March 8, 2006

CRP Students Help Plan New Orleans

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Nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, thousands of New Orleans residents are still displaced and wondering whether they can rebuild their homes, businesses and lives.

Three classes from the Department of City and Regional Planning are working this spring to help those residents resettle in the face of significant opposition.

“The ‘establishment’ planning community is ready to write the Ninth Ward off,” said Prof. George Frantz, city and regional planning, who led his CRP 395/679: Special Topics: Revisioning the Ninth Ward class on a trip to the area in late February.

Casing streets, talking to residents and business owners and meeting with community leaders, the students spent four days gathering information that will ultimately contribute to a written plan for the redevelopment of the Ninth Ward.

The classes have been working with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, one of the oldest community associations in the country. ACORN has about 9,000 members in New Orleans and first invited Cornell urban planners back to help formulate the most viable plans for the future of the city in November.

“We are getting residents to understand that they can come back. Their community will not be destroyed by City Hall,” Frantz said.

Keith Tidball, an extension associate in the Department of Natural Resources and a student in the class, said that while planners can come up with many alternative proposals, residents “might not be able to have the decision” to shape their community the way they want.

“People are really, legitimately paranoid about losing their land, their community being sold to real estate developers and gentrified,” said Rafe Rosen, program analyst in the Laboratory of Ornithology and a student in Frantz’s class.

Tidball, who is working with a subgroup that focuses on green space and environmental issues, said the mayor’s current plan dictates that the city should control the local parks and gardens. He believes that community ownership would be more feasible and cost-efficient, while giving residents a bigger stake in their neighborhoods.

“Our job is to listen very carefully to what the residents of the Ninth Ward are looking for and to try to provide them with planning resources and some training and technical assistance,” Tidball said. “[That way,] whatever counter-plans they propose, there is a possibility that those plans will be implemented.”

Alex Berke ’06, who worked with the development guidelines team, spent her time in New Orleans mapping which residents are back and what businesses have reopened along the main roads. She said that while “a lot of the city is pretty much up and running,” large portions of the Ninth Ward are still struggling.

Berke noticed that one fast food place, a gardening store, a few restaurants and corner markets had reopened. She said residents want to rebuild what they used to have but are also interested in improving the community by focusing on cooperative markets and fresh produce stores rather than liquor stores and areas that are ripe for loitering.

Rosen said one outcome of the trip was to remind New Orleans residents that people still care about their recovery.

“It’s really important for them to know that the outside world is paying attention and hasn’t forgotten about them,” he said.

The CRP classes that are involved in planning for the Ninth Ward certainly will not forget about the residents any time soon.

Berke said her team will be conducting research about zoning codes and looking into places with better plans to find out what else could help the Ninth Ward. ACORN will hold group meetings later this spring in preparation for the city’s June 20 redevelopment plan deadline.

“No one really knows what comes next. It’s challenging, but that’s the reality,” Berke said.

Rosen agreed, calling the trip “a reality check for the class” because it showed students that some of their initial ideas were not feasible.

Frantz said the class will continue working on infrastructure, environment and open space plans throughout the spring.

“We want to help create a more sustainable