A new bottom of the ninth

Sam Smith
2006

Urban planning and New Orleans

The Ninth Ward of New Orleans is about to be struck by another disaster – not a natural one like Katrina, however, but by the human disaster of modern urban planning.

The problem with urban planners is two fold. First, they work for the wrong people, the government, rather than for the citizens. As local governments have become more corrupt and more beholden to the interests of a small number of developers and other businesses, urban planning has inevitably come to reflect these perverse priorities.

Second, urban planners believe in sweeping physical solutions to social problems. The idea, Richard Sennett has written, goes back to the 1860s design for Paris by Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, Sennett suggests, bequeathed us the notion that we could alter social patterns by changing the physical landscape. This approach was not about urban amenities such as park benches and gas lighting or technological improvements such as indoor plumbing but about what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of “altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”

How effective is such a course? Some just released data on Washington DC gives part of the answer. Few places have spent more money and placed more political and psychological emphasis on physical planning as a human solution than the nation’s capital. Over the past quarter century or so, billions have been spent on ‘economic development’ including a massive new subway system, two restorations of Union Station, two convention centers, a major new indoor sports stadium, downtown urban renewal, a redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, increased tax breaks and financial benefits for developers, as well as numerous smaller projects. Yet according to new figures from the Center for Budget Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, the income of a typical citizen in the city’s lower economic quintile has grown exactly $382 in real dollars since the 1980s while someone in the top quintile now earns $70,382 more. Further, there are fewer jobs for DC residents and sales tax revenue – a reasonable indicator of ‘economic development’ – has barely kept up with inflation.

The jewel in the crown of local planners – the subway system – not only turned out to have the biggest cost overruns of any domestic public works project this side of Boston’s Big Dig, it has served as a major impetus for new development – most of whose occupants come by car, thus masochistically contributing to an increase in street traffic. Metro has removed jobs, population and tourist facilities from the city and has left the capital colony – which is not allowed to tax commuters – with the largest percentage increase in daytime population of any major city in the country, all by economic freeloaders.

In short, as a route to economic development, Washington’s urban planning has been a bust. As a way to ameliorate social ills and inequalities its effect has been precisely the reverse. And there is nothing in Washington’s approach to urban planning that is significantly different from the national average, except for the time and money spent upon it.

Urban planning wasn’t always like this. Grandiose and even imperial, yes, but without the strong tie to large commercial interests that has so altered city design since the early 20th century. Older planners saw themselves more as architects or sculptors on a grand scale. Thus L’Enfant’s plan for Washington was an attempt give the new nation iconographic shape. The 19th century Central Park in New York and Rock Creek Park in Washington were gifts to their cities’ less affluent as well as to the rich. Frederick Law Olmstead, in fact, was a former journalist who had had written critically of slavery for the predecessor of the New York Times with views that helped spur the anti-slavery movement.

It is true that while Olmstead called Central Park “a democratic development of the highest significance,” 1,600 lower income residents were evicted by eminent domain to make way for it. Nonetheless the beneficiaries proved considerably more ubiquitous than, say, in the case of Bush’s Texas Rangers or for the new Washington Nationals.

Modern planning was in part spurred by the desire of the elites to recover their cities from the immigrant politicians and riff raff who had seized urban America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of what was described as “reform,” was in fact just a transfer of power – including the power to corrupt – back to the elites.

Certainly the new zoning laws, which coincided with the rise in urban transit, helped. Zoning laws were created early last century before we understood the ecological costs of a highway-dependent society and at a time when women were expected to stay at home. These conditions have changed but our zoning laws have not kept pace. For example, today in homogeneous single-family, double-income neighborhoods whole blocks may be deserted during the day. We spend our Saturdays driving to distant malls in part because we have zoned shops and services out of our own communities, another monument to failed planning.

