By Ned Rauch-Mannino
New Orleans keeps you busy. Staple attractions, such as historic sites, museums and arts and cultural experiences, are just a sample of the activities in the Big Easy. Haunted houses and eerie cemeteries, outstanding architectural achievements, Mississippi gardens, distinctive cuisine and entertainment without a curfew absorb so much of your attention you won’t feel the effects of the mere four hours of sleep or miles walked.
So, with so much going on before you, it’s easy to miss the planning genius behind it all.
But it’s something to take note of. Everything is “just around the corner.” Traffic is never an issue. And the collection of New Orleans districts seem to be so well organized and connected, you’ll gasp realizing how accessible a new, unique neighborhood is with just a few steps. And it’s no accident, rather, the result of exceptional planning in the 18th century and a dedication today to uphold it.
Designed With Walking in Mind
Everything is within walking distance in New Orleans’ tourist center, the French Quarter. The original city plan called for a grid layout of skinny streets, storied buildings, overhanging balconies and uniform design, creating a cozy, walkable district with plenty packed into a few blocks. It’s similar in streetscape and size to Philadelphia’s Society Hill and with committed pride in the district’s character, development hasn’t interrupted the grid since it was drawn in 1718.
A miniature city, the French Quarter has a touch of everything: a connection to the waterfront, commercial corridors, restaurant and entertainment blocks, historic sites and parks. From one end of the Quarter to the other, St. Louis Cemetery #1 is an easy 15 minute walk from the Jackson Brewery on the Mississippi. Everything else – Bourbon Street, the Café du Monde, St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square, The House of Blues, Gallier House and even Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant – is in between.
A Waterfront Serving All
Philadelphia needs to take a lesson from New Orleans’ Mississippi River waterfront. Simple in design and multi-functioned, the collection of wharfs with granite walkways is similar to Penn’s Landing, except that immediately behind the hard gray surface is a grassy mall, Woldenberg Park, paralleling it. The comfortable green space is decorated with artwork, benches and trash cans – New Orleans’ waterfront, French Quarter and other districts are incredibly tidy – and is scattered with residents and tourists enjoying the river breeze. It’s a nice setting and easy to access, creating a relaxing atmosphere just a block from Decatur Avenue’s restaurants and shops.
Philadelphia take note. The casino is flanked by malls on each side and the Convention Center in close proximity, with a central location essentially joining the waterfront, the French Quarter and the Central Business District. Bordering smaller, commercial-oriented districts and surrounded by public transit, the situation is similar to the latest Foxwoods proposal for Market East.
Preservation is Key
The Crescent City may very well never need a Zoning Code Commission, as city management has mastered development guidelines. And its chief tool: preservation.
The city has excelled in protecting its historic infrastructure and zoning. Through restrictions on new development and heavy taxes for big box commercial development, much of New Orleans core remains unchanged. The neighborhoods’ appearances remain intact and uniformity guides development for each district, with individual communities distinctively characterized by land use, layout and architecture. Added incentives for conforming development and themes assist the many concerned neighbors and businesses in preventing unwanted uses on any scale.
A preservation highlight, the Creole townhouses – the multi-leveled buildings, lined with decorative iron balconies and wrapping around expansive inner-courtyards – are impossible to miss in the French Quarter. Many date back to periods of Spanish and French rule in the 1700s, and before a single structure is altered or use is changed, approval by the city, residents and community groups is necessary. It’s a strict process.
While the city exists on a much smaller scale than Philadelphia, New Orleans certainly manages what is has properly. In the city’s center, it emphasizes smart growth by preserving the original planning framework, mapped well before cars and mass transit and guaranteeing New Orleans’ core remains walkable. Philadelphia should remember the accessibility New Orleans preserved and continues to push for as it undertakes the next big downtown projects, specifically, when refurbishing Penn’s Landing and with the potential Foxwoods development. Down south, developments of these varieties have been used to efficiently connect districts and provide a service to residents and tourists alike without interrupting character or becoming a burden to residents. And unless you’re looking for it, these successes go easily unnoticed as you walk from one fun distraction to the next.
Ned Rauch-Mannino is the policy and program analyst at the Urban Industry Initiative, and an active participant with a number of community and economic development organizations. He also highly recommends the alligator sausage gumbo at Red Fish Grill.