As an urban planner, as an American citizen and most important, as a decent human being, I am thoroughly disgusted at how the “revitalization” of New Orleans is being handled. Other than a few articles about the generous work of Brad Pitt, there’s just not much good news coming from Nawlins. The most recent story is about the impending destruction of three public housing developments and how residents would rather hold on to the certainty of a home in those dilapidated buildings than gamble on any new affordable housing being built. It’s shameful that people should be put in the position to beg for homes that nobody even cared about before.
Hurricane Katrina was horrific and devastating —almost as bad as our government’s response to it— and the effects of that storm will be felt for many years. However, there is a bright side to all of this…theoretically anyway. The idea of essentially building a major U.S. city from scratch, but with the wisdom of over 200 years of U.S. city-making trial and error, is a very exciting notion. How many times have you heard people bemoan some floundering municipal department and end their rant with the notion that only starting from scratch would do any good? Well, New Orleans has been given that freedom, but what is being done with it?
Just imagine high-quality, appropriately funded schools; clean, safe public housing; affordable, family friendly neighborhoods for all income brackets and a police department full of community heroes who effectively communicate with the people they serve. This is all actually attainable, but the opportunity is being squandered.
Almost every headline you see about New Orleans is about high crime rates or a lack of municipal services or people not being allowed to move back home or protests of the coming luxury developments. Where is the sound urban planning, engineering and infrastructure building? There are so many creative financial ways to build quality affordable housing, well-designed public spaces and all the other things that make cities desirable places to live.
I hope that the coverage of New Orleans is deeply skewed and does not reflect reality. I hope Mayor Nagin is actually recruiting the best young minds around to tour the world and come back to cobble together plans that will make New Orleans even better than it was before. I hope I see New Orleans in history books one day as the epitome of how to turn an urban tragedy into an urban triumph.