Among the effects of zoning – again, with the aid of the streetcar – was to dismantle the ethnically and socially connected – albeit not integrated – city. Where class and ethnicity might have once been divided by blocks, now the more successful could move safely several miles away. For example, Washington’s Georgetown, where I lived as a child, reflected its pre-zoning origins despite segregation and restrictive covenants. We lived with our mother and father, he a middle level New Deal official, on a street that included a row of black shanties, one occupied by our mail man and half without indoor plumbing. My public school was segregated but my streetscape wasn’t. Imagine a mid level Bush or Clinton administration official living on the same street as their postal carrier regardless of ethnicity and you can sense the change that has occurred.

Zoning wasn’t the only thing happening. One of the New Deal’s reforms was the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which provided federal guarantees for home mortgages. According to the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, between 1933 and 1936 alone, the HOLC supplied funds for one tenth of all owner-occupied, non-farm residences in the country. The FHA, and later the VA, took over the task. By the end of 1958, the FHA had enabled nearly five million families to own homes and helped more than 22 million to improve their properties.

At the same time, however, the legislation discouraged the construction of multi-family units and provided only small short-term loans for repair of existing homes. This meant, Jackson noted, that “families of modest circumstances could more easily finance the purchase of a new home than the modernization of an old one.” Jackson continued:

“The greatest fears of the Federal Housing Administration were reserved for ‘unharmonious racial or nationality groups.’ The alleged danger was that an entire area could lose its investment value if rigid white-black segregation was not maintained. To protect itself against such eventualities, the Underwriting Manual openly recommended ‘enforced zoning, subdivision regulations, and suitable restrictive covenants. In addition, the FHA’s Division of Economics and Statistics compiled detailed reports and maps charting the present and most likely future residential locations of black families.” In a March 1939, map of Brooklyn, for example, the presence of a single non-white family on any block was sufficient to result in that entire block being marked black. Similarly, very extensive maps of the District of Columbia depicted the spread of the black population and the percentage of dwelling units occupied by persons other than white.”

Jackson noted that “black neighborhoods were invariably rated ‘D.'” These were neighborhoods described with such phrases as “the only hope is for demolition of these buildings and transition of the are into a business district” or “this particular spot is a blight on the surrounding area.”

“Residential security maps” were drawn up for every block of a city. These maps were available to lenders and realtors but were kept secret from the general public. Some of these maps, including those for DC, Jackson found to be missing from government archives.

The suburban bias of the FHA was extraordinary. For example, 91% of the homes insured by the agency in metropolitan St. Louis between 1935 and 1939 were in the suburbs. This practice would continue into the 60s and even the 70s. Jackson found that in 1976 the federal government had supplied three dollars in loans for suburban St. Louis for every one dollar to the city itself. Between 1934 and 1960, $559 million was loaned for suburban construction in the St. Louis suburbs but only $94 million for the city itself, a suburban per capita loan in 1961 of $794 vs. an urban one of only $126.

Behind such attempts was what Richard Sennett has called a search for “the purified community.” Describing the psychology of urban planners in The Uses of Disorder, Sennett says, “Their impulse has been to give way to that tendency, developed in adolescence, of men to control unknown threats by eliminating the possibility for experiencing surprise.”

This tradition continues to today and is already driving the plans for New Orleans.

My own introduction to the impact of urban planning came in the late 1950s as a radio reporter. I was sent to interview a woman who was refusing to move out of her house in DC’s Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres had been leveled around her and still she clung on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing. The project, the largest in the nation, had begun in April 1954 and five years later some 550 acres had been cleared. Only 300 families remained to be relocated. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.

The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years. Just as today, many liberals saw nothing wrong with eminent domain as long as it produced a more purified community. Not everyone was so sanguine, however. One of the leaders in the fight against SW urban renewal was Rev. Walter Fauntroy, later active in the civil rights movement. And in a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O’Grady said, “It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another.”

The Supreme Court disagreed. In 1954 it had upheld the underlying law and in a decision written by none other than William O. Douglas, declared:

“It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole.”

Years later, a woman who had lived in Southwest recalled that when her mentally ill mother had a spell, there were always neighbors or relatives to take her in and shield her from what was happening. It wasn’t until they were forced out of the community of Southwest and had to live alone that she learned how sick her mother was.

