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A Plan For Democratic And Equitable Planning In New Orleans

November 7, 2005, 7am PST | Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
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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.

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