Planners, architects, go home.

Before the Rockefeller Foundation, Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Mayor of New Orleans decided to privatize the planning process for the city of New Orleans the City Council had hired a planning firm to draft blueprints for the 49 hardest hit neighborhoods in the city.

Called the Lambert-Danzey group – after the consortium’s principal consultants, Paul Lambert and Shiela Danzey – this effort was given a budget of $125,000 and charged with rethinking the physical and social composition of the city. The Rockefeller/GNOF/Mayor’s process, called the Unified New Orleans Neighborhood Plan (UNOP), has essentially cancelled the Lambert-Danzey group’s work once their contract money runs out. The Lambert-Danzey team intends to finish their plan and present it to the city council, but it’s unlikely that their ideas will carry much weight in the reconstruction of the city. The UNOP organizers have said that they will incorporate aspects of the Lambert-Danzey plan into their final city master plan and individual neighborhood plans. They’re not required to do this however.

I attended a meeting today with a planner and an architect from the Lambert-Danzey group. At the table were several social workers, public housing residents, and housing rights advocates like myself.

The idea of the meeting was to inform the Lambert-Danzey planners about the needs and desires of public housing residents who have thus far been entirely shut out of all planning processes (mostly because they’ve been shut out of their homes by HUD).

The two Lambert-Danzy planners (actually employed by the Zyscovich urban planning and design firm) stated up front that they’re not experts on the social issues facing New Orleans. They explained that they don’t have solutions for every problem facing neighborhoods. They’re right, and they’re good to admit this. But they’re interested in redesigning public housing in the city. They told us that they believe one way to rebuild a better city is to disperse the poor. “Concentrating the poor is a bad idea,” they explained. They mentioned rebuilding mixed-income communities as a viable option for public housing sites. They both said that it would be a good idea to tear down the large public housing complexes because their size and location made them bad places for the residents to live inhibiting successful transitions from public housing to the market. Although they didn’t state it I could tell they believe that the design of large scale public housing creates concentrated pockets of poverty and crime.

This is known as the Pruitt-Igoe myth; the fallacious idea that bad architectural and urban design causes social problems, and therefore the solution is also a design issue (Bristol, Katharine. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” Journal of Architectural Education. Vol. 44, No. 3. May 1991.). It “shifts attention from the institutional or structural sources of public housing problems.” It also conveniently assists the planners, architects, real estate speculators, developers, and city boosters in their attempts to gain control over land, gentrify neighborhoods, and make a killer profit all in the name of “revitalization.”

I attempted to make a critical intervention during the meeting: “If doing no harm is our goal, if we want to do what is best and hurts the fewest people,” I said, “we need to simply reopen public housing. We cannot sit here and create plans for the future of these communities. Only the people living in public housing know what they need. If we create plans that advocate the demolition of public housing or even its eventual redevelopment into mixed income communities, no matter what our intentions are, the end result will be the permanent displacement of thousands of families. It will be racially discriminatory, it will destroy communities, harm families, and it will mean that the city of New Orleans is never coming back.”

I’m not sure they heard me.

The problem with planners and architects is that even with the best of intentions they can only think of design solutions to problems. When the problems you’re facing are fundamentally based in social and economic inequalities there is very little that even the most brilliant planners can do to help. Oftentimes their work does more harm than good. I see further pain and the permanent loss of community on the horizon for many New Orleanians, especially public housing residents if the planners are allowed to run wild with their imaginations.

Planners deal with abstract space. In the case of New Orleans planners see an “opportunity” to deal with a blank slate because the hurricane and flood destroyed so much. This has led them to think in increasingly abstract ways about how to not only rebuild the city, but to push it toward utopian limits and solve numerous social problems with spatial fixes. They’re not dealing with the real worlds of lived experience. They fly in from distant cities, or if they are a native they come from posh sections of the Uptown. They know little to nothing about the actual communities their plans will be affecting, especially communities like the Iberville, Lafitte, or St. Bernard housing developments to name several. Their assumptions are too long to list. Most of these assumptions are faulty. They think they know best. Their plans could be benign in the end, but they also hold the potential to do great harm. Timothy Gibson explains the problem facing the people of New Orleans as the struggle to come home and reestablish community:

“As a longtime resident, you might even have some good ideas on how your neigh-borhood could be rebuilt. But again, the planners and builders of abstract space are way ahead of you. While the former residents of Ward 9 [or public housing] huddle in distant shelters and contemplate the magnitude of their dispossession, the city’s economic and social elite are drawing on their resources and spatial mobility to plan the New New Orleans.” (Gibson, Timothy. “New Orleans and the Wisdom of Lived Space.” Space and Culture. Vol. 9, No. 1. Feb. 2006).