Today, the new Southwest is rarely cited as a model of urban living. It reflects the planning biases of the 50s – cold, boxy construction and a lack of convenient shops, thanks in part to the deal struck at the time with the now struggling commercial mall. Many people seem to prefer less planned communities, places whose character developed from those who live and work there rather than being imposed from without.

In the years to come, I would become involved in endless planning battles both as a journalist and as an activist. Many were successful such as the effort to end the freeways that threatened to turn DC into an east coast Los Angeles and the campaign to save the historic buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue that the planners wanted to trash. Some were not, such as the effort by small business people to stay in downtown DC. In my own neighborhood we fought off developers three times on one site until a builder came up with a decent plan. The group leading the fight disbanded with $3,000 left in its bank account which was given to another group fighting yet another soon successful battle. We stopped a ten story office building, saving instead one of the earliest park and shops in the country. And we even defeated the local bishop of the Episcopal Diocese, leaving the community with a place to run its dogs for the next thirty years.

During this whole period, I only once came across an urban plan actually designed for the people who lived in the place being planned, and that one had a non-governmental patron. Lady Bird Johnson had gotten landscape architect Lawrence Halprin – the man who thought it was all right for children to play in his fountains – to propose improvements to the then ethnically and economically mixed neighborhood of Capitol Hill where I lived in 60s. Colorful Mexican playground equipment began appearing at local public schools and children in vest pocket parks found turtle sculptures on which to climb. In a relatively short time, Capitol Hill became not only more attractive but more fun. It was an exception, but an instructive one: how it feels when a planner works for the citizens and not the government. In nearly every other instance it was either explicitly or implicitly assumed that the plan would attract a better class of people and business to the place being planned. The people presently there were at best an afterthought.

An article by J. William Thompson in Land Online speaks of Halprin’s “democratic identification with the people who built his landscapes and those who use them. For this, to my knowledge, no award is ever given – yet it’s a quality I consider crucial to the building of great landscapes. . . I discovered a very different side of Halprin when he led me on a tour of the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., at its opening in 1997. What struck me first was Halprin’s absolute joy at seeing the public take possession of the memorial. ‘Boy, look at all those people!’ he exclaimed as we turned the corner into the first memorial room and saw the crowds; he was even more delighted that, as he pointed out, the crowds were flowing through the memorial’s rooms in the patterns that he had ‘choreographed.’ Looking back, I realize that the memorial is successful because Halprin had cared deeply about how users would move through it. . . ‘Equally inspiring were Halprin’s interactions with the construction crew, with whom he seemed to have bonded in an almost paternal way. . . Somehow, Halprin had created a community of intense purpose. He was the master builder, but every single person involved in the effort understood that he or she was creating something of great public value that would endure for centuries. In short, Halprin had the power to rally the foot soldiers in the service of a vision of democratic urban space that he himself glimpsed long before.”

But no more Larry Halprins showed up and there then came a time when fighting city hall began getting much harder. The city officials and the planners were learning from the troublemakers, co-opting our rhetoric, figuring how to get around us, using new postmodern language to disguise old feudalistic aims. They had fraudulent “town meetings,” and “citizen input,” and “community reviews” and endless talk but no action about “affordable housing” and limitless “sensitivity to the issues.” It was Orwell come to the ‘hood, deceitful language and behavior designed to conceal what really was going on – almost as if they had been taking lessons from Karl Rove. And the lawyers didn’t help. What once had been a fairly simple agreement became a multi-page document riddled with escape hatches.

I guess we’d lose most of our old battles if we had to fight them again today. Gone is the feeling writer Dorothy Allison described so well: “I had the idea that if you took America and shook it really hard it would do the right thing.” It no longer seemed possible.

This is the America that New Orleans faces. An America whose politicians are boosted into office by contributions, not constituencies. An America whose planners must serve those corrupt politicians. An America resigned to a culture of impunity in high places. An America in which the eminent get the domain and everyone else gets what’s left.

