Gulf rebuilding lacks bold vision

December 27, 2005|By ALAN RABINOWITZ

Like many Americans, I want to see the region that was devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita transformed into something more sensible environmentally and fairer in socioeconomic terms.

There appears to be a lack of urgency prevailing in the complex of governmental and nonprofit organizations, all of which are struggling with the ill-defined and overlapping responsibilities and jurisdictions that characterize America's federal-state-local systems.

And where are the voices of those in that myriad of agencies that might be dealing creatively and positively with an improved big picture? And where are the voices of the people who are being planned for?

The worst reconstruction scenario seems to feature:

The elimination of hundreds of thousands of families that have neither rights to return nor livelihoods to return to.

Total impasses among and between the numerous federal, state and local agencies in planning for the inevitable natural catastrophes of the future.

Creation of the same kind of inequitable communities that Katrina showed had always characterized New Orleans, Louisiana and the rest of America.

I am a city and regional planner-economist and was brought up with Daniel Burnham's credo, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood," as he prepared to overhaul the Chicago area at the end of the 19th century.

But that concept was watered down by the end of the 20th century as Americans learned two important lessons:

Great urban redevelopment and housing programs, much loved by the "urban industrial lobby" (a term invented long ago by critic Robert Goodman to describe the builders, mortgage lenders, enabling public officials and all those involved in laying concrete), tend to reflect and perpetuate the prevailing inequities in American society.

From their beginnings, such housing and redevelopment programs need the wholehearted approval of all the people who will be affected by them - all the government bodies, all the businesses and builders and all the users/residents/occupants - if they are to be effective in the long run.

The big difficulty today in getting big reconstruction under way is gloriously illustrated by the continuing imbroglios at the 9/11 Ground Zero site in New York City. The reason: The era of top-down planning and control is over and there are no more Burnhams with untrammeled power.

Therefore, we should not be surprised at the lack of progress in deciding who is to do what about rebuilding the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast, for it is intrinsically difficult to decide and implement anything on a region-wide scale.

Even essential programs cross too many jurisdictional lines, cost money that none of the governmental units wants to raise or share and bring up too many unresolvable issues about racism, fairness, economic disparity, environmental controls over job-producing industry, reliance on foreign oil and on through the inventory of national issues.

But shouldn't someone somewhere be making some plans that are magical enough to stir the nation's blood? Couldn't the Katrina-impacted region become a laboratory for a better America?

How about if the federal government pays for the cost of public schooling nationwide and, as a result, halves the total fiscal burden on state and local governments? That would eliminate the need for most of the property taxes that are the main cause of racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas.

Then, with the property tax out of the way as a stumbling block to coexistence between rich and poor communities, how about changing the boundaries of local governments (parishes in Louisiana) to soften the distinctions between such communities?

And how about doing whatever it takes to restore the bayous and marshes that protect the land from ocean surges and to clear up polluted waterways? How about finding ways for all the displaced people to return and find work?

How about making our Gulf Coast as wonderful a playland for all America as the Mediterranean coast is for Europeans?

And, most important, how about the rest of America insisting with renewed urgency that positive changes in the wake of Katrina be enabled to happen now, while we still remember that the catastrophe happened at all?

Alan Rabinowitz, an economist and city planner, is the author of "Urban Economics and Land Use in America: The Transformation of Cities in the Twentieth Century." His e-mail is

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