The men from Zyscovich, the rest of the Lambert-Danzey group, the UNOP crowd, all of them are dealing in abstract space where you can socially engineer solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality. They’re proposing to shuffle persons about at will, tearing down entire communities, remaking the cityscape in wholesale fashion. All for what? Their hearts are in the right place – at least most of them. They want to help. They honestly believe that they can better the lives of New Orleans poor.

But they can’t.

If you’re a planner or an architect the only thing to do now is to do nothing. No demolitions, no redevelopments, no mixed-income housing, none of it. Just reopen the projects and let the people come home. It’s the only just thing to do. Once the people come back, then we can all get down to the work of re-planning our communities. Anything else is theft and murder, plain and simple. Anything else will mean dispossession.

But some folks are aiming for this. I tend to take people at face value. If you say you want to help “the people” I’ll likely think you really do. But as some local activists and residents say, “the sharks are circling.” Re-planning poor communities is a smooth method for them to acquire “vacant” property. All in all some people just don’t care. They’re just out for power and wealth. And they’ll use and abuse the na├»ve architect, urban planner, and sociologist to get it.

My plea to the planners and place makers; do not cooperate. Do not lend your talents to anyone who would have you draft plans for public housing or low-income communities until all of the people are home. At this point your plans must be short term and radically pragmatic – get everyone home. Otherwise the only “opportunities” you’ll be taking advantage of are the opportunities that some see to make a quick buck, to snatch up valuable land, and to get rid of the poor.


Heather_B said...

Miss you, Big D.

Oh, and btw you need this:

Anonymous said...

I was present at the meeting that you are describing. From what I just read, you must have the meeting mixed up with another one that you attended because what you stated is simply not true. I am an African-American female, born and reared in New Orleans and have lived and still own property one block from the St. Bernard Project (excuse me, development).Since all comments must be approved by you, the author, I'm sure that this comment will not past the test. But Darwin, let me say this--if you want to help us poor Black people out, help plant seeds of greatness in their lives, the way your parents seem to have done with you. Have you ever lived in public housing? After all, you could be living in public housing but you've chosen to go to college--and not just any college but a PRIVATE school. I have a challenge for you and your other classmates. Drop out of college and move into public housing for, say one year. Live there with the lead-based paint and the gunshots that rang out DAILY pre-katrina. Bring your neices and nephews to live with you, enroll them in one of the public schools in the area, and tell me what kind of education they receive. After the year is up, then let me know how you feel about public housing. You see Darwin, those of us who know what it's REALLY like in public housing want better for our people.

Darwin BondGraham said...

Hi Anonymous,

I appreciate your comments. I have never lived in public housing. I do not ever intend to live in public housing (in the United States)

I've gone to public schools my whole life.
I don't go to a private college. I'm a graduate student at a public university. But you're right to point out that I'm very privileged.

I'm not opposed to changing public housing. In fact, I'm for much more radical kinds of changes than planners and architects can offer. I'm for fundamental changes in the political-economy that provide living wages, healthcare, quality education, and many more resources to inner city areas. I'm for social justice. I'm opposed to policies that necessarily lead to the destruction of community, even if that community is one that is highly oppressed by the dominant society and one that has serious problems within and around it like crime, domestic violence/violence against women, drug abuse, etc. Design and redevelopment solutions not only fall short of these goals, they're regressive.

That's why I support self-determination. I'm following the lead of Survivor's Village and the dozens of public housing residents that I've talked with, and those who I've interviewed for my own research. What I'm hearing for the most part is akin to what you're saying. People want changes. The difference is that people don't want changes that will drive them out of their homes and their home city. Redevelopment efforts such as those currently underway are more than inadequate. They are currently displacing and dispossessing thousands of poor black families. We have to judge a policy by its effects, not by what we think it will do in some ideal situation.

Let's get everyone home, then let's keep struggling for that long-term prize. None before the other. All at once.