One of the few good things to come out of the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina was a reawakening of civic responsibility across New Orleans' political spectrum. Back in December 2005, I wrote that ordinary citizens who previously paid little or no attention to politics had become "enraged and engaged."
That reawakening led to a palette of political reforms none thought possible before — combining the city's seven assessors' offices into one (we'll elect our first modern citywide assessor next February and March), combining area levee boards across parish lines, merging New Orleans' civil and criminal courts and the related parochial offices (sheriffs, clerks and others — a process that is ongoing), and creating a truly independent city Ethics Review Board and Office of Inspector General.
Last autumn, citizens continued their march toward modernization by changing the City Charter to require a citywide master plan with the "force of law." Like the reforms cited above, this change would not have happened but for ordinary citizens becoming engaged in the process.
It's an ongoing process — a journey, as the old adage goes, not a destination. We cannot ever fold our tents, high-five one another and think we "fixed" government. We have to remember that other old adage about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty. For reforms to reach their full potential, citizens must remain engaged.
Which brings me to this week's topic: the first working draft of the city's new master plan. The draft was released last Friday, and the first public hearing occurred over the weekend. The initial draft is just that, but it was the result of many public hearings already. Many more hearings will follow between now and mid-July. This is a work in progress.
I cannot overstate how important it is for people to spend time reading the draft (www.nolamasterplan.org) and getting engaged in the process of writing the final document. The draft is several hundred pages long, so reading it is no idle pursuit. But like any good book, it should be read carefully, perhaps several times.
Going forward, we should recognize what a master plan is and is not. It is at once a vision and a means of turning that vision into reality. It is a collection of guiding principles and a commitment to some specific undertakings, but it is not a microscopic land-use plan. A separate document will revise the city's long-outdated Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance — and it, too, must be citizen-driven.
What makes a master plan different from past land-use reforms is that it will have "force of law." It will not be a law unto itself, but rather it will provide boundaries for future land-use decisions, which must conform to the plan.
Some of the proposals contained in the draft are specific enough to foster extended debate, such as the idea of taking down the elevated I-10 along North Claiborne Avenue and restoring the tree-lined boulevard that once served as the commercial center of black New Orleans. Another tenet calls for more multi-family housing in eastern New Orleans, an idea that already has stirred controversy.
In short, a master plan takes stock of our strengths and our potential as a city and dares to dream of realizing that potential. It is not a silver bullet. To the extent that there is a silver bullet in politics, it is the constant vigilance of an engaged citizenry.