Social Justice in New Orleans – Planning after Katrina

By Peter Marcuse

This is intended by the author as a framework for discussion, and it should be stated at the outset that, if limits to what has been accomplished emerge, that is in no way a reflection on the quality of the effort, the integrity of the participants, or the solid contribution they have made in many specific instances to implementing the progressive goals that they pursued.


Progressive planning, in the words of the Statement of Principles of the Planners Network, is “an important voice for progressive planning, social equity, and environmental justice.” What exactly is “progressive planning?” This article hopes to contribute to a discussion of what the answer should be, first laying out some theoretical approaches, then using the example of planning in New Orleans after Katrina to test the approach.

New Orleans after Katrina has probably seen more planning activities from more directions by more diverse planners in a shorter time than any city in the United States in recent years. Many Planners Network members have been actively involved, mostly on a pro bono basis and largely through university schools of planning, with energetic contributions made by faculty and students. The Cornell experience, resulting in the People’s Plan for the Lower Ninth Ward, is a dramatic example of one of the largest of these Planners Network-inspired efforts ( (30 MB) ).

What kind of efforts have these been, and what have been their achievements and limits?

This article does not attempt to answer that question, but rather to suggest a theoretical framework, grounded in a progressive planning theory appropriate to the mission of Planners Network, by which the answers might be approached, and then to suggest some  possibilities for their practical interpretation in the New Orleans context.

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The framework suggested is as follows:

Varieties of Planning

  • Sham planning
  • Predatory planning
  • Conventional planning
  • Ethical planning
  • Justice planning
  • Critical planning
  • Utopian planning

Sham planning – planning is here used in the sense of public planning, the planning of public policy – is planning that abdicates any independent role and permits the market and planners working for private clients to make all decisions. Any public planning that does not deal realistically with the resources necessary for the plan’s implementation is sham planning. Predatory planning often builds on sham planning; it is unethical planning that knowingly fosters segregation, inequality, pollution, injustice. Conventional planning is the range of planning as it is generally practiced today.
Narrowly ethical planning is conventional planning with explicit acknowledgment of ethical aspects
Justice planning, which may build on the concept of the just city, makes ethical objectives and the amelioration of injustices its primary goal and is essentially redistributive of existing resources and relationships.

Critical planning looks to the roots of roots of problems as well as their symptoms and pursues a vision of something beyond the pragmatic and beyond what is immediately doable today. It might be spelled out to include exposing the power and exploitative relations that create problems such as poverty, inadequate housing, pollution, and insecurity; proposing measures that would tackle these sources of problems not just their symptoms, pursuing a vision of new a different relations society-wide; politicizingthe planning process, to make clear that it is not the logic of plans, but the organizing and political action behind them that will produce results; and always disclosing the limits of the planning process, so that no illusions are created and the focus on political action towards implementation remains clear.

Critical Planning—exposes, proposes, politicizes, and discloses.

Utopian planning focuses solely on the vision behind critical planning, generally in abstract and physically stylized terms, but does not deal with implementation. It is not sham planning, however, for it does not purport to deal with implementation, but is in a sense pure vision.

New Orleans before Katrina had a small planning department, and Katrina crippled what ability it had to plan comprehensively for the city. Many welcomed the absence of  formal public control over development in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane; not even sham planning was required to justify U.S. Representative Richard H. Baker, referring to the damage inflicted by the hurricane on public housing in the city,  saying, “we finally claimed up public housing in neo. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

When the Secretary of HUD says New Orleans “is not going to be so  black as it was for along time, if ever again,” the statement, coming from the top federal official concerned with urban issues, certainly constitutes a sham form of planning, an abject surrender to presumed private market forces.  And when he shortly thereafter announces a plan to demolish 5,000 units of public housing, the borderline to predatory planning has been crossed.

The Bring New Orleans Back plan, by contrast, which called for the permanent abandonment of the poorer and predominantly African-American neighborhoods in the city decimated by the floods, was the product of sham planning in spades, bleeding into predatory planning territory had it actually been implemented. Its provenance is linked to its conclusion, the commission issuing it having been led by the largest private real estate developer in the city. The proposals of the Urban Land Institute, the national trade body of commercial real estate developers, were classically conventional planning, seeing economic development and opportunities for private profit-making as identical goals and the primary goal of public policy. Andrés Duany’s gloss on such plans took the form of proposals for physical development along new urbanist lines, assuming middle class forms diluted by lower incomes and resources.

The Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) moves in the direction of more ethical planning. It picks out seventeen neighborhoods for priority public attention, including those lower-income ones hardest hit by the hurricane. The plan diplomatically includes a range of neighborhoods and neighborhood types, including much of the Ninth Ward as well as both commercial and industrial areas, such that all interests might see themselves as being treated equally.

