May 13th, 2007
“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.
March 31st, 2007
OK, I can’t come up with a New Orleans Recovery palindrome. I tried my hand at some anagrams though, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Mayor of New Orleans – A sworn loony re fame. Parish Recovery Council – A cyclone: ouch, rivers rip. Unified New Orleans Plan – A serene fill-in. Own up: nada. Army Corps of Engineers – If errors, spongy menace.
Best I could do. I’m no Nabokov.
But down to business now, The Man is Recovery Czar Ed Blakely, The Plans are the ones we’re all too familiar with already, plus the new addition of Blakely’s “It’s not my plan, it’s the people’s plan,” and The Canals, well – if the powers that be don’t start listening to vox clamantis Matt McBride, the unholy waters will flow again and the plans won’t be worth the paper they’re written on.
My initial reaction to Blakely’s announcement of his 17 target zones was, like that of some fellow bloggers who were (as usual) quicker on the uptake than me, optimistic, if guardedly so. It’s reassuring to see a commitment to the severely devastated 9th Ward and New Orleans East, and the distribution of the “Redevelop” and “Renew” areas seems reasonable. And it’s fair of Blakely to observe that New Orleans doesn’t have the best record when it comes to finishing projects, and as nice as it would be to address everything that needs attention immediately, chances are that would lead to nothing getting done at all, anywhere. (That said, it would be worthwhile if Blakely and his Parishwide Recovery Committee would let on which areas are under consideration for Phase 2 and beyond – lots more neighborhoods’ futures hang in the balance, and they deserve some idea of what to expect and when.)
Despite my hope that the announcement means that these 17 zones will see some real action in the near future, my optimism guard, as I mentioned, is up and fully armed. As Library Chronicles points out, the Blakely Plan isn’t much longer on specifics than anything else we’ve seen (and the financing is fishy: notably the “blight bonds” and the unlikely waiver of the requirement of the 10% match for FEMA projects). There’s a general opacity to it that doesn’t augur well if it continues.
A Recovery Czar who says in response to reporters’ inquiries about what development in the 17 zones might look like:
“I have a very clear idea” of how the zones will develop, he said. “Developers make a lot of money by getting those clear ideas early and getting the jump in the game. And that shouldn’t happen in the newspaper. You’re a newspaper reporter, not a developer.”
and a Mayor who follows (not surprisingly) with:
“I don’t want to get into specific dates and specific projects with you guys because I know what you do with that: You come back later and you talk about the things that we haven’t done.”
don’t sound like executors of a “people’s plan.”
And for that matter, I haven’t yet found a comprehensive list of who is serving on the Parishwide Recovery Committee, or when and where their future meetings will be held (I would think their proceedings would fall under the requirements of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law). Also, Blakely has called the UNOP “a critical part of [the] process” (falling somewhat short of explicitly endorsing it – and while we’re on that topic, is the Parishwide Recovery Committee the same as the Parishwide Recovery Council, or is it a pointed snub? I’ve seen it referred to as both), and he seems to invoke it as the basis of calling it “the people’s plan,” but if the UNOP and/or other previous planning efforts are going to be the sum-total of public participation, I’m concerned. Not that I think we need to be put through any more magic-marker-and-red-dot exercises, but the UNOP has its share of woolly bits that could be stretched to fit plenty of interpretations of “the will of the people.” The public deserves comment periods and scrutiny of plan particulars in the media, mainstream- and citizen-varieties. Any developers worth their salt should be able to cope with that.
So, my fingers are crossed that we can get some positive action without more secrecy, otherwise, I’m afraid New Orleans Recovery = CRoWN EVERYONE A LOSER (OK, I cheated on that one – it was just too close to resist).
December 5th, 2006
I’ve been in a bit of a blogging funk lately. It feels like beating a dead horse sometimes, and my flogging arm is getting worn out. If only you could mechanize it some way… But wait, you can if you have 2.4 million dollars, and you can beat it from five different cities simultaneously! Yes, I let morbid curiosity overcome me again, and I attended UNOP/AmericaSpeaks’ Community Congress II last Saturday.
I have to give them some credit – this Congress came much closer to pre-Katrina demographics where race and income were concerned, although not on age or planning district residence. This Congress was rather more participatory than the last one as well. Rather than voting exclusively on pre-ordained options, the “Theme Team” synthesized alternative scenarios besides the ones presented by UNOP based on the submissions of each table. It’s a good thing, too, because “scenario” is a strong word for what the original options were on each of the six topics. For example:
Roads, Transit and Utilities
Spread available funds evenly throughout the city. Concentrate available recovery funds in areas of the city with the greatest need* Raise additional funds, possibly through higher taxes or user fees, so that all infrastructure can be repaired and improved.
