A Plan For Democratic And Equitable Planning In New Orleans

Planners from around the country have already descended on the Gulf Coast region, beginning a series of charrettes to shape the future of land use and community development in the devastated region. Yet are the local residents -- especially those who need the most help -- ready to make plans? Leonardo Vazquez argues that more careful, long-term planning is needed to ensure that current residents and refugees alike are given the stake and voice they need in the rebuilding efforts.

 Leonardo Vazquez

There's talk among progressive urban planners about ensuring that the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is fair and equitable to all residents. Planners are concerned that poor people -- especially if they are not white -- will be left out of the process. In New Orleans, in particular, some fear that the city will be turned into an adult theme park that will be out of reach to the working poor.

A couple weeks ago, Andres Duany, a leader in the neotraditionalist planning movement, conducted a series of community brainstorming sessions, known as charrettes, to plan the future of Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Charrettes are seen as an efficient way to bring diverse people together to plan for their community. But coming so soon after the disaster, charrettes might have the opposite effect.

The hardest hit survivors of Katrina and Rita may not now be ready to engage in wide-scale community planning. People who are most likely to participate and speak up in community planning meetings are relatively comfortable, have the time to engage in meetings, and have confidence in the process and the people leading it. That's why you will see in a typical community planning meeting more senior citizens than young adults, more property owners than renters, and more middle class residents than working poor.

Some Gulf Coast residents are still trying to figure out what they're going to do with their flooded houses, where they're going to find work, or even if they will stay in their neighborhoods. They are not relatively comfortable, they are probably dealing with a huge amount of paperwork and phone calls, and who would be surprised if they've lost their faith in government?

"Community" meetings held today might attract only wealthier property and business owners -- the same people who would have been involved without the meetings. These meetings may actually make things worse for poor people. When they complain about plans that leave them out, the elites could say "you had your chance."

But of course we need to do something to help these communities. How then do you move forward without leaving the weakest of society too far behind? Here's a proposed planning approach for New Orleans.

Separate the planning effort for New Orleans into a recovery plan for 150,000 people and a growth plan for 500,000 people. The first part of the plan could be completed in one to two years. The growth plan would be a five- to fifteen-year effort.

The recovery plan would focus on rebuilding the city's economic, physical and social capital, and regional planning to manage growth and better prepare against new disasters.

The economic plan would focus on rebuilding and diversifying the economic engines of New Orleans. Cities that rely on one or two industries -- like Detroit -- suffer greatly when their key industries are hard hit. New York's success after 9/11 was due to a diverse economy and having places in the region where large businesses displaced from Lower Manhattan could go.

Physical planning would of course focus on flood control and circulation. The plan should include building regional train lines to help get people out of town. My wife and I were in Manhattan during 9/11. We got back to New Jersey by the PATH train. If the only means of escape from Manhattan was a car or school bus, 9/11 would have been worse for hundreds of thousands of people. Engineers should consider in-fill to raise portions of the city above sea level, and abandon ideas to create houses on stilts. Greedy property owners tend to illegally convert floor levels into living spaces. When the next flood hits, more property will be lost and more people will drown.

Social capital is the network of ties that people have with one another. It is what makes it possible for people to work together to achieve social change. The social capital effort would focus on neighborhood quality of life. As residents engage in planning for their own neighborhoods, they will be better prepared to think about the future growth of their city. Also, by phasing in growth, the city can better provide services to residents and businesses. This will help attract more people to the city.

While the recovery plan is taking place, federal, state and local governments should work together to buy up properties outside the recovery area. Governments should not force out residents who lived in their houses before the storms, but should use eminent domain to fight speculators who are buying up properties to hijack rebuilding efforts and extort the public treasury. The governments can bulldoze the vacant properties and give the properties to a public-private land trust. The land trust, which would be chartered to follow the strategies of the growth plan, would sell the properties as per the plan. This would help to raise money for improvements and community services in the city.

Bulldozing the vacant properties will have several benefits. It will discourage squatters and gangs, and make more land available to soak up storm water if another major storm hits the city.

