Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You mean we're not done yet?

Updated below

Are we really still shrinking?

This represents a major undertaking by Gordon Russell and the Times-Picayune.

Take a look here, here, here, and here as well. There are a bunch of different parts.


Ambitious effort

One of my biggest complaints about the Times-Picayune, and about political discourse in New Orleans generally, is the lack of comparative context. New Orleans will never succumb to American typicality, nor should anyone want it to. That doesn't mean that it isn't useful to examine what makes other cities tick and what kinds of policies and practices might be easily fitted to the New Orleans template. I have tried to do this from time to time with the other city that I know well, Philadelphia.

I have done a lot of complaining about how reactionary this city's policies are toward development, poverty, and crime. Mayor Nagin's policies toward homelessness were so backward, for instance, that the Bush administration sent officials down to urge him toward a more humanitarian (and effective) approach. An examination of the permanent supportive housing policies being embraced throughout the rest of the country, in similarly poor cities like Washington D.C would have been extremely useful. Katy Reckdahl did some of that, but the effort was not wholeheartedly embraced or featured by her masters at the editor's desk.

I wrote about Philadelphia's grassroots-driven master plan for the Delaware River waterfront in comparison to the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing to push the Reinventing the Crescent development forward with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps no New Orleans institution deserves that kind of comparative treatment more than our criminal justice system, an objective embarrassment by any standard in the industrialized West and plenty of standards in the developing world.

To date, the Times-Picayune never once mentioned Naomi Klein's name or the theories of Shock Doctrine, her book, though she specifically compares governmental responses to catastrophic disaster. There's even a chapter about New Orleans specifically. Ray Nagin is reading it.

To see Gordon Russell make the effort to contextualize some of the challenges facing New Orleans with a lengthy comparative article is certainly encouraging and opens many additional avenues that I hope the Times-Picayune will stroll.

Wrong Cities

There are a number of issues with this particular effort, however, that I'd like to discuss. The first article of the series sets up the rest of the work. In it, Russell outlines some of the issues facing New Orleans, putting forth the fact that New Orleans was on the decline for decades before Katrina. This, he offers, makes it similar in some ways to Rust Belt cities like Youngstown, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, because these cities have also lost population over the last several decades.

While he does also mention the reasons for those cities' decline - the loss of manufacturing jobs - he doesn't quite convince me of the utility of the comparison.

For one, nearly every historic urban core in the United States bled population during the second half of the 20th Century. Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Boston and others were also victimized by white flight and the decline of manufacturing. The key difference is that the cities Russell puts forth also experienced incredible population decline within their respective metro regions. Certainly, the growth of the Sunbelt dispersed economic and political clout from all of the Northeast but the urban decay in Philadelphia, D.C., and Boston was balanced by overall metro area growth.

Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Youngstown, though they did experience area suburbanization, were so devastated by the decline of manufacturing that the overall metro region decayed to an extent not seen on the Eastern Seaboard.

The New Orleans metro area, though it underperformed in comparison to other Sunbelt cities, did not decline the same way that Rust Belt cities did. Rather, the Gulf Region has grown in spite of the population loss in Orleans Parish proper.

A town like Youngstown has to undertake policies that assume further population loss because they don't have a large enough metro population to bait back into the urban fabric. Baltimore, on the other hand, has a huge suburban population that can be brought back into the city. That is why Baltimore is not bulldozing neighborhoods or talking about shrinking their footprint - and Baltimore has scores of social challenges that Youngstown does not.

Flawed Premise

The other major idea coming out of Russell's article is this dichotomy between 'smart growth' and 'smart decline.' Observe:

The hardest part of "getting real" is figuring out what to do in the parts of town bleeding population.

It's the mirror image of typical urban planning. The debate in a rapidly growing city like Phoenix tends to be: How much must we widen Road A to accommodate new Subdivision B?

Those who study shrinking cities say depopulation should inspire a similar process -- "smart decline," some call it, riffing on the familiar "smart growth."


In many cities, moving out of the denial stage -- what Bingler called "getting real" -- is the hardest part.

That's because shrinkage connotes defeat. But advocates of smart decline say it shouldn't. After all, continual expansion brings its own curses: sprawl, traffic jams, cookie-cutter subdivisions and chain restaurants, much of which New Orleans has mercifully avoided.

Terry Schwarz, a planning professor at Kent State University's Cleveland campus and an expert on shrinking cities, speaks with wry disdain of her parents' adopted home of Phoenix, a city whose explosive growth is often seen as proof of its desirability.

"Have you ever been to Phoenix?" she asked. "It's an awful place."

There is a major problem here. Pheonix, and most every other growing city in the Sunbelt, do not typify 'smart growth.' In fact, 'smart growth' was developed in direct response to places like Phoenix. (By the way, Phoenix is indeed an awful place. It is the worst place I have ever visited in my whole life. Ever.) Places like Phoenix, Dallas-Forth Worth, Houston, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, etc., expanded and developed wildly with no attention paid to urban sustainability. 'Smart growth' is a relatively recent response to that type of wild free-market expansion; it attempts to regulate development in a way that protects residential interests, environmental sustainability, and the limits of infrastructure systems within the framework of dense urbanity. 'Smart decline' is not a response to Sunbelt homogenization or to smart growth - it's just planners and academics trying to be cute with their terminology.

