success of UNOP once and for all.
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AmericaSpeaks: UNOP [DEAD LINK]
The first version of this case study was submitted to Vitalizing Democracy as a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize.