Katrina: A watershed for a nation and a movement

An essay by SGA’s David Goldberg

There’s something about an event such as Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf coast region that tempts hyperbole.

Just as we fell into the habit of repeating to ourselves that “September 11 changed everything” – though less may have changed than was warranted — it is hard now to believe that we’ll ever go back to the level of complacency that characterized our lives before Katrina.

Yet to my mind, there can be no doubt that this is – or ought to be — a watershed moment for our movement.

For those of us who advocate for thoughtful planning that accommodates both humanity and nature, that argues for the resurrection of the best of our traditional building practices and for reducing our desperate dependence on petroleum, Katrina was indeed a perfect storm. It ought to be the watershed for domestic policy that 9/11 was for foreign policy.

All of a sudden we are all confronting the unstated assumption that those without cars are not full citizens.

Indeed it has become shockingly plain that the poor and black of New Orleans were social refugees before they became displaced citizens. Suddenly the fundamental unfairness of metropolitan arrangements, the social equity issues we have tried to raise in recent years, are front and center in the national conversation.

Few are lamenting the throw-away sprawl developments that were allowed to cover over the marshes and flood zones, while nearly everyone is concerned that some of the most exquisite urban design and architecture in North America be saved and replicated where it must be rebuilt.

As gas lines formed in places like Atlanta, where headlines warned of “hysteria at the pumps”, the vulnerable nature of extreme oil dependence in a landscape that offers no alternative was scarily evident. (That didn’t prevent a cultural warrior in the governor’s office from cracking to the paper Sept. 1 that, “The world is full of loony left organizations that want everyone to live in Tokyo-style high-rises and walk to work in their Birkenstocks.” Meanwhile, Atlanta’s neglected transit service was pressed to add service to accommodate a corresponding upsurge in ridership.)

Now the whole country is talking about one of the key issues we have been grappling with – how to preserve neighborhood cohesion while avoiding the social isolation of concentrated poverty, even as we meet a bottomless demand for affordable housing.

Our appeals to involve citizens in shaping their future will be put to the test. How do you involve the former and future residents, scattered in diaspora, in re-establishing neighborhood and community cohesion, and yet still act quickly?

We have to get busy.

In the coming months and years, climbing gas prices, occasional supply shocks a la Katrina, and geopolitical volatility will lead more and more people to look for ways to minimize their exposure. Do we have the policy savvy and technical know-how to accomplish on a grand scale what we have advocated for years? At last week’s Rail-Volution conference in Salt Lake City, developers noted the surging demand for transit-oriented developments in communities across the country, along with other urban living arrangements, and wondered aloud whether there is enough expertise to meet it satisfactorily.

If we’re lucky and smart, at least some regions around the country will be taking a close look at the cruel isolation of their own poor, disadvantaged enclaves. Our new urbanist friends have demonstrated that is possible to design beautiful, functional mixed-income projects, but do we have the policy and political know-how to offer solutions on a regional scale?

No matter what, we can’t allow a return to complacency. Our movement’s vision of a more livable, sustainable and safer future is more critical than ever.

As Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a former SGA board member, wrote: “If reconstructed properly, the rebuilt city of New Orleans and its neighbors can become an international model that demonstrates how to integrate the best 21st-century principles of sustainable design and livable communities with all the rich cultural and architectural heritage that has made the region so beloved to natives and visitors alike. Let’s get it right.”