- (note: “greatest need” wasn’t explicitly defined, but from the pros and cons section of the handout, it was clear that UNOP equates greatest need with greatest population, not level of damage)
More (but not all) of the scenarios and alternatives can be seen in the Preliminary Report.
Someone remind me again – how many months of planning has it taken to come up with these “scenarios”? I thought at first that this sort of narrowing the scope – from extremely vague to somewhat vague – via citizen input might have been a good thing to have done back in July or August. The sort of information produced strikes me as where to start planning, not refine it. But then I got sticker shock:
6 topics approximately 2,500 participants $2.4 million (for just this session)
At $400,000 per topic and roughly $960 per participant, what do New Orleanians really gain that’s of lasting value? Is that really all the public input we can buy for $2.4 million? I hope the funders are watching.
November 3rd, 2006
“Although the Roman empire expanded to a great territory, the Roman republicans were never concerned about the actuality of political participation by citizens living far away from Rome, where the assembly met regularly. In fact, most citizens of the Roman empire probably never attended an assembly, and the situation created a random and skewed system of representation – those living close to Rome became de facto “representatives” of other citizens of the Roman empire.” – Representative Government and Democracy, Bo Li
With all the invocation of Democracy and the Founding Fathers in this latest planning process, one thing that seems to have been forgotten is the role of representation. With all of our actual elected representatives snubbing the UNOP, it’s more and more doubtful how much backbone the UNOP will have as a “Unified New Orleans Plan,” but it’s far from certain yet whether or how much the Lambert plans or any others will bear much fruit with respect to funding and implementation either. Whatever the fate of the UNOP, it’s worth drawing some lessons from its latest venture, especially with regard to what passes for public participation, for posterity if nothing else. The first lesson, I think, is well illustrated by the quote about Roman government above: those living close to New Orleans are not adequate “representatives” of citizens in the uninhabitable or barely inhabitable portions of our city, however well-intentioned (or not). Public hearings, meetings, and comment periods are indispensable to democratic government, but they’re never a substitute for proportional representation. (For a thoughtful, multi-faceted review of public partipication, the lack of it, what’s passed for it, and responses to it in post-Katrina New Orleans – from the BNOB to UNOP’s Community Congress – it’s definitely worth reading People Get Ready’s We have more than that at the 4:00 mass on Saturday post.)
Sometimes, especially times like ours, the representation allowed for by our constitutions and charters – the mayors, city councils, governors, senators, representatives and presidents – aren’t enough; legislation doesn’t conveniently exist for the level of public involvement required for a whole region’s reconstruction. The first step is, of course, actively seeking population samples that reflect the real make-up of the city, not just waiting for who happens to show up. In an era when government models itself so much on business, is it too much to ask that we call the marketing department to see how they survey any and all demographics they want to target? It’s a challenge, to say the least, in the post-Katrina diaspora, but not one that can’t have its margin of error significantly reduced. There’s a name for the sort of “public participation” we’ve been treated to so far: Voodoo Poll. How apt.
“The most common examples of voodoo polls are those which ask for people to phone a number, or to click a voting option on a website, or send back a coupon cut from a newspaper. … The most glaring difference between a voodoo poll and a legitimate poll is that voodoo polls have self-selecting samples…”
But even if we had proportional representation of New Orleans’ citizenry, it’s still all for naught if the questions don’t represent the real issues. Plenty of poll-watchers caution that attention to the wording of poll questions is imperative in interpreting their results. You don’t have to be a bought-out push poller to ask questions that are meaningless, or worse, misleading. This is an area that’s not new ground either. Here’s one of the best articulations I’ve seen of how to approach developing meaningful survey questions, and why it matters:
“Good practice in survey research includes framing the questions in a way that people can recognize their own point of view in the alternatives that they are given by the interviewer. Polling is, after all, the art of putting words into peoples’ mouths. Objective practice demands that the words chosen for the questionnaire come close to the words that advocates of each point of view would use if they were given the chance to frame their opinion without prompting. In scientific or academic surveys, the phrasing of questions is usually drawn from published remarks by leaders of one point of view or another or from “focus groups” in which ordinary citizens are asked to discuss important issues in their own terms. At SRC [Survey Research Center] we supplement these practices by “pretesting” questions in practice interviews. If the respondents to practice interviews have a hard time recognizing their point of view in the questions, then we rewrite them. We try not to have more than one respondent in 20 say they “don’t know” how they feel on an issue unless we feel that the issue itself is so obscure that many people really have no opinion. With a widely discussed issue, a scientific poll should not have more than five percent of answers be “don’t know” (Converse and Presser 1989).