I don't think there's a single person in Orleans Parish advocating for the kind of cul-de-sac, big box, chain restaurant, subdivision, unregulated expansion that the article's dichotomy seems to imply. Rather, I think everyone recognizes the need to regulate how development happens in Orleans Parish moving forward. The problem here is that certain planners like Steven Bingler continue to push for a shrunken footprint, the closure of whole swaths of the city, and the enshrined displacement of Katrina victims. While this is a morally perilous approach, it is also not feasible now, not after tens of thousands of residents returned to the very neighborhoods typically circled for closure. Bingler and the larger planner cabal that brought us the failed BNOB plan continue to cling to that divisive recovery model and continue to poison ongoing efforts to craft a consensus master plan that provides for both sustainability and Parish-wide recovery. It is an illusion to think that nobody will have to sacrifice anything - there's going to need to be green space - but to suggest that 'smart decline' is the right model for New Orleans is counterproductive and wrongheaded.

I'd argue that it is the decliners that need to "get real." They seem to be the ones that continually advocate for dumping hundreds of millions of one time only dollars into gigantic trickle down projects like Reinventing the Crescent, the LSU/VA, and a Superdome Entertainment District while sustainable neighborhoods all over the city cry out for micro investment. It is absolutely silly to proritize the Reinventing the Crescent project over basic investment in New Orleans East, but that's what we're doing. The sliver by the river will do just fine if we stall a massive riverfront redevelopment but can New Orleans East make it another ten years without an urban mainstreet?

Aren't We Still Growing, Anyway?

Though repopulation has stalled, we're still regaining population, not losing it. And as I'm recalling, there are still some 85k Road Home properties and some 15k affordable housing units in the pipeline still, though they're tenuous because of the credit crisis, etc. Correct me if I'm wrong about that...

Nagin, Leadership to Blame

Though he doesn't spend enough time making the point, Russell smartly fixes blame where it belongs:

Put bluntly, Mayor Ray Nagin's declaration that a laissez-faire "market forces" approach would drive New Orleans' population higher than before the flood seems well off the mark. Although some neighborhoods have recovered strongly, in many the population remains down by 50 percent or more. Across the flood zone, ghost homes sit empty by the hundreds on blighted, overgrown blocks.

This is the biggest reason why we continue to have acrimonious and divided debates over recovery. The only time New Orleans could have made the big changes was right after the storm. At that time, if it was clear that, for instance, much of New Orleans East would remain an unsustainable place to live in the short and medium term, a Mayor could have set forth an ambitious agenda to properly compensate homeowners and renters from those parts of the city and to provide ALL victims of the Federal Flood with access to housing in more sustainable areas of the city where investment and development made more sense. I'm not saying that effort would have worked, as clearly the current civic leadership did not and does not have the trust of the people or the urban vision to pull anything like that off, but that was the time to try it.

Instead, Nagin et al permitted a jack-o-lantern recovery that has really hurt the ability of city government to provide decent services and of residents to have a decent quality of life. But now that we already have that, perhaps the right thing to do is to put some of these big trickle-down projects on the back burner and instead invest more creatively in grassroots neighborhood recovery.


What do you think?

My vote for next big Gordon Russell spread is the criminal justice system. You could maybe make up enough money for Reinventing the Crescent by 'shrinking' the local prison-industrial complex alone.


An anonymous university type, via email:

I think you miss the key point. The majority of displaced blacks were employed (Washington Post survey in the shelters, September 10-12) and New Orleans had a robust economy. People with jobs were forced out of the city a gunpoint, whether they were flooded or not. Their jobs, housing, schools, are still here in one form or another. They are locked out and any policy to discourage their return is racist. When you are forced out of your home at gunpoint and given a one-way ticket out of the city, that’s an injustice that deserves to be remedied regardless of the desires of the urban planners for a middle class city. They use Rigamer’s numbers because the exaggerate by 100,000 the black population to give the illusion that everyone is home that wants to come home. The census bureau says we are missing about 200,000 black folks.

Nagin is no free-marketer. Look at his BNOBC plan—that’s about as draconian as you can get. He just refuses to let white folks, who virtually all think like the TP, to sit down and draw up a plan because the outcome will be to reduce the poor and black population. Would you let Janet Howard and Boysie Bollinger back in the door after what happened before? And this time they would learn from Vallas—make the plan 2,000 pages long so no one can figure it out, then submit to the council for approval while you have a white majority council.


The point about Nagin as a free-marketer needs to be made—he just uses that as a ruse and the media swallows it. Where’s the free-market ideology in the hospital debacle? He’s just using conservative terms against conservatives. Bottom line is that he made a commitment to the black community not to greenspace it and he has no reason to let urban planners make a liar out of him. The number of blocks with isolated occupied homes is minuscule—and no one has data on it. It stands out when you see it, but it’s hardly an economic problem—one more block for SDT to drive—what’s that, 10 cents in gas? I think the utility companies are the ones primarily behind the “footprint” stuff. They never wanted to re-wire the city and even balked on restoring the gas grid in the ninth ward. My brother-in-law works for a contractor for the phone company and he said that Bell could have rewired the phone service for the whole city in a few months, but decided to use the disaster to convert from copper to fiber optics so they could compete with Cox, thus delaying the recovery of the East by at least 18 months.

