May 042015

Owen Courreges

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 on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  31 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Demolishing the Ninth Ward — the urban planner’s vile fantasy”

  1. I certainly was not for abandoning the ninth ward or any part of it, but I am disappointed that we did not get more green space out of the deal. The Nagin/Blanco bring-everyone-home idea was poor and it has not been adopted (not even in St. Bernard) by the people it was supposed to protect. I doubt if some neighborhoods with antiquated lot sizes and far from anything of interest will ever be fully occupied again. Some urban planning to reconfigure some of those places around more parks or green space might have helped save them. No one who knew the lower nine pre-k really would like to see it duplicated as it was.

    • deux amours, do you live in the ninth ward? would any urban planner suggest that Lake View be turned into a green park so the rest of the city could view the lake? Just asking.

      • Green space is plentiful in Lakeview, and it did not suffer from much pre-k that an urban planner could correct, so I doubt that any urban planner would suggest what you ask. Do you think all of the lower nine should have been reconstructed as it was? Do you think the people there would have resented a nice new park?

    • Deux,

      Who would have been paying to maintain all this new green space? There was no money to buy the land and certainly no money to build and maintain new parks, etc. You’re correct that some of these neighborhoods won’t be fully occupied again, and we’ll have to deal with blight issues and so forth as a result. However, I don’t think it was wrong for the city to welcome everyone back if they wanted to return.

      • I had no plan, but I tend to believe that civic ventures are actually doable, even in these depressed days in a poor country like America. I think it was good to welcome everyone back, but now we have to take care of properties not really returned to commerce. Who is going to pay for that? I think we are going to need a visit from those evil urban planners.

      • Owen, the same people would pay for the green space that pay for the un-used Sewage, runoff, water supply, electricity and gas capacity in place to provide services to these nearly empty neighborhoods. Every time I drive through the Lower 9th and look north of Claiborne I see these lovely new “off the grid” homes, that are quite “ON THE GRID” that I am subsidizing.

  2. I am a licensed Landscape Architect and Certified Planner with undergraduate and graduate degrees. Under no circumstance should a planner be telling a community what they should do. Rather, the planner’s job is to work WITH the community, advise them on pros and cons of existing conditions and what they envision for themselves, then helping formulate a sustainable, achievable plan that is a framework for the future. The plan is not a carved-in-stone decree, but a working plan that is flexible to respond to change. In the end, is the community’s plan!

  3. If we demolished the Lower 9th, what would we do with all of the solar panels?

  4. Owen, without urban planners, we would not have many of the magnificent cities in their forms we have today, including New Orleans. Iconic cities like Paris, Amsterdam, New York City, Washington DC, Prague, etc., all did not just “happen” that way. They were thought out intelligently and artfully by city planners. Allowing cities to develop WITHOUT urban planning results in a mess of a city like Baton Rouge.

    That being said, obviously Ms. Kaptur does not know what she’s talking about. However, she does sort of have a point, albeit not the one she was trying to make. There is NO good reason why we’ve continued to develop as recklessly at be used to. We continue to build hospitals, schools, homes, businesses, and public buildings all at grade level. It really should be law that ALL new construction should be a minimum of 12 feet off the ground, because it’s not a question of IF the levees will breach and the city will flood again, but WHEN. We are setting ourselves up for another disaster. Management of the river and levees can only do so much. We are in a vulnerable location. That doesn’t mean we need to abandon any neighborhoods, but we should at least be smart about it. The city needs to redevelop on the assumption that the levees will not hold.

  5. I’m sure you won’t mind when someone wants to tear down the house next to yours and put up a condo building. You must have loved the aircraft-carrier of a hospital complex in mid town since that was ruled off-limits to any planning. Silly to have any thought about the city at all.

  6. While I have no love for overly bureaucratic nonsense, you contradict yourself here:

    “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.”

    The failed levees and improper management were, in fact, the result of poor planning. So yeah, planning does actually come into play if you want to avert disaster. The “market”, especially as it functions currently, has little need or use for this type of thing. The “market” is also not interested in having former residents return to the area, but would rather somehow gussy it up with “luxury” condos. The developers will promise to build affordable housing, get their tax-breaks, (privately thank their lackeys in Baton Rouge,) fail to build said affordable homes and cash out before anyone can do anything about it.

    If companies plan for the future instead of letting each employee do whatever he or she wants, why should citizens via their government not consider planning strategies? The argument is patently absurd.

    • caspian,

      I’m talking more about the specific exercise of urban planning as opposed to planning generically. This means I’m speaking more about the layout of the city being blamed as opposed to the failure of the levees (the real culprit). In any event, I’ve always understood that the problem with the levees was more about construction flaws than actual design flaws (pilings not being driven in as deeply as was called for, poor maintenance, etc). The exception to that is, of course, MR-GO, but that was obviously planned.

      With respect to your commentary regarding the “market,” I just don’t see the problem. It’s one thing for some central planner to tell people they can’t move back, but it’s quite another if circumstances simply make it difficult to move back or if it makes it more lucrative to sell and move elsewhere. I don’t approve of developer tax breaks, but at the same time I don’t think that building more condos is necessarily a bad thing.

