"Please raise your hand if you're an elected official," Cunningham said before his presentation on the concept of Smart Growth at City Hall recently.
No hands went up.
The no-show underscored a key point in the presentation by Cunningham, executive director of the Virginia-based nonprofit Revitalization Institute and author of The Restoration Economy. Speaking in frank terms that at times seemed to jar the crowd, Cunningham described Mayor Ray Nagin's touted "market-driven approach" to rebuilding the city "a carnival of negligence."
He worked to back up his statement during a 90-minute talk in which he described to a group primarily made up of architects -- the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects was a sponsor of the lecture -- how an integrated approach that collectively restores and improves built, natural and cultural environments will save the city and the planet while facilitating a booming growth industry. Grassroots-level activity has spawned seemingly infinite ideas and inspiration for how to rebuild a better New Orleans, but unless those disparate interests and groups are brought together -- and, more important, the political leadership is brought up to speed on the concepts of smart growth -- the forecast is grim, he says.
"Flowers bloom after a fire -- that's what you should keep in mind for what New Orleans could look like after Katrina," Cunningham told the group. "The city could go down in history as a place of endless post-mortem analysis of what went wrong. Right now, your economy is shot, but you could build a vibrant economy that's a model of restoration, a place with the greatest concentration of expertise in a field that will boom, with companies headquartered here employing a workforce that is in demand across the world."
Then Cunningham delivered the kicker, the bottom-line statement that typically garners most people's attention. "You can make a ton of money with restoration," he said, citing the fact that the global restoration economy's value is $2 trillion.
The restoration Cunningham champions, however, is not the simple renovation of homes that has been a solid sector of the local economy during the last decade. An integrated revitalization must encompass measures that deliver improvements to education, the economy, fisheries, forests, culture and more. One key block to garnering large-scale private-sector and government investment in such an approach, Cunningham explains, is that the economic impact of restoration is difficult to quantify. Thus, the construction industry's health is measured in new housing starts, despite Cunningham's estimation that restoration is 30 percent of the total economy and only 50 percent of properties on the market are new developments.
"But I'm just another expert coming down here from the (Washington) D.C. area telling you how you should rebuild your city," he said. "How many of you are in the mood to hear another guy from D.C. telling you what you should do with your city?" The rhetorical question earned laughs from the audience.
Cecile Richards, of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple architecture firm, says Cunningham's remarks "provided plenty of food for thought. He made some good suggestions for what could happen with catastrophe restoration, but we have to start with the root of the problem: No one is taking the lead. That has to change. We can't let people get used to the current condition of the city. We can't get complacent."
Yarrow Etheredge, the former head of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs who lost her job in the widespread layoffs at City Hall after Hurricane Katrina, also noted the leadership void and expressed concern that no city officials had attended the lecture.
"The main concern right now is how do we follow up?" says Etheredge, who recently opened a local office for Baton Rouge-based Toxicological and Environmental Associates. "I don't know if we're coordinated enough around here right now to do so." Despite her wariness, she cites potential positives such as the number of companies that have set up offices in the area in anticipation of massive contracts for coastal restoration projects in the coming years. Restoration efforts could spark the same sort of investment, she says, especially if the government touts potential profits and private companies are aware of the possibilities.
"What we need now is to quantify this economy," Etheredge says. "What's the benefit to quantifying it? Well, if we don't recognize restoration as an industry, then we don't know how to help it grow. Government isn't in charge of the private sector, but it can help." As an example, she pointed out how the local film industry boomed after the state government offered tax incentives.
Both Etheredge and Richards feel Cunningham's example of a stakeholders' summit, in which local leaders in the industries related to restoration meet to discuss needs and wants -- discussions which create leaders -- is the next step. In his lecture, Cunningham emphasized that that step should be taken soon.
"Slow-motion catastrophes -- like the ruining of the Chesapeake Bay -- don't attract attention like Katrina," he says. "Right now, you have the spotlight; you have the focus. But if you don't take advantage of this opportunity now, it will become hopeless."