Planning After Katrina: What Have We Learned so Far?

moderator: Susan Fainstein, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
author: Stephen D. Villavaso, School of Urban Planning & Regional Studies, University of New Orleans
author: J. Phillip Thompson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Jon Witten, Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University
published: Aug. 7, 2012,   recorded: September 2006,   views: 3232

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An air of frustration and anger pervades this panel, which examines the progress of recovery efforts in New Orleans a little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina.

Stephen Villavaso returned to his home 20 days after the disaster to fetch his abandoned cat. “I don’t think New Orleans was a city at that point…There was no communication system, no infrastructure, no potable water, no drainage, no government, nowhere to get food. It was a military state.” He is rebuilding his house now, and is deeply involved in broader planning projects. Problem is, Villavaso says, there are many, many layers to “this planning cake.” There are state agencies, a mayoral commission, city council efforts – “top down planning, bottom up planning, a blizzard of planning.” But none of this “has any legal basis whatsoever.” A glimmer of hope lies in private foundation attempts to create a unified planning process. Yet this is “not the kind of master plan citizens of New Orleans have in mind,” says Villavaso, since it falls short of laying out a blueprint for concrete next steps.

J. Philip Thompson finds it “frankly amazing, embarrassing and outrageous that after the largest national disaster in 100 years in a city that we’re talking about a $3.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation as critical to pulling together planning for a major city.” He places New Orleans’ situation in a broader political context, one of public hostility toward urban funding. Thompson finds “barely concealed racial undertones of wasting money on an urban population, poor people, and people of color who don’t deserve it.” So money has dried up for city planning, leaving New Orleans in a particularly vulnerable spot. Community participation “is largely a façade,” since a genuinely inclusive process would mean reaching out to widely dispersed New Orleanians, and such a process would be “hugely expensive.” Those involved in planning may be vulnerable “to misrepresentation and manipulation” by others with greater means. Above all, Thompson wishes the planning process would aim beyond housing and social services, and seize on a “great opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.” He imagines education and training boot camps, and efforts to link citizens to jobs with opportunities for advancement.

Jon Witten urges skepticism in evaluating all land use plans, not just those for recovery in New Orleans. “Land development in the absence of comprehensive planning programs results in anarchy benefiting only those with vested interests in rebuilding,” he says. In New Orleans, planning must avoid sole source contractors and the formation of elite committees. Witten is wary of trendy terminology “that sounds like one thing but perhaps means another.” “New urbanism” and “smart growth” don’t guarantee intelligently designed neighborhoods or avoidance of sprawl, and efforts must be made “to respect historical development patterns” as well.

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