“Advocacy polls, on the other hand, frequently “slant” questions by raising questions in a way that are favorable to one point of view in a debate-
and unfavorable to another-or by posing questions that create a dilemma for proponents of one side (Asher 1990). This practice makes it difficult for persons from one persuasion to answer the questions as stated. They are typically in a quandary because they cannot fully agree with any of the statements offered them, or they cannot choose between the alternatives that are posed because they agree with both or disagree with both. Some poll respondents then refuse to answer the question or say they don’t know which alternative to choose. Others say “both?’ or “neither” as their reply.” – Wording, Polling, and Opinion, Michael Hout
Any group that has the capacity to convene Town Hall-style meetings of citizens and collect their input should perhaps be less concerned with determining citizens’ answers to policy questions than with determining the real questions for which various citizens’ groups have already proposed answers. We can stop asking what New Orleanians’ generalized Hopes and Concerns or Needs and Goals are about recovery, and start asking what are the controversies about how to address them, because the options are well-considered and have been articulated by plenty.
October 29th, 2006
I’m not sure why I keep attending UNOP events. I guess I just feel compelled to see what they’re going to pull next – it’s certainly not from a sense that I’m “participating;” there’s only so much use that can come of asking people to rank their nebulous Needs and Goals (or Hopes and Concerns as was the case yesterday), and only so many times it’s worth asking. For the record, UNOP, I think crime is bad, flood protection is good, and some affordable housing, schools and hospitals would be rather nice too, if I’m allowed to have that many preferences. So I attended yesterday morning’s Community Congress #1 at the Convention Center’s La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom, where I was treated to presentations on some of the citywide data that’s been collected and analysed to date, and to the first instance of AmericaSpeaks’ involvement in feedback collection.
Hearing some infrastructure, housing, health care, etc statistics was of some interest – not least because it’s the first substantive product made public from the citywide component of the plan. As someone mentioned at the last CSO meeting, it would have been nice if they’d posted all or some of it for citizens to view and digest before being asked to provide feedback on it, but they promise it will go on The Website (for posterity, apparently). Wait and see…
The debut of AmericaSpeaks, the organization “brought in to support the New Orleans planning effort because of concerns that many displaced New Orleanians, especially low-income African-Americans, have no voice in recovery decisions” and to collect data and citizen feedback, was of some interest as well. I hope they have some fancier tricks up their 21st century sleeves for putting the $3 million they expect their endeavor to cost ($2.3 million already committed by mysterious private foundations they decline to identify) to use in future meetings – one of the first things they demonstrated to the ballroom using their wireless, real-time polling gizmos was that we were decidedly not consistent with the pre-Katrina demographics in race, income, geography or age (curiously, they made a specialpoint of emphasizing that the 15-19 year old age group was dramatically underrepresented, and we should take care to consider their interests – under-14 year olds apparently need not worry). What they intend to do to address the imbalance isn’t quite clear to me. They did note that the Congress would be broadcast on cable access channels in the “diaspora cities” and that viewers there would be able to provide their feedback via the UNOP’s toll-free number, but the staffer who answered when I called hadn’t heard anything about that yet.
Maybe the real outreach component of AmericaSpeaks’ program hasn’t begun in earnest – most of the press surrounding AmericaSpeaks’ involvement revolves around the ultimate December 2 Community Congress, so it’s not impossible. I think it would be of enormous benefit to New Orleans to work with an organization that’s capable of locating enough respondents, both here in town and elsewhere, to make up something approaching a representative statistical sampling of pre-Katrina residents and to gather their feelings on how our recovery should go. Unfortunately, not only is it unclear how displaced residents will be reached, the UNOP is losing the audience it’s already had. Among the ways in which an AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting (registered trademark) is supposed to be superior to the old-fashioned public hearing is that the public hearing “primarily engages the ‘usual suspects’ – citizens already civically active on specific issues,” and yet there we were, the usual self-selected suspects, diligently reporting to be put through our paces. And that group is rapidly de-selecting – I see fewer and fewer of the faces I know to still be active in their own neighborhoods and in general recovery-related activities. I guess even morbid curiosity wears out after a while.