You can already see the signs in New Orleans. The NY Times reports, “Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s commission to revive this city proposed that residents of the districts most heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina get four months to demonstrate strong support for rebuilding their neighborhoods or face the possibility of having to sell to the government. The proposal, a centerpiece of the mayor’s ‘Bring New Orleans Back’ recovery effort, drew outrage from residents and community activists, who argued that many citizens – especially the African Americans who predominated the flood-struck areas – might be forced out of the city for good.”

Four months to come up with a solution to one of the most difficult urban problems ever faced – in part because of the failures of the very government issuing the ultimatum.

And, of course, we don’t want to waste public funds for rebuilding in the flood plain.

In the best of all worlds, this is true, but this isn’t something that worried us so much before. For example, David Conrad of the National Wildlife Federation told a House committee in 2001:

– “Twenty-five year average national flood losses (in constant dollars) have soared to $4.2 billion annually, more than double what they were early in the century. . . Approximately $140 billion in federal tax revenues has been spent during the past 25 years preparing for and recovering from natural disasters

– “Repetitive loss properties occur in all 50 states. Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Florida lead in numbers of repetitive loss properties.

– “Repetitive loss properties have received a disproportionate share of payments for flood losses. While repetitive loss properties represent only 2% of all insured properties, they experienced 25 percent of the losses and claimed 40 percent of all [national] flood loss payments. . . Less than one percent of flood-prone properties – those with three or more losses – received more than one fifth of all flood insurance payments costing the NFIP nearly $1.4 billion

– “As of April 30th of 2001, FEMA reports the total number of repetitive loss properties has risen to approximately 91,300 nationally (up from 74,500 five years ago).”

But now it’s not just the Wildlife Federation that is concerned. Part of it’s because of geography and nature, part of it is ecological consciousness, but part is also because of the character of the victims. The LA Times described the results of a study by Brown University sociologist John Logan:

“His study found that the population in the damaged areas was 45.8% African American, compared with 26.4% in the undamaged areas.

– “He said 45.7% of the population in the damaged areas lived in rental housing, compared with 30.9% in undamaged areas.

– “In the damaged areas, 20.9% of the population was living below the poverty line, compared with 15.3% in the areas that were not damaged.

– “The data also showed that the New Orleans areas most affected by Katrina housed half of the city’s white residents and 80% of its African Americans.”

In a time when the Supreme Court has declared that no citizens is immune from eviction to fulfill the dreams and ambitions of urban planners, such data is not comforting. Neither is the “dream team” of experts named by the Louisiana governor. It includes Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution, a tired old holding tank of policy wonks waiting for a new administration. While think tanks can sometimes be productive and occasionally provide a haven for truly original thinkers, they primarily function as the Catholic priests of the conventional wisdom: propagating the faith, blessing the faithful, redirecting the errant and showing up at fundraising dinners to add a little class and offer the benediction. And their collection plates are regularly filled by large corporations with some distinctly non-academic goals in mind.

A recent summation by Liu of what needs to be done in New Orleans reeks of plan speak: there needs to be a “planning process put in place” (in case you hadn’t noticed) and that the matter was a “regional issue.” Her presentation began with the ominous declaration that New Orleans – presumably even before the hurricane – was a “weak city.” What they used to call “blighted.” Let the wild rumpus begin.

The dream team also includes architect Andres Duany who has gotten a lot of favorable press for promoting “new urbanism.” Some years ago I checked out an example of Duany’s work in suburban Kentlands, Maryland:

Wandering around Kentlands recently, I accidentally drove into a adjacent conventional development of suburban townhouses. What immediately signaled my error was not just the comparative blandness of the architecture but the rows of cars parked perpendicular to their respective abodes. At Kentlands, with its garages and off street parking, the automobile is far less intrusive.

