It’s been 10 years this fall since Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans — the worst storm in its history, if you count the ensuing flood. Plus it ignited a conflagration afterward, with planners center stage, debating how and especially where to rebuild. The waters have long receded, but the fires still smolder.

When Katrina arrived, most New Orleanians lived below sea level. Soon after the levees and pumps that kept them dry failed catastrophically, planners descended on a city in crisis, declaring the folly of rebuilding flood-prone neighborhoods. Prematurely, lines were drawn on maps.

The flood devastated the Lower Ninth Ward, a low-income African-American neighborhood abutting the Industrial Canal. It became the focal point of a rebuilding debate pitting “abandonists” —  ecologists and planners mostly from out of town — against “restorationists” — passionate but self-interested local officials and activists.

Into the breach stepped Brad Pitt, who raised funds and recruited prominent architects like Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry to help rebuild the Lower Ninth. Today, dozens of “Make It Right” houses are occupied by families displaced by the storm, reflecting the unresolved incongruities of the debate.

On the one hand, good for them for building while others just brayed. But air-conditioned tour buses now troll the designer houses, which forsake climate-adapted vernacular forms and are tricky to maintain. From a slight distance, they hardly dent the surrounding devastation, their roofs barely visible above the rebuilt levee nearby.

Restorationists note that the Dutch devote a meaningful share of their gross national product to protecting Amsterdam. But the third of Holland below sea level produces most of the country’s GNP. Abandonists, meanwhile, question why we should keep spending public money to perpetuate a mistake and protect neighborhoods that were struggling even before the storm.

Katrina has sobering lessons about the role of planning. Since it fell from grace after urban renewal in the 1960s, the planning enterprise has struggled for traction. Although rebuilding New Orleans could have been a shining moment, consensus proved elusive. Some wanted to let private investment dictate where rebuilding would occur; others wanted a universal “right of return.” In the end, sound planning did not triumph: The levees have been rebuilt even more robustly, but the neighborhoods they shelter have been rebuilt only haphazardly.

How can the lessons of Katrina help “make it right” — or at least better — the next time a community recovers from calamity?

  • Even after a crisis, plan deliberately. Experts from afar should learn how people want to live before asking them to make a difficult rebuilding choice or presuming to act in their best interest.
  • It’s untenable to spend public money to rebuild without asking the cost/benefit question; restoration can’t trump environmental and economic risk every time. But it’s foolish to think the debate ends there; it’s only one factor among many.
  • Forced relocation of residents is toxic, no matter how sensible. When the residents are low-income African-Americans, it wreaks injustice on top of that. Better to offer incentives — even seemingly extravagant ones — and active relocation assistance. The voluntary relocation effort should have as much priority as the planning and engineering.
  • When designing prototype houses for low-income neighborhoods, choose your architects wisely.