September 21, 2007

CRP Students Aim to Continue Work on New Orleans Projects

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When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans just over two years ago, many organizations, including the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning, rushed to its aid. Since then, students and faculty alike have done their part to get the city back on its feet through research, planning and lobbying.
The New Orleans Planning Initiative, which was hired as part of an official planning team with three other universities and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN Housing), sent 70 students down to the Lower Ninth Ward last fall, one of the poorest areas of the city.
Together, they surveyed 2,500 houses and, through intensive analysis, came to the conclusion that the damage to the neighborhood cost less than was originally estimated. Though the city was toying with the idea of turning the neighborhood into wetlands, NOPI argued that it was beneficial to rebuild.
“We were able to put together what was called the People’s Plan,” said Andrew Rumbach, a Ph.D. student in CRP and one of the leaders of NOPI. “It put political pressure on the city to redevelop the Lower Ninth Ward.”
Rumbach feels that the project was ultimately very successful, helping the residents and city to begin the process of rebuilding, even though the effects of the project are still being carried out.
“Work in New Orleans is going incredibly slow,” Rumbach said. “We won’t know for a few years whether these things will get implemented.”
When ACORN was released from its contract with New Orleans last spring, stopping the flow of funding from the city, NOPI was forced to use the rest of the money allotted to the project by the College of Architecture, Art and Planning to finish the work.
“We have simply run out of money [for the project]” said Professor Bill Goldsmith, chair of the CRP department and an organizer of NOPI. “We have been using money in our budget but haven’t succeeded in getting funding yet. We are confident that we will … continue. These problems [in New Orleans] aren’t going away and this is what our program is committed to doing.”
Goldsmith estimates that the amount of money spent on the project by AAP totals between 150 and 200 thousand dollars. The money was used largely for transportation to New Orleans.
While the group of students who is continuing NOPI does not yet know what new initiatives they are planning to start, they are in the process of talking to teachers and experts to see what the city still needs, according to Jeremy Siegfried ’10, a member of the NOPI team.
“Currently we do not have a plan, but we are going to spend the next few weeks hashing this out so that we have a set of goals,” Siegfried said. “We are a group of motivated students who are interested in continuing Cornell’s work in New Orleans.”
Meanwhile, Michelle Thompson, a CRP visiting lecturer who worked with NOPI, has formed the New Orleans Neighborhood Analysis Project which seeks to help the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhoods without funding. She has applied her work in geographic information systems in order to map the conditions and progress in New Orleans.
Thompson has a host of student volunteers from the University of New Orleans, Ithaca College, University of Albany and Syracuse University and she hopes to find more volunteers at Cornell. She says that she has trained a number of them to use geographic information system technology to help categorize information about the neighborhoods. Students in New Orleans have photographed over 500 parcels of land for the study.
“It doesn’t take money, it takes creativity,” Thompson said. “We’ve come up with a virtual community for everyone to share information.”
She hopes to collaborative with other departments within Cornell as well.
“As an Ivy League institution we need to look at what resources we have that we can use to help solve the problem,” Thompson said. “Cornell should take a look at what courses can be used to provide students with service learning.”
While funding is no longer available from AAP, the college has pledged support for both programs. AAP’s quarterly magazine due to come out next week contains a front page article about the initiatives, according Dean Mohsen Mostafavi.
“What I want to do is encourage as many things as possible with our outreach initiatives,” Mostafavi said. “We have been trying to do everything possible to promote not only the New Orleans initiative, but also what its outcome is and what we can learn from it.”