It’s no secret that I’ve never been a fan of urban planning. The idea of some committee micromanaging what structure should go where, what uses should be permitted, what time we should be having our bowel movements (ok, perhaps they don’t go that far), has always unnerved me.
A die-hard planner looks at a map of New Orleans and they don’t see an established city chock-full of independent decision-makers. Instead, they see an interactive game that they can manipulate and control. They see “Sim City.”
Exhibit “A” for this is Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who decided to put her foot in her mouth while giving a speech before the House while arguing against an amendment to block funding for an Obama Administration Flood Risk Management Executive Order.
Specifically, Kaptur said the following:
“I was shocked to see that there were decisions made for land planning to absolutely rebuild where all the damage had occurred,” Kaptur said, her dull, uncomprehending stare no doubt unnerving C-SPAN viewers.
“I even made suggestions in the Ninth Ward inside of New Orleans,” Kaptur continued, seemingly unaware of just how malodorous her verbal diarrhea had become. “‘Why don’t you leave that open for agriculture so that when you get another big threat from the ocean you won’t harm as many people,’ and it was as though no one wanted to listen.”
Of course nobody wanted to listen to Kaptur, because her views were odious garbage. The US government was never going to venture into an established residential neighborhood to not merely tell residents that they couldn’t rebuild their homes, but that the federal government would be exercising eminent domain with designs to deliver the land to some random farmer (who would not, in turn, actually want the land).
Worse, Kaptur’s remarks ironically came just hours before a judge in Washington ruled that MR-GO, a navigation channel owned and managed by the federal government, was responsible for some of the flooding in New Orleans, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward.
So who is Kaptur anyway? Is she just ignorant and spouting off nonsense? Surely her words shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of urban planning.
Actually, no. Kaptur has a master’s degree in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan and performed postgraduate work in urban planning at MIT. She’s a credentialed expert in planning, and yet thought it appropriate to toss around the idea of turning an old New Orleans neighborhood into Green Acres.
Nor is Kaptur some political neophyte. She’s been in Congress since 1983, tying for the distinction of being the second longest-serving woman with Senator Barbara Boxer. She ranks 15th in seniority in Congress and sits on the Appropriations Committee. As members of Congress go, she’s among the most powerful.
Thus, Kaptur’s words were not those of a powerless hack, but rather those of a powerful politician and trained expert. Nevertheless, she was really, truly aghast that her proposal to raze one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods following Hurricane Katrina was not openly received.
The reason for Kaptur’s tone deaf words lies in the heart of urban planning itself. Planners see themselves as benevolent deities, all-knowing and all-powerful but ultimately good.
It’s easy to liken Kaptur’s prescriptions to those of Ebenezer Howard, a planner who founded the so-called “garden city” movement aimed at replacing dense urban areas with development more in tune with nature. Instead of placing the blame where it belongs – on failed levees and improper management of the Mississippi River – she effectively argues that poor planning was the true culprit in Katrina’s devastation.
Famed urbanist Jane Jacobs later condemned Howard’s ideas. ““His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own,” Jacobs wrote. “As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge.”
Kaptur’s fatal mistake was in assuming that the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward had no plans on their own, that they were mere pawns to be moved around by planners willy-nilly.
It’s an affliction common to planners – the assumption that the world must bend to their will, and everyone else’s plans are subservient to their own. Thankfully, in a free society such as ours, we don’t lightly demand a city uproot its residents. To the contrary, we react with disgust at the notion that rebuilding our city was some kind of game to be played by those in Washington.
Alas, that is something that Kaptur and most planners may never understand.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.