It's become almost trite to say the real disaster of Hurricane Katrina wasn't natural, but political, thanks to the failure of federal and state authorities. But was disaster already inherent in New Orleans's urban design?
The question lingered at the May 26 conference of People Plan Toronto, a meeting at U of T's Faculty of Architecture inspired in part by the artsy rebellion against condo towers in the Queen West triangle.
It was raised first by speaker Mary Rowe, VP of philanthropic org the Blue Moon Fund, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, who talked about her research into "self-organization as the underpinning of urban resilience' and her experience with New Orleans communities resisting being designated as not rebuildable.
Most instructional was her description of the way the city's layout frustrated attempts to mitigate the disaster. The poorest neighbourhoods, she said, tended to be cut off by thoroughfares, many of them inaccessible by pedestrians, making support work between neighbourhoods difficult when abandoned cars became mouldering barges. Planners, she said, wrote off these neighbourhoods as lost causes.
If we don't plan communities for self-sufficiency, do cities become unable to weather change?
Many of the folks here from Active 18, which is leading the Queen West fight, certainly grasp the urban resilience concept. It's the essence of their campaign to preserve heritage buildings and a local artist economy from condo monoculture.
It probably explains the avoidance of quick fixes on offer at this summit of reps from local organizations across T.O. Any suspicion that the day would turn into a meeting of the low-roof society, for example, quickly evaporated; most of the principals seemed anxious to ensure that things didn't devolve into a hate-on for height; one low-rise warrior was shouted down before he could even finish saying, "We don't want to build up[ward]."
If this conference is any indication, there's a negative correlation between Not In My Backyard syndrome and a real commitment to local planning. The overwhelming message isn't that neighbourhoods want to be left alone; it's that they want to be consulted and convinced, even.
Witness the almost warm welcome given to Howard Cohen, co-founder of real estate firm Context (developer of bejewelled Yorkville behemoth Radio City, recipient of more than its share of skyward fist-shaking) and former chief planner. "All people want to talk about is the height of the building,' he said, and both building design and community design suffer as a result.
Cohen spoke of a 30-storey tower proposal that his firm couldn't get approved, despite plans to build a park and other amenities. A 22-storey building with no amenities was approved instead. "All anyone wanted to do was squash the tower down."
In response to objections that Paris is renowned for low heights and high density, Cohen reminded us of the riots in that city's suburbs. Focus on the core, he said, has come at the cost of poorly integrated sprawl. Though France's immigrant problems may have deeper causes, it's interesting that Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has pushed for affordable housing in Paris's Rosedales, is also the first mayor in a while to challenge that city's planning prohibitions.
To Cohen, towers are the paperweights that hold down progressive plans. "It was because we could guarantee year-round population that the city agreed to fund the waterfront streetcar," he said as an example.
According to Tony Coombes, another former chief planner and current member of consultancy City Formation International, if activists are only asking for the sky, it's because the city has abdicated its responsibility.
Coombes said hated planning appeal body the Ontario Municipal Board is a "distraction" from the real problems: the replacement of real planning by feel-good neighbourhood visioning studies and lack of autonomy for community councils.
The afternoon is spent in breakout sessions discussing variously what to do with the OMB (scrap it), why community groups are alienated (planners don't make the process transparent), and what's to be done (form networks to share planning info.)
Most of the proposed solutions are simple, like bringing back local planning offices rather than leaving it all to the priestly planning caste at City Hall.
While those answers likely could have been written on a card before the summit, it was still interesting to watch the common refrain emerge: people are fascinated by planning and resent having their enthusiasm met with silence and slander.
It took a disaster to force the issue of community planning in New Orleans. If all it ends up taking here is arguments, we should probably consider ourselves lucky.