At the same time there was a similarity between the two developments not apparent in the generally well-deserved praise of Kentlands and similar efforts. In neither place, it seemed, was there a story. Nor was there any sign of serendipity. In the traditional development, individuality was limited to the minor variations of vehicle choice. In Kentlands, despite the architecture evoking an assortment of historical styles, it all had the unity of a well-planned, cute HO-gauge railroad layout. Nowhere was there cause to ask, “Now how did that come to be there?” Or “What’s that for?” Kentlands, like the St. Petersburg described by Dostoyevsky, is a totally “abstract, premeditated city.”

As architect John Wiebenson noted, “When you zone out the bad stuff; you also zone out serendipity.” And as planner Terry Fowler argues, children especially — but also adults — need unprogrammed places to play. Yet I suspect that for the first generation of Kentland’s children some of the fondest memories will be that of playing in the mud and mess of a new construction site. For the moment, Kentlands reminds one of Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s remark that a community without history is like a person without memory. . .

Why do we tend to be more impressed by such new developments than we are by the communities they deliberately copy? Patrick Hare suggests that Kentlands’ real advantage is better marketing. . . We have in recent decades been so intent on making our cities neat and orderly that we have forgotten that the major contribution of the city is its explosive and random potential for opportunity. Our goal has been physical order and fiscal benefits; the results have been social disorder and huge deficits. This was a big mistake, but in the end, it was not the fault of the physical form of the city or its economy or even its size, but rather it came about because too few were allowed to decide too much. Without functioning citizens you can not have functioning cities. As Shakespeare said, “The people are the city.” And as Jane Jacobs added: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Another expert – west coast architect Peter Calthorpe, who has done interesting and admirable work on high density communities – is the most hopeful of the lot. Calthorpe, for example, has designed “pedestrian pockets,” which he describes as balanced, mixed-use areas within a 1/4 mile walking radius of a light rail station. The uses within the zone would include housing, offices, retail, daycare, recreation and open space. Up to 2000 units of housing and one million square feet of office can be located within three blocks of the light rail station using typical condominium densities and four-story office configurations.

It sounds like a lot but psychologists have found that it is the perception of crowding rather than actual density that really bothers people. Noise, traffic and lack of open space can create claustrophobia even in low density areas, while one can feel quite uncrowded in the pleasant densities you find, say, in San Francisco or in many European cities.

Calthorpe, like Duany, however, remains a physical planner accustomed to more upscale issues who is being asked to solve what is in many ways primarily a social and political problem.

Further, none of the aforementioned experts has any notable experience in how to deal with being screwed by experts – the problem that immediately faces the good folk of the Ninth Ward.

Yet despite the apparent immutability of imperial planning, and despite the growing disaster of disaster recovery, there are some things that might help. They’re offered here not as more expertise but as a note in the Ninth Ward suggestion box from one who has spent a good deal of his life fighting planners and their ilk:

– Get your own experts, pro bono or supported by foundation grants. Nothing helps even the game better than to have competent and sympathetic architects, economists, anthropologists, public health workers, and historians who can take on the experts forced upon you. Instead of just criticizing plans, you can then present alternative ones. It changes the whole debate, deflates the advantage of the official plans, and forces everyone to think a little differently. Further, the media – which always thinks experts are better than ordinary citizens – will pay more attention to your experts than they will to you.

– Have some of your experts work out the alternative benefits and costs of rebuilding, staying, or moving. Don’t trust the city or city-planners for this information. It’s complicated. For example: what if some of the rebuilding featured modular housing that could be moved if things don’t work out as anticipated? What if a new planned community works out better than anticipated? Will people be able to change their minds?

– Get everyone involved. Keep the planning open and welcoming. Plan for everyone and with everyone. Don’t just use the best known local civic organizations. Even elementary school children can help plan a community. Seniors and the disabled have perspectives that get easily ignored. And asking alienated adolescents what they would like is a lot smarter than finding out later what they don’t.

– Do a community inventory and biography. Before discussing what you want, find out what you have. Don’t try to imitate a conventional city plan with its emphasis on physical form. Instead, tell the community’s story — where it has been, what it is, what it has and doesn’t have and what it would like to be.

