I’ve attended several American Planning Association national conferences in great American cities, and I’ve always been inspired with new ideas and tools that planners are putting into practice. This year’s conference in New Orleans was especially inspiring – but mainly it was the traditional planning principles embedded in the charming walkable neighborhoods, and the classic functionality of the trains and streetcars that kindled my planning fire.
New Orleans is still struggling from the physical and economic devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina just a few years ago. But the city I saw in my five-day visit was anything but downcast. Granted, I spent much of my time in the tourist haven of the French Quarter. Why not? The city was offering a spectacular French Quarter Festival.
Featuring free music at seventeen official stages, and many more street musicians on nearly every block – all colorful and fabulous. I admit I was a bit giddy with the abundance of free live blues and jazz, dozens of food tents offering authentic Cajun delights, free-flowing drinks you could carry along while strolling down the streets, and the warmth of Who Dat Nation who are still reveling in joy of the Saints first Super Bowl victory.
What really struck me was the charm of the architecture and functionality of the city design. This nearly 200-year old city embodies everything that good city planning should entail, and it is that quality design – more than the music, food or booze – that makes New Orleans a destination for tourists.
The principles that work in New Orleans are timeless and true: streets and blocks that are designed for walking, with a mixture of residential, commercial and civic buildings pulled right up to the street. And those buildings are all built with aesthetic appeal. They are not over-sized and audaciously ornate (well, some are), but all have attention to detail that stands out – window and door treatments with handsome woodwork; wrought-iron hinges, door-knobs, gas-lights and fences with intricate designs; porches and stoops that invite neighborly conversation and the tossing of beads into parades; tastefully colorful paint and brickwork that sets each building apart from its neighbor; and flower boxes, ceiling fans and lighting that add comfortable touches. Many buildings hid courtyards that offer a cool interior for hot afternoon siestas. There did not appear to be more than 10 feet of ’sameness’ anywhere along the street. And these architectural elements continue for block after block after block – an authentic testament to the value of good urban design.
These design principles are the inspiration for the New Urbanism movement, which proposes to copy what works from historic urban areas and replicate it in new developments.
This commitment to quality design and architecture carried outside the Quarter and into the more residential neighborhoods as well.
Also notable was the absence of big-box stores and national chains. Every store was local.
I had two stark experiences that clearly drove home the value of this authentically great urban space. The first was last summer when my wife and I took our two pre-teen daughters to both Las Vegas and New Orleans in the same cross-country car trip. The artificial facades and debauchery of the crowds in Vegas scared and sickened my girls – while in contrast the equally adult revelry in New Orleans was easily overlooked as they appreciated the genuine charm and beauty of this place.
The second experience came last week as I enjoyed my walk through the French Quarter Festival and along the Mississippi River waterfront to the planning conference at the 1980’s-vintage Morial Convention Center. As I approached the convention center – which sits beneath U.S. 10 in a former industrial area – the sidewalks disappeared and I realized I had entered an area that no longer followed the historic grid from the 1700’s, but instead followed the auto-centric logic of the 1980’s. I was forced to walk along a train track or through a new traditional mall – full of every chain store and all the fake crap you could find in any mall in America. The sidewalk along the river was blocked with a fence, and there were no clear pedestrian connections between the old grid and the new convention center. And the contrast of the architecture of the convention center is equally stark – more than a half-mile of grey, windowless walls completely void of architectural charm. Maybe it was just the planner in me, but I found myself looking for the slot machines….