One of my friends in the east says 80% of the homes on his block are re-building. I see that all over the east, especially on weekends when people return to work on homes.

This is good stuff. Why don't the university guys talk more often? Are we just not asking?


Anonymous said...

Buried way down in one of the stories was an overview of initiatives the city has tried in re to planning for a smaller city. And one mentioned was the "redevelopment zone" plan of Ed Blakely. It is suggested that the efficacy of these programs is more or less impossible to judge at this point.

Who says so? The article doesn't quote anybody as saying that, and doesn't suggest when it might be time to judge whether they have worked, or to make any sort of judgment about them at all.

Meanwhile, a section of those zones, at Broad and Bayou Rd., has developed into a surprisingly diverse commercial zone (be sure to check out the record store, if you're around, not to mention the new coffee shop, the Jamaican place, etc.) with hardly anything resembling government assistance, as far as I know.

E said...


Anonymous Education Blogger said...

I think its also somewhat wrong to compare the recovery (or lack thereof) in certain areas of New Orleans to a city like Baltimore which is attempting to bring people back into an older city center that already has the qualities we now recognize as "smart," like density and walkability.
New Orleans East, which is probably the main focus of the movement to shrink the city's footprint, is no different in its physical layout than some of the worst areas of Metairie or Kenner. It doesn't have anything positive to capitalize on to bring people back from Jefferson or St. Tammany. Regaining residents from the surrounding suburbs means offering them either a better version of what they already have or something desirable but totally different.
I believe that this can be done, but I don't think its going to happen in the sprawled out, suburban-like East. Our best bet is shrinking the physical footprint and engaging in infill development in the historic city center, including using vacant lots and blighted housing as opportunity to create low-income subsidized housing.

jeffrey said...

Re: Bayou rd and Broad. I would also like to plug the King Buffet at that corner. Very good food for the price.

I think the Anon Education dude is right about the ugly sprawl that is the NOE and I think that needs to be rethought or improved upon somehow. But I don't want to see that turned into an excuse for abandonment which is what I think can happen very easily.

Anonymous said...

The main problem here with Eastern New Orleans (NO East was the name of a failed planned community; Lady Bird Johnson was one of the main investors for it--see the nearby presence of NASA, then put two and two together) is that it's not any less "historic" than Lakeview or Gentilly (which is to be receiving, or the plans are for it to be receiving) a big shot in the arm via the New Orleans Redveloment Authority.

I'm not in favor of Metairie-like sprawl, but ... some people like Phoenix, I suppose. It's a value judgment being made there, not a thoroughly rational one. Carrollton was a 'burb at one point as well (although I know there's a difference between that sort of 'burb and the post-1960s sort of a type that's probably not too hard to quantify, if you're not averse to reducing abstract concepts to variables that could be measured), as was Broadmoor (subject of so much debate during the footprint debate) and the City Park area, sections of Mid-City, etc.

In short, the city would rightly lose millions upon millions in a lawsuit if it plans based on aesthetic value judgments alone.

As for livability, areas of the city have seen many murders so where's the argument for their being more attractive to people from outside of the city? Do you have survey data or something to back the point up? Many people probably live in Metairie because they want a big house and easy access to a nearby Target. Seriously. What sort of people want to move back into the central cities, and why? Who is Baltimore getting to come back into the cities? Young people, singles, yuppies and dinks, primarily.

Anonymous said...

The strongest case to be made against Eastern NOLA is the environmental one, not an anti-sprawl one. The Michoud fault is causing the land to sink at a greater rate than in the rest of the NOLA metro area, it sits so close to what can only be called "Lake" Borgne (yes, lake in quotations), etc. But I'm not sure if the enviro argument could hold up in court. I am not an attorney anyway.

Anonymous Education Blogger said...

This anonymous university person has some interesting points, but the little data he or she mentions is all wrong, and its hard to take serious points made with assertions like "My brother in law said. . . " and "What I see on the weekends. . ."

As of December 2007 (the latest population estimates Rigamer has on his website), GCR estimates the population of New Orleans at 295,448. As of July 2007, the Census Bureau has the number at 239,124. That's a much smaller differential that may be even smaller in reality, if the Census had numbers through December of last year.

Additionally, if no one has data on the number of isolated homes on blocks, how can we say "it's not an economic problem." We can't say anything about the situation if no one has any data.

It would be extremely unwise for our government or our citizens to make major decisions about the future of the city based on anecdotal information or distorted statistics, even if that information supports my personal feelings on the matter. It is frustrating to see arguments based on this kind of information, especially from a "university type" who really should know better.

E said...

"We can't say anything about the situation if no one has any data."

I think that's part of what he was saying.