New Orleans Planning Initiative
February 20, 2007Cornell planners made headlines in January 2007 with their groundbreaking report on conditions in New Orleans’s 9th Ward, asserting that most structures are in adequate condition for rebuilding without the need for widespread razing. Only about 20 percent of residents have returned home, the report found, largely because of bureaucratic and financial obstacles. The Associated Press story was picked up by the New York Times and more than 100 other newspapers in the United States and abroad, as well as various websites.
Those important points were only part of a much more significant document, however. Students and faculty from the Department of City and Regional Planning, along with partners from Columbia University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, actually presented a comprehensive recovery plan for the 9th Ward. Their plan looked at the neighborhood as a whole, covering such areas as housing, the economy, health, toxic waste sites, education, security, and industry.
It’s a plan based on in-depth study of the 9th Ward, an area where CRP, through its New Orleans Planning Initiative, started working not long after Hurricane Katrina made its devastating strike in 2005. Students and faculty have traveled many times to the region, for data gathering and hands-on work such as gutting houses, and several service-learning courses have focused intensively on New Orleans.
The latest large-scale trip occurred last October, when 66 Cornell students, plus a few students and faculty members from other schools, spent four days in the 9th Ward, interviewing residents, surveying businesses, and inspecting properties. (In all, Cornell planners and their allies have inspected more than 5,000 properties in the area.)
According to CRP chair Kenneth Reardon, one resident told the students, “You’re the only van people who have ever taken time to get out of the car and talk to us.”
The long days of interviewing and surveying, and the encounter with so much devastation, added up to “almost a religious experience,” said student Marcel Ionescu-Heroiu. “People that would not be caught dead together at Cornell joined forces and went out in the neighborhood, talking to people, gathering data, and assessing future development opportunities. I have never seen such an eclectic group of people come together like that.”
“Students were transformed,” agreed visiting lecturer Michelle Thompson. While some students may have begun the semester thinking only of their grade, she said, after the trip, New Orleans “became everyone’s passion.”
“It still looks like a war zone,” she added. “There are still children’s shoes in the street.”
Back in Ithaca, students in classes taught by Reardon, Thompson, and new faculty member Richard Kiely entered and analyzed the data. Over winter break, a small group of professors and students finalized the plan in time for a January 6 presentation -- more than a week ahead of the deadline for the various official recovery planners to present their visions for specific districts. The city of New Orleans is now considering the plan by CRP and its collaborators alongside other recovery plans. The City’s Department of Geographic Information Systems has adopted the survey tools and will incorporate the mapping resources from the field study as part of their ongoing data resources.
While the city deliberates, CRP involvement with the 9th Ward continues. The New Orleans situation will figure in several courses in spring 2007 and later, and specific hands-on projects are under consideration. Summer internships for students are a possibility, if funding can be located.
Meanwhile, the vast amounts of data the planners have generated won’t simply be filed away, Thompson noted. The City of New Orleans GIS has agreed to share data that will be available to other planners and scholars through a web-based database using the Cornell Restricted Access Data Center.
CRP is also keeping in touch with others at Cornell and elsewhere who are interested in New Orleans. “We’re looking for partners to getwork done,” said Thompson. “Students want to be involved.”