A number of private, voluntary, community-based, non-profit efforts have also flourished over the last year in New Orleans. One of these is the People’s Plan for the Ninth Ward, undertaken by a set of universities, Cornell and Pratt Institute the principals, for and with ACORN, strong in New Orleans, the home of its national headquarters. This plan is a model of sensitive, professionally competent, ethical planning. It is not only a physical plan, although it includes many physical proposals, including suggestions for housing of a variety of types and for a variety of incomes. It also addresses education, jobs, health care, recreation, open space and environmental quality. Its ethical basis and practical virtues are indisputable. It pays attention to immediate needs and in practice contributed immediate services where they were immediately needed, even before getting into planning. It calls for housing assistance for homeowners, rent stabilization for tenants and preservation and improvement of housing units for public housing residents. It is, given the circumstances of its production, a very competent, very ethically-oriented plan.

Justice planning might go further (although certainly elements of the People’s Plan go in this direction already). Justice planning might mean dealing with planning for areas of New Orleans far outside of the Ninth Ward, and indeed outside of the city and the state. For the redistribution that justice planning would necessarily seek, resources would be required, not only from New Orleans’ very profitable real estate and commercial interests, but also from the federal government, and to a much lesser extent, the state government. The Congressional Black Caucus pressed for legislation toward that end. It is revealing that Ed Blakely, the city’s reconstruction administrator, not relying on any such resources becoming available, estimates that it will be fifteen years before the city reaches the goals his plans postulate. Justice would require greater speed.
And, almost by nature of its self-assignment and the need to get a plan done quickly and in a format that could actually tap available resources, the People’s Plan stops short of dealing explicitly with deep issues of social justice or looking critically at the limits of the practical. There are many reasons for this—not least the fast time frame for the plan, compressed even more when the team was fired from the mainstream UNOP planning process. To attract attention, the team under advice from their partner ACORN, opted to complete the plan two weeks before the remaining UNOP plans, working with borrowed funds and little assistance. However, next stages of the planning could go further. For instance, it calls for minimizing speculation in real property, not eliminating it, and protecting public housing, not expanding it. Economic development is by way of workforce training, not living wage legislation or public works programs. And proposals for education are limited to elementary schools and to the prioritization of construction jobs in vocational-technical education. Future disasters, specifically hurricane-related, are dealt with by calls for evacuation planning, not restoration of wetlands, construction of more effective levees or changes to other major infrastructure, such as closing the Mr. Go canal.

What might a critical planning perspective add to plans such as the People’s Plan, if part of a next phase of planning, and not so limited by the need to focus on one place in a short period of time?

It might expose:

  • The class, race and gender roots of current problems by examining or calling for an inquiry into the specific extent to which the shipping, oil and real estate industries, as well as governmental corruption, have contributed to the disaster.
  • The class, race and gender roots of power by looking at the links among the various holders of power in New Orleans, including elected officials, regulatory agency members, the business community and political leaders.
  • How the benefits and costs of public budgets are distributed by class, race, gender and neighborhood through an examination of local, state and federal budgets.
  • The great contrasts between neighborhoods and cities, and their correlations with class, race and gender.
  • The way in which market forces have contributed to inequality and segregation, making certain communities and individuals more vulnerable to Katrina and determining how Katrina’s damages have been handled.
  • The role of shipping companies, oil companies and real estate developers in magnifying the destructive impact of Katrina and the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers in preventing damage.

It might propose:

  • A fully funded right to return at full cost, for renters and owners.
  • Decentralization of power to the community level, including provisions for a public planning process with full democratic participation resulting in legally binding plans.
  • Living wages that are enforced, include local hiring preferences and offer full protection for immigrant residents and immigrants brought in by labor recruiters for temporary work.
  • Alternatives to present canals and shipping lanes and forms of levee construction.
  • Recovery of damages from shipping and oil companies and the Corps of Engineers.
  • Wetlands restoration.
  • Preservation, improvement and expansion of public housing.
  • Acquisition of land for affordable housing in all parts of the city, including takings by eminent domain where necessary.
  • A participatory budgeting process.
  • A steeply progressive tax on speculation.
  • Addressing all social justice issues as planning issues, i.e., education, criminal justice, the environment, immigration, discrimination, wage levels.

It might politicize:

  • Highlight limitations of planning without active organizing behind it.
  • Clarify likely conflicts, power relations, coalition possibilities.
  • Prepare an implementation schedule with a proposed timetable and recommend a procedure for monitoring.
  • Formulate the plan as an organizing tool.
  • Create a visioning process that deals with appropriate relations of power.

It might disclose:

  • The limits of planning.
  •  An inventory of tasks not accomplished.
  •  A strategic plan for accomplishing them.

These are not tasks that can be expected of a volunteer, short-term, largely unfunded private effort. These are tasks that should be the responsibility of planners working with and for communities in a transparent and participatory public planning process. The net result might be to add a longer-term challenge to the existing structures of power to a set of immediate and needed improvements in conditions as they are. We are a far cry away from such a planning process, not only in New Orleans, but in most cities in our country. But it seems to me this is what progressive planning should aim to be.

Peter Marcuse is a faculty member at Columbia University.

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