    • I’m glad other points were addressed and not mine. Presumably it means I was correct m

  7. Owen, I can think of no
    other profession more reputed for its “verbal diarrhea” than that
    of legal profession. So pot, meet kettle. I feel it’s a little rude to throw an
    entire field down the tubes because a local politician with a degree from
    thirty years ago has outdated views. There are planners who can do good. Maybe
    not in Nola, but exist. Now I think we can all agree about landscape architects…
    ugh… 😉

    • vobeck,

      I am often aghast at how certain members of my chosen profession behave, so that doesn’t offend me. If somebody wrote a column slamming aspects of the legal profession, you might find I agree with more of it than I disagree.

      I actually do agree that some planners do good, but usually within greater constraints. Give planners wide authority (as zoning often does) and they’ll tend to abuse it.

  8. Levees work. A hundred years ago, people in the city watched the rising river each Spring with great trepidation. Now it hardly gets noticed. Properly built hurricane protection levees should be no different.

    • Levees work until they don’t. The seas are rising, the wetlands are being swallowed by the Gulf, and levees can only do so much. New Orleans WILL have a catastrophic flood again. It is irresponsible of us to not prepare accordingly.

      • WIll we have another great fire too? You start and end with truisms. Yes we want to be responsible and prepare for disasters accordingly. Are the End Times near?

        • That’s a poor comparison, and you know it.

          I’m not going for any dramatics. It is a plain and simple fact. We live in a flood zone. It will flood again at some point. We should prepare accordingly in order to minimize the damage. It’s not rocket science.

        • Deux,

          Hear, hear. Major natural disasters are inevitable in many places, but modern engineering should be able to handle it.

          • Modern engineering told itself that 30 years ago, Owen. But hey, I’m glad you’re trotting out your crystal ball and telling everyone that as long as we invest in private development and tell off these silly planners we’ll all be delivered to safety by the generous, fair and virtuous hand of the free market….

  9. Agreed. Your examples of those cities is excellent, but I would add Rotterdam to that list. It’s urban planning and reconstruction after being leveled in WW2 is a work of efficient beauty. But I disagree with you on one point. It IS a near certainty that the levees will be overtopped again. I reject the notion that they will surely suffer an engineering failure again.

  10. I think she was speaking as US Representative and Billions of tax dollars have been wasted in this area post Katrina. She has a right to an opinion.

  11. Jeff,

    I live next to a duplex and an apartment building from the 1960’s. I live a block away from the Carrol, a mid-rize condo structure on St. Charles. So no, I’m not worried about any of that and I don’t need urban planners to save me from development that has a negligible effect on my property.

    • We’re all very happy for you, Owen. Maybe, in the future, you’ll look down on your perfectly unplanned, handed down from on high space and realize not everyone is or will be the same as you…..

  12. broadmoorer,

    I think New Orleans was less “planned” than you think. Indeed, I think that Baton Rouge today has more planning rules than New Orleans did when the lion’s share of the city was laid out. If you want to see New Orleans under modern planning rules, you need go no further than New Orleans East. Thus, I think you’re giving planners too much credit. Planners are fine when they’re simply trying to locate roads and public services and accommodate development as it occurs, but when they start looking at cities as if they were scale models, it becomes a problem. Kaptur has that problem.

    If New Orleans mandated that all new construction be 12 feet off the ground it would make all new construction look out of place and would greatly inhibit new construction. It also wouldn’t make much difference in the event of another Katrina, because the overwhelming majority of structures would still be only slightly raised or at-grade. No, instead the focus needs to be on preventing that flooding to begin with using an effective levee system.

    • I was referring to the original parts of the city, which were indeed planned. These are the parts that make New Orleans an iconic, culturally important city. The Historic New Orleans Collection has a ton of information on the original development of the city, if you’re interested. Obviously sections developed in the last 50 years are a little more suspect to disorganization, but they would still be much worse off if not for urban planning. And trust me, Baton Rouge has had almost zero planning, which created many of the irreversible struggles they are facing today.

      “Looking out of place” is a minor concern when catastrophic disaster is at play. I’m not sure if you remember, but 80% of the city flooded not even 10 years ago. Do you remember what the recovery was like? Because I do. There are STILL schools and medical centers that haven’t been rebuilt yet. Just imagine if we had had the foresight to build those facilities out of the flood waters’ reach.

      Why is it preposterous to build high for flood water in New Orleans, but not in places like, say, Grand Isle?

      And you know, it is possible for us to focus on both new construction mandates and levees at the same time…

      You make good points, but I’m sorry, you are wrong on this one. New Orleans WILL flood again. We would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

  13. Deux,

    I don’t think the city could afford a massive park in the Lower Ninth, and with the diffuse depopulation, I don’t think it would have been a practical move, either.

  14. You’re wrong. Outside of the French Quarter, the city was generally not planned. Everything in the past 50 years was definitely planned.

    • Owen, that is simply false. Feel free to visit the Historic New Orleans Collection, read “New Orleans Architecture, Volume VI: Faubourg Treme and the Bayou Road,” or contact Richard Campanella with Tulane University to learn more about it. Yes some of it happened haphazardly but planning was absolutely involved.

  15. What are you, five? It does not “presumably” mean anything. And I did address your points.

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