Tuesday, September 8, 2009

New Orleans Four Years after Hurricane Katrina

This time of year is difficult for anyone who has lived in or loved the city of New Orleans. For us, the date 8/29 is like the date 9/11 for New Yorkers. There’s not much to say about it and it certainly isn’t anything to celebrate – but privately, everyone knows what’s on each other’s minds.

Four years ago last week approximately 80 percent of the city was under water –with some areas under 10 ft or more. While the passing of Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy took center stage in the media last week, the confluence of Senator Kennedy’s death and the fourth anniversary of Katrina and the federal flood provided an interesting and timely combination of events.

Senator Kennedy was a lifelong advocate for government action in the public interest. The botched federal response to the disaster in 2005 was a clear vindication of Kennedy’s political vision. The Bush Administration’s failure to respond was seen by a majority of Americans as an affront to the basic belief that government can and must respond to the needs of citizens when a disaster or other events exceed their ability to respond. Even more so, the disaster has become a symbol that the movement for a more equitable and integrated society – something that Senator Kennedy fought for his entire career - requires a renewed, public effort.

Today in metropolitan areas across the country, neighborhoods are struggling to recover from the double-barreled crisis of housing foreclosures and an economic recession caused by market failure. How exactly this crisis is unfolding varies across neighborhoods and its impact is uneven. In responding to the challenge of economic recovery in Kansas City, there is much to learn from the disaster recovery process in New Orleans.

First and foremost – recovery requires citizen engagement. Any effort that fails to put citizen engagement and participatory processes at the forefront of neighborhood revitalization will fail. While participatory processes may take longer, they are critical for building the commitment and momentum that is necessary for the task at hand. Citizens must get organized and stay organized to ensure that recovery dollars are not squandered and that the federal impact is leveraged as much as possible. The task of rebuilding neighborhoods cannot be a top down endeavor.

Secondly, recovery provides an opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship. One of the observations that may seem contradictory is that disasters provide moments of opportunity. Across the city of New Orleans it was the locally owned businesses of all sizes that helped to rebuild the city while chain stores waited on the sidelines.

Neighborhood businesses are critical to the life of a city and urban neighborhoods. In the inner city neighborhoods of Kansas City, we need to rebuild the fabric of commerce through innovation and the incubation of small businesses and providing successful firms with the tools and training to bring their business to a large market. Efforts like the Viable Third in Kansas City and Stay Local! in New Orleans provide examples of business and consumer organizing that can change the economy from the ground up.

Thirdly, there is a great need to bring creativity to the task of recovery. Responding to a disaster as widespread and foreboding as the impact of the federal flood in New Orleans requires humor, art and conviviality. In the darkest corners of New Orleans devastated neighborhoods, artists and musicians were often the most successful at holding up a mirror to the absurdity of the disaster in ways that justified and renewed community commitment to the long task of recovery.
My colleague Michael Frisch and I recently completed a special issue on the “Design Moment” in New Orleans in the Journal of Urban Design (v14 n3 August 2009).

In this issue we explain how the response to a disaster is often a moment of great creativity and broad debate about the fundamentals that make up the social and physical fabric of a city. By undoing existing social and political structures and exposing underlying inequities, disasters provide an opening for new ideas and critical reflection. However, at the same time, many residents are motivated by a desire to simply put life back together. It is the contrast between these two impulses that make up the basic character of a design moment after a disaster.

As Kansas City and UMKC begin to develop a plan for the Green Impact Zone of Missouri, we invite you to read our special issue and reflect upon the case of New Orleans’ imperfect recovery from a great disaster as a prelude to a larger task of rebuilding America’s cities.

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