October 26, 2005

CRP Helps ACORN Plan for Rebuilding New Orleans

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Amid a swarm of various controversies following the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, there are urgent tasks that will require massive local and national cooperation. Possibly first and most challenging on this list of tasks is the actual rebuilding of the city of New Orleans.

One organization that intends to have a prominent voice in this process is a group called the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). According to their website, ACORN, with its national headquarters located in New Orleans, “is the nation’s largest community organization of low and moderate–income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities.” They have some 175,000 members nationwide, with roughly 9,000 direct members in New Orleans, and many more living in neighborhoods they help.

Their interest in the planning and rebuilding operation is primarily that it integrates the needs of lower-income and minority residents into the efforts of reviving the city at large.

“We want to return to our homes, and take part in rebuilding our communities,” stated Tanya Harris, a former resident of the Lower 9th Ward and a leader of the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association. When ACORN leaders reached out to the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP), specifically department Chair Kenneth Reardon, earlier this fall for aid in planning, personnel and networking, the response was eager and immediate. Roughly 60 students, both undergraduate and graduate and six to seven faculty members attended the first meeting to discuss how much Cornell could or should do to help.

“We all agreed we ought to be as supportive of their efforts as possible,” said Reardon of the consensus reached at this first meeting.

Cornell is now in the process of setting up office, protocol and infrastructure for its New Orleans planning initiative. It has office space at 726 University Ave., a tentative agenda of goals and a small start-up staff.

Reardon hired two graduate students for the primary task of collecting data for the project, as well an adjunct faculty member to advise participants, reach out to other units on campus and act as a liaison to ACORN. The adjunct, Prof. James Dessauer, city and regional planning, expressed enthusiasm over the potential for fruitful exchange between academia and planning and “the work on the ground” needed in New Orleans.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to connect community development in New Orleans to Cornell’s resources and students in a way that will benefit both parts of the exchange – both the rebuilding efforts and the students who are trying to help,” he said. He stressed both the necessity and challenge behind employing “rigorous scholarship” in efforts to achieve “substantial, practical results for applied projects.”

While this concerted effort may be the goal of the future, and rebuilding processes and policies may be the focus of the initiative, Reardon identified helping with the immediate relief effort as a part of their priorities. Two undergraduates made their way down to New Orleans over Fall Break. CRP major Ryan Weggler ’06 described the physical labor that their trip entailed. According to him, they were clearing trash from the roofs of houses in poor neighborhoods, and throwing them into better–kept streets, for the city to take care of their disposal. They were also distributing supplies to the needy and “moving massive trees off of houses,” as Weggler described.

Looking ahead, Reardon is among those who have real concerns about what degree of post–Katrina concern and budgeting will be given to poor and minority New Orleans residents, as policymakers discuss what to do next. As to Cornell’s role in effecting change, he made it clear that the project underway is a helping hand to ACORN’s needs, rather than a directive force.

“We see ourselves as the pit crew,” he said, “trying to help others achieve their agenda.” He noted the attitude of those from Cornell who will be traveling to conferences to speak with New Orleans residents, “We will be very humble, listen very attentively to what they have to say, and learn as much as we can.” The ACORN Community Forum on Rebuilding New Orleans which the Cornell city and regional planning department is cosponsoring with various community organizations and a number of other collegiate partners such as the College of Art and Design at Louisiana State University and the School of Architecture at Pratt University, will be held in Baton Rouge, La., Nov. 7–8. Its purpose is to merge the voices of low–income and minority residents of New Orleans with the resources and expertise of a wide range of planning, architecture and development professionals from across the United States. Dessauer identified one of the critical upcoming challenges for Cornell’s initiative as the joining of urban planning forces with other academic fields on campus. Commenting on hopes to make the project interdisciplinary, he said it is a positive indicator that “there is already [among participants in the initiative] an awareness of, a looking at, resources from different faculty and departments.” One such interdisciplinary effort may be joining those at Cornell already at work on the Geographic Information System (GIS) website, a system designed to overlay various strata of data: economic, demographic and others, onto a map of the Gulf Coast.

Also at the campus level, the project has already spurred the creation of a two-credit course open to all students that meets on Monday nights from 7:30-9:30 p.m., in Sibley Hall, Room 211, with an aim at exploring how to build a more sustainable, equitable New Orleans. Discussion within the initiative also entertained the possibility of refocusing various spring courses in the planning department to concentrate on post-Katrina sensitive topics.

One topic under consideration for integration into class curricula is sustainable development as pertains to New Orleans. The idea of building a more dense, compact New Orleans this time around is important because there is discussion that sprawl out onto Louisiana’s natural wetlands reduced its ability to help absorb the torrent of floodwater into the area.

While things such as reformatting course contents to cater to Katrina’s damage may already seem to some almost over–the–top, Reardon speaks confidently of a direction of growth for the project. “We are just taking the initial steps that we hope will attract others so we can get to the scale that will really be helpful.”

Archived article by Suzy Gustafson
Sun Staff Writer