New Orleans & The Birth of Urban Resilience

It’s been a decade now since Hurricane Katrina barreled toward the Gulf Coast, causing one of the greatest humanitarian disasters to happen on American soil.

As the 10-year anniversary approaches, many stories will be told about the recovery—ours is just one. But it is one we are proud to tell, not just because we were privileged to play a role in shaping the city New Orleans would become, but also because of the inspiring role the city would play in shaping the Foundation’s work at the turn of our second century.

Many stories will be told about the recovery—ours is just one.

What follows is a record of The Rockefeller Foundation’s engagement in New Orleans in the days, weeks, months, and years following Hurricane Katrina—and the lessons that the Foundation, along with cities around the world, are applying to urban resilience today.


No Calm Before the Storm


In New Orleans, the months leading up to Hurricane Katrina were anything but quiet. In 2004, the city suffered a scare at the hands of Hurricane Ivan. After over 600,000 New Orleans residents evacuated the city, Ivan never touched ground.

Meanwhile, pre-Katrina New Orleans had become bifurcated by class and race, and despite its rich and vibrant culture, was one of the poorest cities in the United States. For decades leading up to the hurricane, the city’s manufacturing base had atrophied, leaving a weak employment environment, diminished tax revenues, and widespread poverty, along with a legacy of failing education and health care—a variety of large holes in the social safety net.

Huge swaths of the city were characterized by lower-income, segregated neighborhoods, mostly African-American, with dilapidated housing and high crime rates. Politically, the city was steeped in a culture of insularity and patronage, with little cooperation between city and state officials.

In many ways, New Orleans was emblematic of a city navigating the early 21st century.

But despite the swirling clouds, there were some bright spots: the city had gained 4,500 jobs in 2004, and was on the tail-end of two record years for its tourism industry. These encouraging factors had led to a rapid rise in per capita income in the city, and enabled thousands of families to begin the slow ascent out of generations-long cycles of poverty.

In many ways, New Orleans was emblematic of a city navigating the early 21st century. It was flawed but striving, full of the exuberance and optimism of newcomers and, at the same time, rife with building tensions fit to burst. Despite its particular—and very real—vulnerabilities, the city was in this way no exception to the extended national hangover that followed the 90s boom years: an uncomfortable mixture of optimism and reserve, at once forward-looking and yet without the proper means for planning and preparing for what was to come.

In the case of New Orleans, that something was a storm unlike any other the United States had seen in more than a generation.


What the Storm Brought: The Direct Aftermath


On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit land in Louisiana. Its 125 mile-per-hour winds, heavy rains, and monumental storm surges wrought havoc in New Orleans, seeming to directly target the federally built levee system. Roads were rendered useless. Streets became murky canals. Survivors waved from their rooftops, praying for help that sometimes never came. Hundreds died.

In only a matter of days, the city’s levees were breached or overtopped in 50 places; its floodwalls bent, buckled, and toppled. The city’s pumps were overwhelmed, leaving half of New Orleans’ homes flooded by at least four feet of water that lingered for weeks. All told, more than 225 billion gallons of water had to be pumped out of the city, a process that took more than two months.

In the immediate aftermath, The Rockefeller Foundation, along with many others, offered funds to extend critical help to the people of New Orleans for shelter and relief.

The disparate impacts of the storm resonated with The Rockefeller Foundation’s growing concern over the changing nature of poverty, especially given an increasingly global economy. Poverty was no longer simply a status with clear boundaries and definitions—just one cataclysm or series of unfortunate events could potentially send millions of vulnerable people into a tailspin of economic or social despair. From the very beginning, then, the Foundation’s work to aid the recovery and rebuilding effort after Katrina was conducted with an eye toward larger systemic change.

Within days of Katrina, the Foundation directed support to three proven community development and housing intermediaries: the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Enterprise Foundation, and Habitat for Humanity. Each organization pursued innovative strategies for planning the rebuilding of housing and businesses, approaches that forged partnerships between low-income residents and private industry, ensured affordability, and channeled investment and opportunity into the communities that had been most susceptible to hostile forces, whether economic, natural or political.

The crisis unfolding in New Orleans was not just the failure of the levees.

In the days and weeks to follow, it became clear that the crisis unfolding in New Orleans was not just the failure of the levees. Rather, the floods only exacerbated long-standing realities of poverty, unemployment, and failing education and health systems, turning a disruption into one of the greatest humanitarian disasters to happen in the United States.

NOLA Katrina Child

Against this uncertain backdrop, the city’s planning process got under way with the establishment of a civic commission called the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. The commission’s challenges were vast—how, after all, does one go about “bringing back” a city with the vulnerabilities that New Orleans had and the damage it had endured? And where do you start?

