Formula for recovery: New Orleans needs a population explosion

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Eli Ackerman & Alan Williams, The Lens contributing opinion writers |

The census numbers are in and they’re troubling, but they suggest New Orleans’ only strategy for full post-Katrina revitalization. We need to grow the city’s population enormously and strategically.

New Orleans is now home to 343,829 of us, meaning that close to 100,000 people have not come back—whether by choice or constraint. No doubt tens of thousands of our former neighbors fall into each category, or some combination of the two.

The official numbers, long awaited, are an important marker in on-going public deliberation over our future. In the early months of the recovery, the debate was routinely couched in terms of the city’s proper “footprint.” Some took the long view and urged shifting reinvestment away from low-lying areas. Others emphasized the right to return — to restore even the most severely flooded homes and communities. While most residents tried to balance the two prerogatives, the debate exacerbated a distrust of government initiatives that already was acute, given widespread dismay over mismanagement of the federal levee system that failed.

To the extent that there were two “sides” to the debate, they both lost. Advocates of the right to return secured at least nominal restoration of the city’s pre-storm footprint but not the wherewithal to repopulate it and rebuild the private and public infrastructure that would make for an acceptable quality of life. Those supporting a shrunken footprint may find the de facto “new” New Orleans smaller and wealthier than before, but the responsibility to restore and maintain depleted neighborhoods remains unmet. We may never have a meaningful civic discussion about how issues such as race, justice, and sustainability were handled in those early stages of recovery – though James Gill’s recent column, with its clear-eyed acknowledgment that most residents lost to the diaspora are likely gone forever, was a welcome model of lucidity.

What matters more at this point than blame games about what went wrong is that a broad consensus be reached about our population going forward. The Census count should make it clear to everyone that New Orleans desperately needs more residents. We have a physical city with the capacity and upkeep needs of a population twice our size. Claims that New Orleans is better off with a smaller population ignore the mounting challenges as federal aid decreases and the extent to which the footprint dilemma remains unsolved.

Low-lying, flood-prone neighborhoods that have achieved hard-won population gains over the past five years will not be abandoned or revert to semi-urban pastoral settings as some planners predicted. But without something to spark increased demand, these areas will languish as half- blighted problem centers, draining city resources and struggling to offer adequate safety and amenity to their residents.

If these neighborhoods are again to become viable, safe and attractive communities, New Orleans must commit to an all-hands-on-deck effort to regrow its population. Without the buoyancy of strong population growth, no feasible amount of government investment will lure sufficient private capital into these neighborhoods.

Despite arguments advanced by some advocates of a smaller footprint, the broad goals of economic and environmental sustainability and the revival of low-lying communities are not at odds with one another;  they are interdependent . The city cannot sustain itself if it lacks a population large enough to build a globally competitive economy and secure the infrastructure projects needed to mitigate environmental risks and adapt to a changing landscape. We know all too well that Washington or Baton Rouge will not lead that effort for us. The city itself must set an ambitious population goal, and do everything we can to reach it safely. This will require creative policy changes and collaboration across agencies and institutions.

Broadly, a population-attraction strategy should be three-pronged:

First, it is time to actively encourage as many as possible of the 100,000 New Orleanians scattered across the country to come back. They represent a reservoir of people who already have social and economic ties to the city — as such, they’re low-hanging fruit. More importantly, we owe this effort to people unjustly dishonored as unwanted in the aftermath of the disaster. To bring some of them back will require that we accelerate the development of mixed-income and affordable housing, as the New York Times recently recommended. Others will need to be convinced that New Orleans can be made safe – from hurricanes and from crime – and that its dramatic public school reforms since the hurricane  are here to stay.

Next, the city can redouble its efforts to attract and retain the opportunity-hungry millennials who are already a fixture in the recovery economy. Not only do many young people have the kind of low-overhead lifestyle and disposable cash that keeps the wheels turning in the restaurant industry during off-seasons, but they are hungry away from the table, too. That means they see opportunity in New Orleans: the opportunity to start a business, the opportunity to fix up a home, the opportunity to make music, in short, to make a difference. New Orleans has the aura and the amenities to attract these folks in large numbers—now we need to do more to facilitate their integration into the local economy, offer better incentives to stay, and help the newcomers recruit a growing share of their high-productivity cohort.

Finally, New Orleans can take steps to join cities like Nashville and Atlanta as modern immigrant gateways. Immigrants take big risks to succeed in America and are statistically more likely than natives to start new businesses. New businesses become the high-growth firms that fuel job creation. Immigrant labor has already been a big factor in the physical rebuilding of the city. Let’s keep that energy here and invite these workers to make New Orleans their permanent home. It is often said that New Orleans captures the world’s imagination. New Orleans would be wise to capture the world’s most innovative people as well. Through tax incentives, relocation assistance and by making sure service providers are multi-ingual, New Orleans can emerge as a more competitive community, a magnet for immigrants from around the globe to study, start new businesses, and seek their fortunes.

New Orleans still has a lot of work to do to recover and thrive. Sure, the Census numbers we saw last week are troubling, and going forward, they will translate into less clout on Capitol Hill and less revenue sharing under federal funding formulas. But that’s of minor concern when one looks at the issues New Orleans faces over the long term.  All of these challenges – service provision, basic environmental sustainability, infrastructure replacement – require more tax revenue, more businesses, and more labor than our current population will be able to provide. That means New Orleans needs to regrow, and do so ambitiously.

Eli Ackerman, a former Lens contributor and organizer of SaveCharityHospital.com, is pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Alan Williams is an urban planner and project manager at a New Orleans-based consultancy.

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