September 8, 2009

Pitfalls for Planning in New Orleans

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“I want to be as candid as I can be without losing my job,” Eric Shaw stated with frank humor as he began his talk “Planning, Institution Building, and Long-Term Recovery in the State of Louisiana,” which he delivered to a packed audience in Lewis auditorium last Friday afternoon. The young, Harvard-educated hired gun brought in from previous urban planning positions in D.C., Miami and Silicon Valley, he was in the unique position of a technocrat who was running not to be elected to public office, but rather to create a new public office. Still, he had to carefully negotiate paying lip service to the stance of disinterested academic expertise while playing kiss-up to the interests of his political superiors.
The result is that the talk fell short in dwelling on many of the more controversial details of his job. Instead, it concentrated on an historical overview of the layers of overlapping city planning undertaken in the state, going back to the French and Spanish colonies established in the 18th century, as well as the theoretical issues that informed his office’s approach to regional development initiatives.
As the mandate for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which was created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, expires, Shaw has been tasked with transitioning the agency into a more permanent governmental branch devoted to long-term recovery planning in a state that has been devastated by some of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history. Shaw reminded the audience that after the tragic — and more ballyhooed — decimation wrought by Katrina, Louisiana also suffered catastrophic, state-wide damage from hurricanes Rita, Ike and Gustav in quick succession.
As billions of federal and private-sector dollars poured into Louisiana after the hurricanes, the government had little organized vision of how to allocate those funds effectively. Shaw stated that “plan” is “a four-letter word” in the state among a population largely suspicious of government, most especially among the black communities which have an abiding mistrust of bureaucratic outsiders. The idea of the land trust, through which the state government purchased 10,000 damaged properties after the storms, is too similar to the notion of sharecropping for many. Louisianans have been likewise immured to tactics that seem like efforts at a large-scale redistribution of wealth by centralized authorities since the memory of Huey Long, the domineering and ultra-populist governor and senator, still vividly persists there for both good and ill.
Louisiana faces other unique problems, as well. One is that there simply aren’t enough planners in the state, and almost all of them are concentrated in New Orleans. While most other parishes had no comprehensive plan or even zoning ordinances until very recently, New Orleans has been ravaged by five master plans in the last four years. Complicating things further is the rivalry between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the dependency of state revenue on the bear-market oil industry, and some of our nation’s most profound juxtapositions of race, class, regional and even linguistic differences within one state.
It is difficult enough, for instance, to convince many citizens that mobile homes may not be an optimal investment in a hurricane-zone. Shaw’s approach attempts to avoid the patronizing attitude of the academic outsider, however, since he hypothesizes that the continuing reliance on mobile homes may be an expression of anxieties about putting down roots of permanence in a place of such instability. Ironically, the subsequent hurricanes may have had a positive effect in changing people’s minds: those who took the common sense recommendation to raise their homes, for example, after Katrina were the ones who often survived flooding during the next rounds of storms. Seeing this, Shaw remarked, made some say, “maybe those planners have a few good ideas after all.”
Shaw hopes not just to educate community members, but to “engage” them so that the concerns and agendas they have about their own communities can be put on the table; but first, in order to do so, he recognizes that people need to be taught the tools and discourse that will allow them to be seated at the table. In contrast, planners often overlook their constituents’ goals when they become more concerned about theoretical issues like “connectivity” than how to implement a sidewalk in a residential area.
Big projects can fail spectacularly and waste millions without foresight. Shaw likened the effort of Lafayette’s Holideck to the Simpson’s episode in which Springfield decides to build a monorail: the project initially cost $30 million and had no executive director, but would require $10 million each year to subsidize. He also demonized Brad Pitt for creating a media frenzy that forced rebuilding in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward before the preparations were made or people were ready to come back.
On the positive side, though, now that each local parish is updating their master plan, there is a wonderful opportunity for sharing information and ideas as well as collaborating on joint initiatives. Shaw also commented that Louisiana is “so far behind it is ahead,” having avoided such infrastructure as ring roads; against the ideas of New Urbanism, Shaw proposes that urban sprawl — or what he terms “deconcentrated development” — is a welcome change, which the hurricanes helped to hasten.
With the on-going threat of another major storm ever present, redevelopment in the state requires a continuing effort to ensure that rebuilding is coordinated and managed in a rational manner. During questions, when asked about insurance lobbies, Shaw appeared reticent to say more than that insurance companies favor planning in general because it gives them a better sense of stability; it is more calculated and less chaotic. In order for the government to be able to learn from past mistakes, Shaw told us, it must first have a vision for its future.