A major concern for community and urban activists is that New Orleans -- where 67% of residents are African-American -- will lose a lot of political power if leaders accept it being a much smaller place. Federal or state governments could address this by giving evacuees a five-year window in which they can be considered voters of New Orleans or the community to which they fled. Under the law, New Orleans evacuees would be treated like American citizens who live outside the United States. As long as they maintain their citizenship, they can vote.

By the time the city is ready to take on the growth plan, more residents will be able to engage in city planning. And New Orleans, a symbol of inequity and division, will become a model for democratic city planning in the 21st Century.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is an Instructor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  He directs two programs there: Bloustein Online Continuing Education for Planners and APA/LeadershipPlenty.  He is also a former chair of the Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee and principal author of "Lagging Behind" a study of ethnic diversity in the planning profession in the New York area.



Updates since I wrote the op-ed piece

I prepared this piece last month while the charrettes in Mississippi were taking place. I heard from one source that the participants in the charrette were mostly professionals and elected officials. I'm glad to hear that there a number of efforts now to ensure that nonprofit organizations and planning schools like Cornell and Pratt Institute are working to help displaced and otherwise underrepresented residents of New Orleans get a voice in the rebuilding of their community.

David Renkert's picture

Social Equity for the Displaced

Efficient assembly of abandoned parcels is an obvious necessity for areas flooded in New Orleans. Single minded use of eminent domain, however, is not.

Property owners ought to have the opportunity to participate in redevelopment efforts and the increased value it brings. Instead of taking individual parcels and handing opportunities to private developers, existing owners should assemble their with their own legal entity and participate in redevelopment through a public-private or private-private partnership. Not only will this offer real equity to existing owners, it will reduce the time and cost of assembly. For owners that require capital to relocate or those that simply wish to move on, they can sell their equity interests without fragmenting the partnership.

If certain property owners hold out of such an arrangement, authorities case for eminent domain will be enhanced. Redevelopment should not benefit speculators and private developers. It should raise the standard of living for all property owners regardless of political power or connections.

David Renkert, Founder
Landpool Partners

Equity for property owners

I agree with David Renkert that property owners who had vested interests in New Orleans prior to the hurricanes should influence the agenda. I am troubled by speculators who are grabbing property in advance of rebuilding efforts. They might make any revitalization and rebuilding efforts unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming. People who have shown a vested interest in the community should be heard. But we should not plan to appease land speculators.

Locals Only?

While I agree with both writers that those people with vested interests and "roots" in a particular place should have a major say in subsequent development efforts do we all realize that the common term for this is NIMBY? On the other hand those people who are buying these distressed properties have made themselves stakeholders have they not? The same transaction that disinvested the people who aren't committed to the locale right?

David Renkert's picture


This is not about NIMBYism at all. It's about allowing people equity - capital - in the redevelopment. There's nothing wrong with opportunists buying out those in need and those that do not plan on coming back. What's worriesome to me, is for those that want to stay and rebuild but will have their property condemned and handed to someone else. Yes, they will get compensated as eminent domain requires, but that amount will not be nearly similar to a pro-rata share in the redevelopment. Why not use this opportunity to lift all boats?

David Renkert, Founder
Landpool Partners

Right of Return

I think what most people just realized and those of us who have lived or worked in New Orleans have long known is the those who have the least live in large numbers in New Orleans. Many have been able to purchase property or inherite property and barely maintain it and may have been underinsured. They may want to return and have no $$$ to return. I have a huge problem with opportunists who are going to bank on their inability to return or lack of knowledge as to how they can remain. The un and underinsured are the ones of which I am most deeply concerned.

This is a great opportunity to actually as planners and citizens of this country to do the right thing. When was the last time we could really have this kind of impact on how a City develops?

It is important that housing choices for all who once lived there remained, but also important that this unique opportunity to diversify the economic base and business opportunities to prevent a city that was under functioning from returning and coming back bigger and brighter, with its citizens pre-Katrina at the forefront.

Angela Brooks, AICP

Chris Steins's picture

Reposted Comment From Richard May

Reposted from APA Metro listserv, comment by Richard May, FAICP

I don't believe that planners can help the communities now impacted in the Gulf area until a decision is reached by the Corps of Engineers as to the areas to be protected from future floods.

Studies can only be made of nearby sites that could be developed as permanent communities for the people from areas not to be protected.

Richard May, FAICP

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