– Fight to make any buyouts voluntary as has occurred in a number of flood damaged communities. The land does not have to be taken by eminent domain. People who have suffered as much as the hurricane victims have should be allowed to return home even if it is not the most practical solution. But they should also have an escape route if it turns out they made a mistake.

– If the city insists on eminent domain, fight to raise the ante. Demand additional payments above the typically short-counted appraisal value of the property – such as a cut of future sales of the property to developers or a percentage of future property tax revenues.

– Don’t dismiss the building of a new community. Key to such a plan is location, jobs, and transportation, and whether it is designed for the residents or to get them off someone’s back. At the same time, remember that the last time a planned community for those at the bottom really worked was with Roosevelt’s Greenbelts and with Levittowns and similar developments after World War II. We have lost both the skill and the will.

– Whether in the old city or in a new place, look into forming cooperatives and credit unions. These are sound ways that people left to fend for themselves can build their own economy.

– Look into co-housing, in which housing costs are lowered by sharing certain facilities among residents. Study alternative housing approaches including modular and grow homes (housing designed to be expanded over time). Investigate the creation of a land trusts to accomplish your goals.

– Campaign for shared equity programs in which federal, state and/or local government become equity partners with homeowners. This simple scheme has among its virtues that when it comes time to sell a house the value will have likely increased and both the government and the owner will come out ahead.

– One of the inevitable results of oil depletion will be a rise in food costs. It will become less economical to ship a carrot two thousand miles to your super market. This increases the attractiveness of grow-your-own projects even in an urban setting, either as a part of co-housing or as community gardens and agriculture centers.

– Those who decide to stay or rebuild should demand adequate safety equipment such as readily available inflatable rafts or cheap fiberglass rowboats stored in such places as house basements, churches and fire houses as well as barges that serve some dry land purpose (such as storage or even offices) but which turn into rescue craft in times of floods. It is highly likely that the death toll could have been drastically reduced if the Ninth Ward had adequate rescue vessels available. It needed life boats as much as any ship on the ocean.

– Check out all the angles. You can rest assured that the mayor and governor and their planners won’t tell you about them. Here, for example, is a recent announcement from the EF Schumacher Society:

“The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative one of the most innovative and well-respected planning and organizing nonprofits in the country, has lead the revitalization of Boston’s poor but diverse Dudley neighborhood through the use of a community land trust. In the mid-1980’s residents of Boston’s Dudley Street neighborhood were concerned about a plan to redevelop the area, a move that could potentially gentrify the community and displace a majority of its then residents. [According to Gus Newport], ‘When this planning process became public, the community came out in large numbers to voice its opinion as to what the planning process ought to be, and why a method had to be imposed that would assure the community¹s input in all pertinent planning decisions and protect current residents¹ ability to enjoy the improvements into the future.’

“In 1988, DSNI became the only community group in the nation to win eminent domain power to acquire vacant land for development. They formed a community land trust to hold the land and involved the neighborhood members in the process of planning the use of that land. Since then, approximately half of the 1,300 vacant lots it took control of have been developed with 300 new homes, 300 rehabbed homes, a Town Common, gardens, urban agriculture, a commercial greenhouse, and parks and playgrounds. Neighborhood residents purchase the homes and lease the land on long term leases. The homes have a cap on resale prices so that they remain affordable to future resident-owners. This permits lower income members of the Dudley Street area to build equity in the replacement values of their homes, through not in the land value which is held by the community as a whole.”

– The city should loosen zoning rules to encourage accessory apartments, letting people construct units that would help them pay their mortgage and help others find a flat they can afford. LA, for example, has some 40,000 illegal apartments because people really find them useful.

– The city should use its own land – such as surplus school buildings – for city owned affordable housing instead of selling it to a developer.

Above all, the people of the Ninth Ward and other flood areas must fight constantly against those who would make them pawns in one more attempt to replace real community with paper plans, one more effort to have physical forms serve as proxy for improved social conditions, and one more scheme to make people involuntary servants of economic ambitions. Those who have survived the worst that nature has to offer should not now be punished with a gratuitous tropical depression of human will, responsibility, and decency.

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