On the kickoff event of UEP’s spring colloquium series, Ken Reardon, professor of Urban Planning and Community Development at UMass Boston gave a compelling talk about planning the redevelopment and ultimately the protection of the Lower 9th Ward in post-Katrina New Orleans. The story begins with the president of Cornell University (where Reardon had been an associate professor at the school of Architecture, Art, and Planning at the time) striking up a conversation and forging a friendship with the president of Tulane University, offering to exchange a favor if the need should ever arise.
Fast forward to Hurricane Katrina in September, 2005, and $150 billion of damage and destruction led to an assessment by the Urban Land Institute that resulted in the “green dot map” which slated many neighborhoods and most of the Lower 9th Ward for a future as green space. The many communities that lived there, mostly poor people of color, were told that building permits would not be awarded and the area was at too much risk of future flooding for any kind of redevelopment after the Katrina disaster. In reaction to this, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) started collecting information that seemed to conflict with ULI’s assessment. The people of New Orleans began to think about taking Cornell up on its offer.
Despite some hesitation from Cornell AAP, an energized student body convinced the school and department to devote time and resources to studying the redevelopment of New Orleans and specifically the Lower 9th Ward. Reardon taught a course in fall 2005 on the history of planning and policy in New Orleans, followed by a student led winter trip to assist in cleaning and gutting some of the city’s most devastated neighborhoods. Working together with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and the University of Catania in Italy, they formed a partnership with ACORN to conduct policy-oriented studios and create an internship program for the city’s redevelopment. The ACORN/university team responded to an RFP for the redevelopment of a city that had almost no relevant existing data due to the extent of the destruction, a huge diaspora population that would likely need to be surveyed, and needed a hugely complicated inter-institutional team of planners and developers, but their plan was accepted and they were put into a supervisory position over much more established firms.
The outcome of the study was a stark contrast with that of ULI. They found most of the Lower 9th Ward to be fully suitable for redevelopment at a reasonable cost. Despite pushback from the city establishment and the American Institute of Certified Planners, including a complete revocation of funding and insurance, the ACORN/university partnership completed their report ahead of the competition and presented it to a massive audience of neighborhood residents, news outlets, city officials, FEMA, state representatives and more. The next day, headlines across the globe read “Planners Say 9th Ward Can Be Redeveloped” and focused on the importance community engagement in their analysis. Today, according to Reardon, approximately 65% of residents of the Lower 9th Ward have returned and the feel of the neighborhood is back to its former vibrancy, though it has definitely changed. Reardon stressed the importance of their high quality analysis, qualitative resident interviews, and grassroots community organizing in producing a report and feasible plan that reflected the needs of the people. The report, titled “A People’s Plan for Overcoming the Hurricane Katrina Blues” can be found here.