City and state authorities tried to pull together a substantial coordinated plan for the city’s redevelopment, but the process quickly ran into problems. In just one example, the commission determined that more parks and green spaces were needed in New Orleans, primarily to help with flood control and reduce the risk of flooding in residential areas, but also to make the city more appealing to residents. They created a map identifying each of these potential areas with a green dot. But the New Orleans Times-Picayune published it without sufficient explanation. When residents saw the now infamous “green dot map,” all hell broke loose.

Who selected those locations? What would happen to the homes there and the people who lived (or had lived) in them? What about the land? Did the residents or owners have a say in the matter? Why did Lakeview, a predominantly white and upscale neighborhood, have no green dots at all?

Bring NOLA Back
New Orleans’ infamous “green dot map.” (Image credit: Bring New Orleans Back Commission)

The situation only worsened from there. The commission couldn’t secure funding for its citywide plan or for the creation of individual neighborhood plans they had intended to support. So 49 neighborhoods developed their own plans, but there was little cohesion among them and they did not amount to a comprehensive vision for a revitalized New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco had established the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) to coordinate the statewide redevelopment response to Katrina and Rita, including raising private underwriting funds, retaining professional planners, and moving toward a comprehensive statewide recovery plan. And, by January, yet another planning process was initiated, this time by the New Orleans City Council.

The road to recovery seemed to be approaching a dead end.

Rather than a coherent and comprehensive plan, what was emerging was a patchwork of planning activities—each had its own priorities, its own vision of the future. By spring 2006, the city’s planning process had run into a terrible logjam—caused by a shortage of public resources, a great deal of frustration and uncertainty, too many competing interests, and not enough incentive to compromise. The road to recovery seemed to be approaching a dead end.


Stepping into the Breach


With the impasse building, Walter Isaacson, then head of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, called Judith Rodin—who had only taken the helm of the Foundation months before the storm hit—and asked her and The Rockefeller Foundation to step in and help restart the planning process. The goal was to create a single, unified plan that would go beyond the tasks of recovery and rebuilding and focus on long—term resilience—building activities.

Judith Rodin
Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin.

The Foundation had the credentials to serve this unique role. Not only did it have a half-­century of supporting the revitalization of cities behind it, including the funding of Jane Jacobs’ landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the Foundation’s leadership had equally relevant experience. As president of the University of Pennsylvania, Rodin had led a comprehensive revitalization effort in West Philadelphia. This had armed her with crucial experience in navigating the challenges of urban environments rife with longstanding racial and class-based tensions.

Similarly, Darren Walker, then the Foundation’s vice president for foundation initiatives (and current president of The Ford Foundation), had previously served as chief operating officer of Harlem’s Abyssinian Development Corporation, working on issues that would prove critically important in New Orleans, ranging from housing and commercial development to education.

“It was like bringing together all the different spokes of the wheel to focus on the hub.”

For these reasons, the Foundation was seen as a trusted broker. And so, in late March of 2006, representatives from the Foundation met with representatives of the governor’s and the mayor’s offices, local philanthropic groups, community organizers, business leaders, and representatives from more than 70 neighborhoods—a true reflection of the city’s diverse interests—in a conference room in the offices of the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF). As GNOF’s president and CEO Ben Johnson observed, “It was like bringing together all the different spokes of the wheel to focus on the hub.” Out of that meeting emerged two elements that would jump-start the planning process and focus efforts on a more comprehensive effort. First, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, eventually pegged at $3.5 million, was made to the GNOF. That commitment immediately triggered a grant from the GNOF itself for an additional $1 million, bringing the total to $4.5 million in funds committed to the process of creating a new plan.

Next, The Rockefeller Foundation recruited and dispatched a seasoned community development expert—Carey Shea, a one-time New Orleans resident—to the city to oversee the administration of the grant and serve as a resource for local stakeholders. The ability of a single individual to serve as a sounding board would prove to be invaluable as the process—now known as the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP)—was nudged forward. The Rockefeller Foundation’s grant, then, represented an unusual form of public/private partnership—one that helped align the critical players, from the state and the regional to the local level, and formalized the role of New Orleans’ City Planning Commission under the leadership of Executive Director Yolanda Rodriguez.

New Orleans. From a Town Meeting for residents of New Orleans, that was part of the UNOP (Unified New Orleans Plan), an initiative partially funded by the RF. The meetings was held in New Israel Baptist Church in the Lower 9th Ward, and was for the (present and former) residents of the Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross, two of the areas most dramatically affected by the hurricanes and floods. Residents were encouraged to break into groups, discuss maps of the Lower 9th Ward/Holy Cross area, and contribute their thoughts and suggestions. A presentation was made by urban planers who oversee the UNOP plan.
A Unified New Orleans Plan UNOP) town meeting at New Israel Baptist Church (Lower 9th Ward).













