Entries for the 'Research' Category

“Recovery also has to do with establishing legitimacy: understanding and responding to citizens’ priorities for the city. … With legitimacy, even if physical reconstruction is uneven and slow, citizens won’t necessarily feel their recovery was thwarted or denied.” – Diane E. Davis, Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital, March 18, 2002, at MIT’s Resilient Cities lecture series

Karen (of Squandered Heritage and Northwest Carrollton fame) asked the other day in conversation, why aren’t we looking at Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake more? Maybe because it wasn’t exactly a stellar recovery – but then, that makes it all the more relevant to our own faltering steps. Of course, the comparison hasn’t been completely neglected – nosing around a bit, I turned up this post, which in turn led to finding this video of Diane E. Davis’ lecture on Mexico City’s experience.

Do you have an hour or so to spare? WATCH THE VIDEO. The lecture portion is about 50 minutes long, with a 20 minute question and answer session following (although the sound isn’t great in that portion). Don’t have 50 minutes? Watch it in stages. I started jotting down a few notes about comments that seemed interesting or relevant to New Orleans’ situation, and ended up with 4 1/2 pages. I’ll try not to go into excruciating detail, but the Mexico City experience is so much food for thought I expect I’ll be chewing on this for a long time to come. So rather than attempt a blow-by-blow comparison of similar events here and there, here are a few points that especially stood out for me (in no particular order):

  • Responding to the title of the series, Davis argued that it’s not quite the case that cities are resilient. Rather, cities have multiple resiliencies, and some are less desirable than others. Corrupt intstitutions for instance, or violent crime. On the other hand, the resiliency of neighborhood and grassroots organizations was remarkable – even if they didn’t achieve everything they wanted or deserved, their political impact was definitely felt after the first faltering efforts that “followed the logic of money and power.”

  • Citizens asked, “is it possible that we can believe in the efficacy of the government, when it was the people who did everything?” Their questions were the beginning of the end of one-party rule, and did eventually bring about somewhat more participatory democratic institutions and greater accountibility.
  • Questions about urban recovery shouldn’t be limited to how cities recover; we should also ask what they recover. Since the center of the city, the concentration of the political, social, historical, cultural, and economic character of the city as a whole, was most severely affected, what exactly that character was and what it should become were hotly contested.
  • Failure to come up with a coherent, easily implementable recovery plan wasn’t due merely to the very real shortcomings of the local and national government of the time, but also to the competing priorities of different populations and the political pressure they applied. Less damaged areas pushed for more “macroeconomic” concerns while the homeless were still fighting for shelter; debates raged on whether low-income housing should be rebuilt in place, in long-standing downtown neighborhoods, or whether that would discourage higher-end downtown redevelopment with a focus on tourism and offices – again, the character of more than just buildings was at issue.
  • There’s conflict inherent in recovery – ignoring that fact won’t make it go away.
  • Dignity, la dignidad, was the rallying cry for citizens’ groups. They lobbied for specific material needs as well, and for government accountibility, but the recovery of dignity was the vital underpinning of all those efforts.
  • Although admirable concessions were achieved in housing policy, distribution of housing and assistance were still uneven in some respects, and that unevenness has had long-lasting effects, including exacerbating violent rivalries among street vendors, and the persistance of tent cities for years in some areas.
  • Many downtown hotels and private office buildings were left unattended for years to come. There’s been a resurgence of activity and investment in the area more recently, but there are still spots here and there, two or three blocks in size, that have been untouched since 1985, just a stone’s throw from thriving, rebuilt districts.
  • I could go on and on, but I’ll stop myself for now. I’m curious to know what anyone else thinks about the lecture, or about the Mexico City recovery experience in general.

    Reading Karen’s Who Elected the LRA? post and following its links today, I was surprised to find out (where have I been?) that just as the UNOP is supposed to be administered by the CSO, which is overseen by the NOCSF, which was in turn established by the GNOF to manage $4.5 million in grants to create a planning process (acronym and abbreviation help); the information-gathering and planning of LRA‘s long-term recovery planning initiative, “Louisiana Speaks,” is being funded significantly by the LRA Fund, which was established by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF), and will be administered by the LRA Support Foundation (created separately from the LRA Fund) once it gets its IRS qualification as a charity. (Gasp. I wish I had a flowchart) For now, as far as I can tell, the LRA Fund Committee is holding the purse-strings.

    I shouldn’t be surprised, really. A plan is required to release federal relief funding, but little or no funding is given to the creation of a detailed and comprehensive plan. The city/state/parish is left with no alternative but to look to private donors.

