New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery has flowed partly from an animating vision: the idea of revitalizing historic neighborhoods across our city, from the Warehouse District, Historic Central Business District and Lower Garden District to Marigny, Bywater and Algiers. Walkable neighborhoods are sparking the revival of communities as great places to live, work and play — walkable, energy-efficient, culturally dynamic and integrated in race and class.
Three precepts drive this evolution: density, walkability and the combination of mixed-used and mixed-income. Walkable communities are hardly new. They have been around for thousands of years. Consider a city almost everyone loves: Paris. Paris is beautiful, but its vitality — the numerous shops, restaurants, places to work and visit — stem from its very high density. There are enough residents and visitors to support the rich mix of uses. Second, the principles that make a great neighborhood cut across income, racial and demographic lines. The notion of walkable neighborhoods has been adopted by advocates of New Urbanism. Today, it provides a pathway for creating safe places to live, revitalizing public housing and protecting the environment.
During the 1950s, the direction was different. Middle- and professional-class America was moving ever farther into sprawling suburbs. It was a mass migration spurred by racial anxieties and greased by federal policies that encouraged massive highway construction. The bitter fruit was suburban sprawl, with its wasteful use of land and fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the gorgeous old architecture of inner-city America was ignored or aggressively turned into rubble and parking lots.
Revitalization seems so obvious today, a no-brainer. The repurposing of the Warehouse District and the historic CBD, combined with the French Quarter, gives New Orleans one of the most appealing downtown neighborhoods in America.
Revitalizing cities by fostering walkable, bike-friendly areas that capitalize on public transit in place of the automobile, offers an exciting lifestyle for every age and income group. Indeed, taken to its logical end, it will significantly lessen the dependency on the automobile and even enable people to give up cars in favor of public transportation. The environmental benefits of putting fewer cars on the road are evident. The financial benefits to people are enormous because owning, maintaining, insuring and operating a car averages about $9,000 a year.
Revitalization is about more than what some acidly term “gentrification.” The right mission is to ensure that those who need affordable housing can obtain it through mixed-income developments that create for them new opportunities. New Orleans offers useful lessons.
The Big Easy is a model for revitalizing itself through its diverse neighborhoods. The wonderful thing about the walkable neighborhood concept is that it benefits every income group. Revitalizing historic neighborhoods into walkable neighborhoods capitalizes on what New Orleans was historically and should be today and tomorrow. It is the key to ensuring a dynamic, vital, prosperous city characterized by diverse communities.
Pres Kabacoff is executive chairman of HRI Inc., a New Orleans-based development firm that employs 2,000 people and has spearheaded more than $2.5 billion in projects to revitalize inner cities.