AMERICA'S CITY of jazz has gone silent. When I arrived in New Orleans last week to participate in the Governor's Conference on Recovery and Rebuilding, nothing had prepared me for the sights and stillness of New Orleans two months after Hurricane Katrina. A disaster of epic proportions is already slipping from our national consciousness and conscience. More than 100 additional bodies were discovered the day before I wrote this, bringing the death toll to more than 1,000.
More than 80 percent of New Orleans's population has not been able to return home. More than 300,000 people have been forced out of the city and the surrounding parishes. These staggering numbers tell two distinct stories.
The first is about a devastation impossible to comprehend until one is in its midst. From atop the wreckage of a house in the city's ninth ward I could see nothing but complete desolation in every direction. A once vibrant community of 30,000 people has vanished. Across New Orleans I saw comparable scenes. Neighborhoods that were once home to thousands of families, rich and poor, black and white, had turned to rubble. Imagine walking the entire length of Dorchester Avenue or Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and seeing every building in ruin.
Out of this tragedy rises a second story that is as full of hope as the first story is of despair. As a participant in the Governor's Conference , I had the privilege of working with roughly 600 local leaders who came from every walk of life, included every race and economic level and had personally been hit hard by Katrina. Like their fellow residents, most of them had also suddenly lost their jobs as the city's economy came to a halt. Still, they could exhibit compassion, humor, and hope.
The vision that conference participants crafted is as humane as it is beautiful, as bold as it is realistic. It is a vision for how America can build its cities in the 21st century and it is worthy of support from fellow countrymen that parallels the support offered New York following 9/11.
This vision starts with accepting the reality that New Orleans, while severely wounded, is a living city and its people deserve protection. Rebuilding New Orleans must begin by replacing empty promises with real protection from Category 5 hurricanes. Meanwhile, there are lowlands in New Orleans so flood prone that they will never be rebuilt. Instead, can be transformed into a new system of neighborhood parks, which, like Olmsted's Emerald Necklace in Boston, can also aid in flood control.
Destroyed regional transportation connections can be rebuilt into a true regional transit system that connects New Orleans to Baton Rouge and serves as the hub for a new generation of transit-oriented housing and commercial development that frees many residents from complete dependency on their cars.
Katrina destroyed roughly two-thirds of the region's schools. In their place a new generation of state-of-the-art schools can not only offer a much higher standard of education to future residents, but also a much broader array of services to surrounding neighborhoods, functioning not just as schools but as centers of community life.
Rebuilt neighborhoods can preserve the city's rich architectural history and culture while introducing high-quality architecture. New housing can replace economic segregation with economic diversity, reflecting the lessons the HOPE VI program, which before the Bush administration eliminated funding was transforming public housing developments across America into mixed-income communities. New, higher density, more vital, and walkable neighborhood centers can rise from the ruins of retail strip centers. Green building can become the standard.
As it rebuilds, New Orleans can use new transit, better schools, expanded housing options, and enhanced livability to attract a new generation of industries of the mind to supplement the port, energy production, tourism, and other traditional industries. A more diversified economic base can bring new prosperity to a region suffering from widespread poverty.
Is this a utopian vision, an extravagant waste of America's treasure to benefit one beleaguered city? No, this vision reflects how the United States rebuilds any of these components of urban life in any city today. This challenge is nothing more than what we face as we rebuild worn and obsolescent schools, roadways, or housing in our own communities -- most often with federal assistance. The only difference is that so much needs to be rebuilt at the same time in New Orleans.
New Orleans presents us with tragedy and opportunity. Will we rise to the occasion?
David Dixon is a principal and urban designer with Goody Clancy. He will be the 2006 chairman for the American Institute of Architects' national Regional and Urban Design Committee.