The Rockefeller Foundation’s intervention was a gamble, and leaders knew the chance for failure was large. What’s more, as the single largest funder of the planning process, the Foundation knew it would take the brunt of the criticism if things went poorly. But Dr. Rodin had been through this before—when she first broached the idea of helping to revitalize West Philly, she was met with pushback.

The Foundation took another big risk: investing in the people and institutions of New Orleans when few others would. With distrust in New Orleans’ leadership high, most funders were channeling funding through Baton Rouge. But the Foundation insisted that New Orleans’ destiny was most secure in the hands of its own people.

Beyond the planning process

The UNOP didn’t mark the end of the Foundation’s engagement in New Orleans. Rather, it continued to support a number of efforts to rebuild New Orleans’ intellectual capital and institutional capacity: it strengthened the GNOF so it could house ongoing philanthropic innovation, and offered funding to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Urban Redevelopment Excellence to create The Rockefeller Foundation Redevelopment Fellowships at the University of New Orleans. This program provided support for two dozen mid-career development professionals—known as The Rockefeller Foundation’s CUREx Fellows—to be placed in 17 organizations working to rebuild New Orleans. The Foundation also helped create new positions in New Orleans municipal government to assist in promoting renewal and progress within the public sector.

And by funding a small part of Spike Lee’s acclaimed documentary When the Levees Broke and collaborating with Columbia’s Teacher’s College to build a high-school curriculum called “Facing Poverty in America,” the Foundation also helped tell New Orleans’ story—and share the lessons the city had learned.

NOLA Music Venue
d.b.a., a live music club in Faubourg Marigny.

As the recovery continued, it became clear that one of the greatest threats to the long-term vitality of New Orleans was the natural systems that surround it. In 2012, the Foundation supported the creation of Louisiana’s 2012 Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast, a 50-year, $50 billion plan to combat the collapsing coast, developed through extensive technical effort and public outreach. In order to realize the plan’s call for multiple strategies, tools, and techniques to reduce risk for communities and build a resilient, sustainable ecosystem, the Foundation is funding the Changing Course competition to revitalize the Lower Mississippi River Delta in ways that preserve the ecological and economic assets shaped by the River’s path.

All total since Katrina, the Foundation has approved over 60 grants, totaling nearly $26 million in direct investment.

All total since Katrina, the Foundation has approved over 60 grants, totaling nearly $26 million in direct investment, and leveraging hundreds of millions more from private and public sources, including federal funds which were released upon the passage of UNOP.


A Leader for Todayand Beyond


With the benefit of hindsight, current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said rightly that New Orleans after was a canary in a coal mine. Today, disruptions, fueled by the intersecting forces of globalization, urbanization, and climate change, have made crisis the new normal for cities around the world. If it isn’t a hurricane, it’s an earthquake, or a blizzard. If it isn’t decades—old racial and class tensions, its water shortages, traffic congestion, or some other stress that is eating away at the fabric of the community.

But New Orleans was one of the first cities to so dramatically and visibly confront these challenges head on in this era, frankly because it had no other choice. And in doing so, it’s become a model for other 21st century cities just now starting to take action.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu discusses the resilience of the city with local Café Reconcile CEO Glen Armantrout.

The work of building resilience in New Orleans has led to an incredible cross-pollination of ideas and expertise. When some families in New York found their homes and lives forever altered by the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy, their first glimmer of hope came from the strains of music created by New Orleans musicians who had made the trip North out of the solidarity that only experience can inspire. Urban designers and planners who cut their teeth in New Orleans are now leading the field in the U.S., and brought their expertise to post-Sandy reconstruction.

New Orleans has rightly been called a success story of building urban resilience.

While it has much work left to do, New Orleans has rightly been called a success story of building urban resilience: Although the job is still incomplete, under the visionary leadership of Mitch Landrieu, the city has become home to an entirely new generation of strivers and entrepreneurs, and transformed into a magnet for business and investment. Several national publications, including Wired and Fast Company, have recently hailed it as the most entrepreneurial city in the United States, home to countless startups and incubators for innovation. Its economy—which was dangerously reliant on oil and gas before the storm—has become encouragingly diversified. And, most importantly, it has begun the slow, hard work of better integrating marginalized communities.

The first big test of the city’s resilience came five years ago, with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill threatened to do irreparable economic and environmental damage to the Gulf of Mexico. But while it is still too early to calculate the long—term environmental impacts, communities along the Gulf coast, including New Orleans, have continued to recover, in part by the resilience investments made prior to the spill as part of the revitalization after Katrina.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill became the largest marine oil spill in history.

These outcomes prove a crucial point: Recovery must defy the understandable human tendency to revert to how things were before a crisis. In order to protect a city—or entity, or individual—from the vulnerabilities that initially exposed it to danger, the rebuilding process must necessarily be a time for rethinking—and, ultimately, revitalization.


