How to Turn One Disaster Into Two

Charles Buki's picture
In St Bernard Parish, it took almost 7 months for the crickets and other insects to return after Katrina. In that period there was silence at night to go with the darkness.

But the first plans for recovery were delivered inside a mere 80 days, during which time none of the people were talked with or listened to except for the wham bam ty m'amisms that are the lifeblood of the charrette.  

Is it any wonder there are two disasters to recover from a full seven years later?  The first a storm.  The second, an imposition.

Here's the thing about planning that planners really struggle with:  It's not what people say.  Nor is it what the planner puts on a flip chart.  To quote Maya Angelou:  "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

The charrettists think that a week of intense meeting jammed into a public space merry-go-round fashion suffices for sitting and listening over a beer over the course of many weeks, and maybe many months.  From the former come matrices and charts and diagramma, whereas the latter may at least crack open the door for accessing the single most important ingredient for addressing heavyweight challenges:  empathy.  

Facts without empathy do not inspire reflection.  Plans without empathy do not inspire ownership.  Designs without empathy do not mobilize a community to stretch.  Change that is needed will not materialize without reflection, ownership, and stretching.  Change pivots on empathy, which cannot be summoned in a charrette.  Change, after all, in the case of post Katrina Louisiana depends on the capacity of communities to adapt.  And adaptation takes time.  Telling a community "just do it" is wasted breath; not of the planner, but of the community that had to sit and be on the receiving end not of candor, but of arrogance dressed up as such. Punctuating recommendations from designers and planners with "because we said so" does not leave behind the kind of holding environment a struggling community needs to get their footing.  In fact it does the opposite.

And here's another learning from Katrina few seem to have considered very much:  the greatest sense of communal bonds, and eyes on the street, and shared experiences maybe ever present anywhere in America are arguably found in the most suburban, least urbanist place of all:  St Bernard Parish, Louisiana circa 1960-2000. 

It turns out that caring for one another does not hinge on zoning or land use designation.  What that says about the relevance of the design and planning professions in a country being told that community can be "designed" is something the profession might want to think about.
Charles Buki is principal of czb, a Virginia-based neighborhood planning firm specializing in deep dive analysis, strategy development, and implementation of revitalization plans.



Well Said

I can’t agree with you more on your perspective and last statement regarding what this “says about the relevance of the design and planning professions.” The work of planning and community building has been reduced to the work of design and codes. We have lost sight of the human condition and influence on space and community. I think this is even more important now, than it ever has been in the past. Our lives have become so stretch and defined by mobility, that place based community—the sidewalk ballet and community of Jacobs—has become only one form of community and a community this must less significant than 50 years ago. Today, community is mediated through our personal networks, careers, interests, and even social networks, to the point that we are now more tied to communities distanced from us, than those outside our front door.

That fact that our profession has one, misinterpreted urban form as a determinate of community not only misses the strong community bonds that exist in sprawling suburbs such as St. Bernard, but also misses that how we organize ourselves into communities has changed. Community does not only exist on the block. Your accounts and points regarding our need to listen and to listen with empathy, for me also points to how much we wrongfully judge. This reminds me of what Herbert Gans stated in The Levittowners over 40 years ago: “Above all, planners must beware of trying to impose their own value systems upon people with quite different ones…they must be aware that most suburbanites will just not agree. In other words, in attacking the essential features of post-1945 American suburbia, they were simply expressing their own class prejudices.” Empathy, through listening, opens up new means of understanding place and community. Our work is difficult and should be difficult. Unfortunately, reducing the challenges space to right or wrong and reducing community to design and codes—one-size-fits-all solutions is just too easy.

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