How to accurately sample a population of which more than half is displaced may be one of the many stretches of uncharted territory New Orleans is faced with right now, but how to compose survey questions to elicit worthwhile, unambiguous answers isn’t. Polling is a pretty well-developed industry. The Usual Suspects may provide an incomplete data set, but they’re by and large an earnest bunch, who give recovery matters a lot of thought, and their responses as individuals count as much as anyone else’s. So what was made of their sacrifice of three hours of a beautiful Saturday morning? Not much, as far as I could tell. I’m not sure how the questions were crafted – I’m sure UNOP told the AmericaSpeaks people what they wanted to ask, but my impression of how AmericaSpeaks conducted the polling suggested that they were more involved than mere readers and tabulators, and anyway, I’d expect an organization that purports to specialize in citizen-led contribution to decision-making to have some expertise how best to craft that opportunity to contribute. A lot of the questions were of the no-brainer variety: it won’t come as much surprise that I’m not the only New Orleanian who thinks hospitals are important. And when issues aren’t so trivial, it isn’t so trivial to design a statement so it can be rated on a 1 to 5 scale – but it isn’t rocket science either. Anyone who’s ever had to answer “on a scale of 1 to 5…” (which is just about everyone) has run across the dilemma conditional situations. It may not be possible to eliminate that entirely, but you can go a long way with a little common sense. I wish I’d saved the 5 page paper questionnaire we were asked to complete, or better yet, just not turned mine in for all the good it’ll do, so I could quote some of the howlers verbatim – one example off the top of my head:
On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 equalling “reason to return to New Orleans” and 5 equalling “reason not to return,” rate the following: adequate levee protection.
Does that mean I’ve returned because I think the levee protection is adequate, or does that mean I would return if it were? After presentations that included current and projected levee status, which is allegedly back up to its pre-Katrina level and undergoing further improvements, I really don’t know which to assume. It didn’t get any better on the rest of the pages.
Also eyebrow raising were a couple instances when AmericaSpeaks president Carolyn Lukensmeyer prefaced questions with admonitions of what to consider while voting. In one case involving funding for parks and recreation areas, she told us to remember the presentation we just heard, and how important it was For The Children (who were probably out enjoying parks and recreation areas rather than sitting in a dark ballroom pretending to be a market-research focus group). If you’d like to capture the true Voice of the People, AmericaSpeaks, you’ll do well to let us remember what to consider on our own. In another case, regarding whether it’s important or not for New Orleans to be the most populous city in the state, Ms. Lukensmeyer brought up Galveston and Houston, raising the specter of becoming a tiny, boutique tourist town while all the real industry moves upriver. Although that happens to be a concern of mine, I don’t think it was AmericaSpeaks’ position to frame the issue in a way that steered attention to an all-or-nothing sort of view while there’s still legitimate room for debate about a smaller, but still vital city. It really isn’t their position to remind us of anything.
So I’m left with the bitter feeling that this is just another UNOP photo-op – the citizenry raptly attentive to the big screen with their very own thoughts and feelings reflected back to them: how democratic (at one point the Founding Fathers were even invoked). And this time they’ve literally outsourced it.
The Ballroom has spoken.
July 30th, 2006
Growing up in Madison, WI, I had plenty of early exposure to liberal, progressive and radical politics (not the same things). Becoming “politically active” as early as middle school was a terrific learning experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and my bleeding-heart credentials remain intact, but by the time I finished high school, shortly before moving to New Orleans, I was running screaming from anything activist whatsoever. The biggest source of frustration, which can be observed at either end of the spectrum (at any end of the multi-dimensional axes of socio-political movements, actually), was the people who were only in it to hear their own voices – the slogan chanters who lived in such delusional vacuums of absolute ideals that reality (the “fact-based” community – where have we heard that lately) was a personal affront that couldn’t be obliterated soon enough. The people who I came to suspect would be devastated if peace, love and understanding were to break out universally from their very own efforts. But a close second after that frustration was the more than full-time job of staying up to date on politics and policy, constantly reading between the lines – not for the nefarious evildoing that the slogan chanters are always on the lookout for (they don’t actually have to read between the lines, they just write it in themselves) – but to understand what was really going on, what really deserved attention and action. So although, as I said, my bleeding-heart commitment to civil rights, civil liberties, responsible coexistence with the environment, etc. were essentially unchanged, I haven’t had much to do with civic involvement in years. Even after Katrina, I’ve tried to follow the news responsibly, but I’m ashamed to say I just haven’t participated very much at all.
Attempting to compile an overview lately of the nacent Unified New Orleans Plan and all the committees, commissions and conspirators who have played a role going back to last September has brought back all of that old frustration and more, but has had the possibly paradoxical effect of making me want to be more involved, not less. Still, it becomes more and more confusing and appalling at every turn, and each time I think I have a grasp on just one strand I’m more tangled than before moments later. I don’t think I’ve ever had more browser windows and tabs open at one time, and there’s always another post or pdf.
I’m going to bed now, after I check out one more thing (or 10 or 20).