A Decade of Resilience


For the first few years of The Rockefeller Foundation’s engagement in New Orleans, it didn’t use the word “resilience” to describe the work. But that’s what it, along with partner institutions, were building. And it would be the launching pad for the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, which applied many of the same concepts of investing in local institutions to helping cities in Asia build resilience against climate change. In the next decade, all told, the Foundation would commit more than a half-billion dollars to building resilience around the world.

The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) addresses flood and erosion management in Can Tho, Vietnam.
The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) has impacted over 40 cities across six Asian countries.

The lessons would be directly applicable, again, after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the eastern seaboard, coming in a close second to Hurricane Katrina in terms of damage, albeit not lives lost. Perhaps most importantly was the lesson that New York, like New Orleans, could not just rebuild back to the way things were before, as it would open them up to the same vulnerabilities. Rather, the Foundation pursued an approach that could help communities rebuild in ways that left them better off for future threats—and, building on the lessons we learned in spearheading the United New Orleans Plan, include those communities in shaping their destinies at every step along the way.

For example, the Foundation’s lead support for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design initiative—a multi-stage competition to build resilience in the area affected by Superstorm Sandy—included a robust, holistic effort to engage citizens and local leadership in the relevant communities.

The BIG “Dryline” was one of six winning proposals for Rebuild By Design.

Rebuild by Design worked to help communities achieve the same kind of “resilience dividend” that New Orleans was able to generate through its resilience investments. This means that communities are not only better protected from future crises, they can experience benefits in the good times, too, from new economic activity to better stewardship of the environment to stronger social cohesion among neighbors.

That lesson spread even farther with the 2015 launch of HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition, which was modeled after Rebuild by Design and expanded to help disaster-stricken communities around the United States spur innovation in resilience planning and design in order to build better, more resilient futures, particularly for their most vulnerable citizens.

New Orleans was also an inspiration behind The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, launched on the Foundation’s Centennial, which is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are increasing in the 21st century. New Orleans was living, breathing, thriving proof that cities could meet those challenges head on, and, with a bit of ingenuity, and a willingness to acknowledge and learn from past mistakes, even bounce back stronger from them.

The Resilience Dividend
Building resilience creates benefits during disruptions as well as in times of calm.

As one of the first cities to apply and be chosen for the Network, New Orleans has become a living laboratory for resilience thinking and is sharing its innovative thinking with the world. With funding from The Rockefeller Foundation, Jeff Hebert became New Orleans’ first-ever Chief Resilience Officer—a top-level position entirely new to municipal government, introduced by 100 Resilient Cities—and will ensure that the city’s resilience-building resources stay tightly coordinated, with one conductor at the orchestra’s helm. New Orleans hosted the first-ever gathering of Chief Resilience Officers from around the world in 2014.

Through this network, New Orleans is working with member cities Rome and Rotterdam to better understand what it means to live with water, as opposed to simply trying to fight against it. All three cities are experienced in this practice, and sharing expertise is expected to benefit all three. New Orleans is also working with Durban, South Africa, to better understand how to promote and maintain social cohesion, and to promote biodiversity in the face of climate change. 100RC is also bringing in international expertise to help the city solve some of the challenges the strategy is focusing on: coastal protection, social mobility, water and energy infrastructure, and environmental risk awareness. Experts are coming from the EPA, from the Nature Conservancy, from the city of Rotterdam, and from a variety of places in the private sector including Swiss Re.

City Resilience Framework
The City Resilience Framework outlines the the drivers that contribute to urban resilience.

Other partners like the World Bank, JP Morgan, and other financial institutions are working to help the city realize its “risk reduction” dividend—as they reduce their risk to acute shocks and chronic stresses, they will be able to capitalize on the lower costs of insurance, disaster recovery, and social impact.


The Journey Ahead


While already regarded as a leader in the field by its urban peers, New Orleans’ participation in 100 Resilient Cities was a mark of its unwillingness to stop at recovery. And, indeed, New Orleanians still face persistent challenges, including land subsidence, public safety and crime, lack of economic opportunity, equity, and educational attainment, and must develop innovative solutions that protect the city’s infrastructure, culture, and people.

As New Orleans sets out to address these questions, they have built upon the existing visions and plans developed over the past decade. Guided by 100 Resilient Cities, the Resilient New Orleans Strategy looks to confront the city’s most urgent threats, while seeking ways to redress a legacy of inequity and risk.

As the inspiration for 100 Resilient Cities, New Orleans was the focus for the first resilience strategy.

Indeed, in this dynamic world, no city will ever be perfectly shielded from the specter of future tragedy. Still, New Orleans has made incredible, inspiring strides, and is on its way to becoming a global model for resilience by its 300th anniversary in 2018. And just as it has for the last decade, The Rockefeller Foundation will continue to be a funder of, a partner to, and a steadfast believer in the people and the future of this incredible city.