    What really surprises me (and maybe this shouldn’t either) is that at the bottom of its home page, the LRASF site declares: “The LRA Fund Committee has voluntarily decided to act in a manner consistent with the spirit of Louisiana Open Meetings Laws.” Kudos to the LRAFC for choosing to be open. I mean that. What concerns me though, is that a private organization that holds the linchpin to the disbursement of billions in public funds (and we’ve been seeing how much the planning of the plan can matter with the UNOP) could chose not to. To be fair, Blanco’s executive order establishing the LRA requires “a mechanism for public input and modifications based on such input,” but the UNOP’s “mechanisms for public input” to date have shown how little and dry a bone the public can be thrown.

    I don’t want to suggest at all that private foundations with influence on public spending are all necessarily nefarious evil-doers intent on selling the public lock, stock and barrel to their cronies. But they’re not necessarily saints either, any more than politicians are. Our democracy doesn’t survive by the vote alone; it’s founded on checks and balances and public accountability because it’s just plain bad policy to expect people, even good people, to deny their personal interests for the sake of public interest. Whether it’s willful corruption or the slippery slope of “I have a buddy whose company can do that,” it’s just too easy to drift away from the job you’re entrusted to do when no one is watching how you do it.

    It’s an awful lot of responsibility without much obligation I can see that’s not self-imposed. We can hope that personal integrity and/or PR help keep things relatively open (or at least “consistent with the spirit of openness”), but I’m a bit shocked that it would be legal not to.

    The release of billions in federal funding for the recovery of New Orleans depends on the acceptance of a single, unified plan, covering everything from individual neighborhoods’ redevelopment to city-wide infrastructure. One feature of a such a unified plan must be meaningful public participation in the process, accommodating the city’s diverse citizenry and interests. Without extensive public representation, it is almost inconceivable that a plan would receive the endorsement necessary to begin disbursement of funds, in fact two prior planning attempts, the Mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, and the City Council’s Lambert-Danzey plan, failed in part because of inaccessibility to the public.

    When the announcement was made that the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), its fiduciary committee, the New Orleans Community Support Foundation (NOCSF), City Council, the Mayor, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) had come to an agreement to support the NOCSF’s Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), Governor Blanco responded, “This process will be democratic and inclusive. Folks who live in the neighborhood will be integrally involved.” Mayor Nagin called the plan “democracy in action” in his own press release on the announcement. Democracy in invoked repeatedly in descriptions and discussions of the Unified New Orleans Plan, and the test of its legitimacy rests above all in the consequential inclusion of citizens. To date, there has been minimal opportunity for substantive public involvement–attendees at a July 30 meeting gave their recommendations for redrawing official neighborhood boundaries, and made their requests for the number of planners and project areas they would like their Planning Districts to have, but these decisions were limited to those in attendance. The selection of preferred neighborhood and district Planning Teams will be the first occasion for a public vote in the UNOP process. The integrity of this voting procedure, therefore, reflects on the integrity of the entire UNOP as a democratic entity and on any of its actions to follow.

    Despite less than a weeks’ notice, hundreds managed to attend the two public meetings and neighborhood groups and individuals all over the city are earnestly studying the 15 planning groups and what they have to offer. Many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods have already been working with planners for months — some with the Lambert-Danzey team and some with firms they hired themselves in the hope that when funding did come, they would be reimbursed. The Louisiana Recovery Authority will be administering the federal funds earmarked for New Orleans. With its endorsement of the UNOP and the requirement that UNOP planning teams submit neighborhood/district plans, many fear that months of work will go unfunded and come undone. Having a vote in their teams’ selection process is taken in deadly earnest by thousands of New Orleanians.

    UNOP on the New Orleans Wiki

    August 3rd, 2006

    I posted my Unified New Orleans Plan on the New Orleans Wiki tonight, edited a bit, and with a little more on what’s been happening since. The meeting descriptions could stand some fleshing out, especially since I played hooky on Tuesday to attend a couple Night Out Against Crime events in my area: the Bouligny Riverside-Faubourg Marengo-Faubourg Delachaise Triumvirate, and my own hood, Touro Bouligny. I’m pleased to say that there were no long lines to get in, I didn’t have to put a red dot on anything, and the noise level was quite pleasant.

    Anyway, if anyone has an corrections to make or anything to add to the wiki article as the process stumbles along, more editors would be much appreciated (wiki markup instructions if you’ve never done it before). Or leave me a comment and I’ll add it in.

    I’ve lived in New Orleans long enough now that “Will Work for Food” has become all too true. Not that attempting to understanding the byzantine rebuilding process isn’t a worthy end in itself, but now that there are brownies on the line… (no offence to Byzantium – we should be so lucky)

    Having a go at Maitri’s City Rebuilding Essay Contest, I’m having trouble figuring out exactly who CityWorks is/are. I’ve never attended one of their meetings, and the content on their website is a little too generalized for me to get a grasp on them. Can anyone give me a little background or point me to a better source?

    Alas, the brownies may never be mine, but there’s nothing like invoking chocolate and my latent competitive streak to force me into a Learning Experience…