New Orleans : Plan for Racial Equality and Environmental Justice

Statement by the Planners Network Steering Committee
Date Published: 9/27/05

Planning in the New Orleans region before Katrina left many people, mostly Black and poor, vulnerable to a natural disaster. They were left behind in the evacuation plans, and many who sought to flee had insufficient resources; in some cases, they were harassed and prevented from fleeing by heavily-armed police and military. They were exposed to environmental hazards and blamed and scape-goated in the media.

Planning for the future of New Orleans is a major concern to progressive urban planners. However, the discussion already unleashed at a national level does not adequately address the basic issues of racial inequality and environmental justice. The following principles should guide the planning process.

  1. All those who were displaced by Katrina should have an opportunity to participate in making decisions about the future of the city and region. They should be empowered to decide whether and how the city is rebuilt.
  2. Given the toxic contamination of flood waters, a full and complete environmental analysis should be done before people move back to New Orleans, and the expediency of getting back to “business as usual” should not take precedence over public health.
  3. The racial divide between New Orleans ‘ central city and suburbs, and among city neighborhoods, should be a central issue in the planning process. Katrina should not become an excuse for a massive removal of blacks and poor from the city, nor should a rebuilt city re-create ghettoes vulnerable to future disasters. Environmental justice concerns should prevent the concentration of hazardous facilities in and near low-income communities of color.
  4. Need should be the main criterion for distributing compensation to victims. Those who are in greatest need include the poor, tenants without property, children and the elderly with limited assets. Businesses and property owners, especially those who have insurance, should not be the primary beneficiaries of government relief. Efforts should be made to reach out and assist immigrants without exposing them to punitive action by immigration authorities.
  5. The federal government’s temporary housing for victims should be of the highest quality possible given the circumstances, and adequate physical and social infrastructure must be provided so that these are viable communities. These temporary communities may well last for many years and become permanent.
  6. Public rebuilding initiatives should promote local economic development by contracting with local businesses and organizations when possible and requiring that workers are paid living wages. The rebuilding effort should not be used as an excuse for corporate profiteering, exploitation of workers, or the downsizing of social programs.
  7. As the experience of the Netherlands has shown us, it is possible to build cities in coastal areas below sea level and protect them from flooding. However, this is only possible when there is a substantial commitment of resources by national government, strong regional planning, and strict local land use regulations. Land use planning in the future New Orleans should preserve wetlands, protect housing, and control the location of industries.

* Tom Angotti, Lee Deuben, Josh Lerner, Richard Milgrom, Norma Rantisi, Alex Schafran, Amy Siciliano. Planners Network is an organization of urban planners, activists and academics.

For post-Katrina organizing, go to: