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Argument: New Orleans can be rebuilt to address its social problems

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"New Orleans. Planning for a Better Future". The Rockefeller Foundation. September 2006 - Despite its rich and vibrant culture, pre-Katrina New Orleans was one of the poorest cities in the U.S. For decades leading up to the hurricane, the city’s manufacturing base had atrophied, leaving a weak employment environment, diminished tax revenues and widespread poverty, along with a legacy of failing education and health care—a variety of large holes in the social safety net.

Huge swaths of the city were characterized by lower-income, segregated neighborhoods, mostly African-American, with dilapidated housing and high crime rates. Politically, the city was steeped in an old world culture of insularity and patronage, with little precedent of cooperation between city and state officials.

Reconstructing such a city would mean accepting profound changes to its identity. More than rebuilding the shattered infrastructure, more than replacing streets and sewers, schools and parks, it would mean acknowledging that the new city would be a different place, with possibly fewer residents, a different economic base, perhaps a somewhat different sense of itself. At the same time, the reconstruction process held out the prospect of a better city— one that would be more open and collaborative, and that would extend more opportunities to its residents for self-determination. Yet the path to achieve those goals was uncertain. As New Orleans community organizer Barbara Major put it, “How do you rebuild a city with equity? There is no manual.”

A city’s identity changes In these dire circumstances, the city’s planning process got under way. It began with citizen action. By late September 2005, in some neighborhoods—mostly in the wealthier, less ravaged areas—returning residents began taking matters into their own hands, meeting in their living rooms, drawing up their own plans and, in some cases, bringing in experts.

In October, Mayor Ray Nagin established a civic commission, called the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Within a short time, the commission had hired a nonprofit research and education group, the Urban Land Institute (ULI), to make large-scale land use suggestions for the future of the city. At the core of the ULI proposals, presented at a public forum in November, was that rebuilding should begin on higher ground in the lessdamaged neighborhoods, and that the city’s footprint should shrink to adapt to the new environmental realities.

[...] The immense challenge facing New Orleans impels all involved to recognize their mutual interests and interdependence…

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