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Smart Decline


The population of New Orleans is half its 1960 peak. Post-Katrina resettlement has slowed to “a trickle”. Some neighborhoods have regained full vitality, while others wither and some are, for all intents, dead. With a stable population, now the people and their government must decide how to address depleted and abandoned areas.

"Before the storm, we were not realistic about the fact that the city was already shrinking, and had been for a long time," said architect Steven Bingler, a leading player in crafting both the post-Katrina Unified New Orleans Plan and the recently adopted school-rebuilding blueprint. "So many people seem concerned that the city isn't as big as it used to be, but there are all these advantages to being able to finally get real."

The hardest part of "getting real" is figuring out what to do in the parts of town bleeding population.

It's the mirror image of typical urban planning. The debate in a rapidly growing city like Phoenix tends to be: How much must we widen Road A to accommodate new Subdivision B?

Those who study shrinking cities say depopulation should inspire a similar process -- "smart decline," some call it, riffing on the familiar "smart growth."

New Orleans is facing a challenge common to many industrial-age cities. A sustainable population equilibrium can be achieved at any size. Big cities, small cities, or even big towns can provide stable and rewarding lives for residents. It’s change that is difficult. With size comes greater amenities, but greater costs. Which size is the right size?

As an aside, since I still read exhortations to abandon New Orleans to the swamps, note that the greater metro area has retained its population. Only the flood zone—mostly the city itself—is suffering decline. There is economic reason for a city-sized settlement where the Mississippi meets the Gulf. That spot will be New Orleans, at least until the river changes course.