Formula for recovery: New Orleans needs a population explosion

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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  • Jeff

    Yes! The experience of post-K New Orleans and rust belt cities teaches us that infrastructure needs population to support it. If we are going to have this footprint–and we are–then we need people and density. In addition to your above suggestions for attracting population, I’d also add some additional policies and programs:
    1. Urban homesteading: addressing blight strictly through demolition destroys our built heritage while exacerbating the problem of reducing the population density that supports our city. Instead, we need to create an urban homesteading program that gives houses and property to people who will improve and maintain those properties.
    2. Space matters: we need to incentivize and promote investment in the city proper, and particularly in areas on high ground and below I-610/Florida Avenue. From addressing the issues of upper story development in the Quarter and Canal Street, to creating financial incentives for living in core neighborhoods, we need to promote densifying areas on high ground in the region’s core.
    3. Densify: we need zoning, land use, and transit investment to support densifying the city. Our reluctance to acknowledge that density is necessary not only for our economic but also for our cultural vitality is one of the major failings of post-Katrina planning and politics.

    Our leadership should identify a spatial and demographic strategy for gaining 50,000 or 100,000 people over the next decade, and then set specific policies and programs for attaining that goal.

    Cities are either growing or dying; there is no in-between.

  • Eli

    I’d endorse all of those suggestions. Figuring out how to sustainably distribute a growing population would be the logical next step. But it has seemed like New Orleans still hasn’t decided definitively that it should grow. The strategy to date has been to wait and see when the momentum from the recovery runs out. That was a mistake all along and is certainly not a strategy for the next 10-20.

  • Don

    Insurance costs need to be lower. I don’t know any hard stats, but costs here seem to be 200-1000% higher than the national average, based upon my personal and business payments. It takes away from consumer spending, lowers property values and retards business development. It mires every initiative you’ve laid out here and deserves consideration in any serious initiative for population growth in New Orleans.


    Very few people, of any race, class, or lifestyle would risk the future of their children if they had a better choice. People without kids always underestimate how selfish and primitive this protective urge can be. In spite of Nola homesickness, many lower/middle class families got a taste of what functioning and well-performing public schools looked like after Katrina while living in other cities. No love of a city compares to the love of one’s child. Whether you respect it or not, I can guarantee you the people who decided not to return to Nola don’t care about urban planning.

    You said: “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.” How can we make that promise when it is NOT TRUE. We’re not safe from hurricanes or crime. And the public schools have come a long way, but are nowhere near the standard that some other cities boast. If I were settled elsewhere I’d only come back to Nola if I could afford private school or get them into one of the charters. Turn up your nose if you want, but it’s the painful reality for your “missing” 100,000 people.

  • Alan

    @Don – Insurance costs are no doubt a huge problem. However, they are somewhat beyond the city’s ability to influence, at least in the short term. Integrated water management infrastructure could do this, but this issue exists on a longer time horizon, and requires significant jurisdictional cooperation. We must address it, but we must do other things to improve the financial feasibility of the city in the short and medium terms–increase tax revenue, decrease housing, transportation, education costs.

    @Pistolette – No doubt that schools are priority number one for attracting the most desirable households–along with public safety of course. However, like public safety and safety from storms, this is a generational project. For us to complete those transformations, we must spark the population growth necessary to support these updated systems. Displaced New Orleanians have a privileged place among the populations that we want to be recruited, but young people have less education and health care needs. Immigrant communities no doubt prize education, but they are receptive to other incentives because of the unique situation.

    this is not about optional urban planning, its about interim steps necessary to buy the time and resources required for the fundamental changes you mention–changes necessary for the city’s survival.

  • Don


    Insurance rates are based on very sophisticated calculations that consider dozens of variables in a given area to assess risks: Crime, number of auto accidents, income, liability claims, etc…even the credit score and education level of your neighbor effects what you pay in insurance premiums.

    Personal injury suits are plentiful and seen as a life goal, even a source of pride, for many New Orleans residents. There is no driver education in the schools. Property crime is nearly unstoppable w/an inadequate forensics lab in the city, unable to process even the most basic of evidence for use in a prosecution.

    All of this goes towards higher rates.

    A large infrastructure improvement like the one you suggested will certainly help some, in the long run. But, I absolutely disagree that, even in the short term, doing something about insurance rates is “beyond the city’s ability to influence”.

    It is a prohibitive, perhaps the most prohibitive, cost to those considering a move here. It decreases property values while at the same time raising rents.

    Here is a quick vehicle example:

    If you owned a 2010 Nissan SUV w/a lien and live in Atlanta, you will pay between $200-250/month. If you want to insure that same vehicle in New Orleans, it will cost you between $450-500/month for the same coverage. I did the legwork on progressive.com That is not affordable for anyone that I know.

    Insurance rates tell us how functional and safe a city is. They are a major expense in any household or business. If basic elements of safety and education can change in New Orleans, so can this expense.

  • Meredith

    I completely agree with Pistolette. I miss New Orleans every single day of my life, but with a young son now, living in a safe neighborhood close to a great public school in boring Little Rock, the harsh realities of moving back are just too much.

  • Frank

    I applaud the call to arms this article represents, but I encourage everyone to recognize a little-noticed fact: that significantly smaller household sizes have accounted for a huge share of New Orleans’ supposed “population loss” in the period 1960-2000. Notably, the 2000 Census showed that the number of households resident within the city limits of New Orleans was actually slightly HIGHER than in 1990. The somewhat lower population figure in 2000 versus 1990 appears to have been almost wholly due to smaller average household size. In other words, in “real” terms, to borrow an adjective from economics, the city’s population grew in the 1990s. This squares with the anecdotal; how many of us know of Uptown double shotguns that in 1960 housed ten residents but now are home to three people: one childless couple and a single renter? Today, this truth means that we shouldn’t think that any population smaller than, say, 600,000 would represent an inadequate population, given the city’s footprint. A population of 400,000-425,000 might suffice to fully populate the city. This is also a far more attainable figure, potentially doable in 10 years.

  • Derek

    Frank , I think that is an excellent point. However, I do think the demographic trends of the 80s, 90s and 2000s are going to start to reverse as baby boomers age. Lots of families with one or two kids and gramps living will become the norm again. But yes I think 500,000 in the city proper is quite attainable. Also, New Orleans is home to a lot of second and third residences too… this is an important stat as very few cities in the US have one thats as sizeable and therefore relevant as ours. These are the best type of taxpayers, pay the full tax without homestead, hardly use city resources yet pay fully. Also, the metro area will recover past the pre-k population quickly.

  • Derek

    Nothing wrong with the city using the kitchen sink mentality when it comes to economic development as well…. becoming a mecca for Southern Gay couples to live and retire , legalizing prostitution, decriminalizing certain drugs, funding oil wells off the coast that allow for super cheap jet fuel to attract airlines to the airport etc everything should be tried…

  • Alan Williams


    Apologies–I was referring exclusively to flood insurance rates, determined by the NFIP program. You didnt specify those in your comment, but because i know its such a hard nut to crack, that is how I interpreted it.


  • marlene

    I have to tell you I have been to NOLA 2 times in my life and truly fell in love. I am at present getting ready to relocate there and am very excited. I am purchasing a large house and turning it into a bed and breakfast. I am also along with a couple of friends planing on restoring damaged homes and making those available for low income long term rental propeties. hopefully things will work out. I can tell you this it was the people as much as the city itself I fell in love with and am looking forward to the move. I am probably getting in way over my head but i believe in new orleans and the people. Hopefully if there is good quality safe homes available for people to come back to they will. Any suggestions or comments would be greatly appreciated.