Rebuilding New Orleans: An Opportunity to Re-Energize the Planning Profession?

author: Kristina Ford, Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine
published: Feb. 25, 2012,   recorded: October 2005,   views: 2325

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There’s no love lost between Kristina Ford and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin; he made it clear that she was not welcome as the city’s main planner when he assumed office. The bone Ford has to pick is not merely with the current mayor and his notion of a casino- and hotel-dominated New Orleans, but with a wrongheaded planning process in her hometown, and elsewhere in U.S. cities. One big issue for Ford: how cities often treat the comprehensive land use plans they generate every few years as if they are realistic blueprints. “People look backwards when creating a vision of the future, and it’s often a nostalgic vision of what used to be—better in memory than in fact.” Ford notes, “I don’t know many plans from 15 years ago that contemplated Walmarts, or Home Depots.” Over time, zoning decisions diverge from the plan — or people simply ignore the plan altogether.

In the case of New Orleans, a city Ford reveres for its vibrant, distinctively diverse culture, urban planning never took into account how people actually lived -- in tight-knit neighborhoods, relying on an underground economy and spotty transportation. So after Hurricane Katrina, it is essential, believes Ford, that rebuilding plans embrace reality. Real urban recovery would mean luring back New Orleans residents, currently dispersed all over the country, with jobs. “With big contracts coming in, 25% must go to native New Orleanians,” says Ford. “If they don’t have skills, they should be taught.” When one family member returns, it “creates a toehold for the whole family to return.” Ultimately, “words for planning are gimmicks,” says Ford. Planners must stop “tinkering at the margins,” but step right into the politics of their communities, and “invite ways to measure their own effectiveness.”

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