Cornell students 'speak for justice' by helping rebuild minority neighborhoods in New Orleans

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Nicola Pytell

Cornell planning, design and policy students are working to rebuild New Orleans homes -- helping rescue them not only from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina but also from developers seeking to alter the character of the city's predominantly black neighborhoods.

The developers pressured city, state and federal officials to jettison rebuilding -- incorrectly assuming that few residents would return -- and instead to rezone those areas as open space, to be used to absorb future storm activity.

But the neighborhoods have great historical and cultural importance to the city, noted Ken Reardon, associate professor and chair of Cornell's Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP), who has been leading a Cornell student effort to aid the city's 9th Ward, the poorest but also the closest knit community, with the most churches, civic, cultural and health-care institutions. "Many of the houses were the first property that the children of slaves were able to acquire. They have been in families for generations," he said.

Time is running out to rebuild and preserve them. Residents must come up with a comprehensive alternative plan to the open-space designation by June 30, reported Reardon. If they don't, "there will be major racial and class-based displacement." If they do, it will be a credit to the involvement of many, including the Cornell students. But, Reardon cautioned, "It's still a significant uphill battle to convince the city, state and federal planning agencies that the majority of the 9th Ward residents can be re-housed in a viable and sustainable way in the neighborhood."

Weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, Reardon responded to an urgent request for high-quality planning help in New Orleans from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a grass-roots nonprofit. The city's own planning department had been reduced to a staff of six and was unable to assist.

Last fall, producing a comprehensive planning document in less than eight months "seemed unimaginable," said Reardon, who mobilized college planning and design programs across the country to assist. He also presented the "opportunity" to help to about 100 Cornell students and a few faculty members in planning, design and policy. "They voted overwhelmingly to make this a priority," he said.

The students and faculty worked with ACORN to form the New Orleans Planning Initiative (NOPI), which led to seven CRP service-learning courses across campus focusing on New Orleans planning (Open Space Resources and Disaster Resistance in a Post-Katrina New Orleans; Urban Economics; Introduction to Geographic Information Systems; Land Use Regulation; City Planning Design Studio; Measured Drawings; and Quantitative Techniques for Policy Analysis and Program Management).

The students and faculty also made multiple trips to the city to talk with locals about community needs and rolled up their sleeves to help gut the most-damaged houses.

On May 15 in Anabel Taylor Hall's One World Room the student teams reported on their efforts. One team proposed the best housing and rebuilding options for residents. Another team reported on returning residents, noting that 9,000 were already living in the upper 9th Ward, with another 16,000 planning to return. A team of Historic Preservation Planning students offered a plan for the rehabilitation and expansion of the area's St. Roch market. A team of urban design students made recommendations for embellishing the neighborhoods' special character and linking it to the rest of the city through a riverfront walk, parks and other gathering places.

CRP graduate student Xinyuan Yang proposed an informal, neighborhood-run shuttle bus as a way to offer residents flexible, low-cost transportation. And Shigeru Tanaka and Andrew Rumbach, also CRP graduate students, used the lessons learned from Katrina to develop their evacuation plan for the area.

In addition, CRP faculty members Ole Amundsen and George Frantz spoke about coastal wetlands losses and what might be done to minimize them and lessen the impact of future storms on the region.

And a team of graduate students in Professor David B. Lewis' CRP policy analysis course presented on a forecasting and management decision-making tool they developed to help ACORN allocate resources efficiently. Lewis, director of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, said the students' work was only the beginning: "We're looking for a long-term relationship of one to two decades with the residents of New Orleans' minority communities and ACORN."

"I've never been prouder of a group of students," Reardon told the presenters, praising them for using their planning tools to "speak for justice." The work will continue, he promised, with planning students interning in New Orleans this summer and a range of related Cornell courses being offered in 2006-07.

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Linda Myers