Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On October 23-29, thirty-seven students and three professors from the Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning went to New Orleans to learn what is being done to plan the city's reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding. The trip was organized by Professor James A. Throgmorton in the Planning Program, with the assistance of other faculty and staff, but it could not have been conducted without the assistance of Dr. Robert S. Becker, a 1971 graduate of the U of Iowa's Planning Program who is a former director of the City Planning Commission and currently the director of City Park in New Orleans.

While in New Orleans, the group toured the city to witness the extent of the catastrophe, met with representatives of variety of organizations involved in planning for the city's reconstruction, completed a community service project for the city, and witnessed the first citywide "Community Congress" for the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP).

Like other field trips the Planning Program has conducted over the past several years to the Twin Cities, Louisville, Kansas City, and Chicago, this trip was designed to give students a good opportunity to connect their course readings and discussions with one of the nation's larger city-regions and, by enabling them to meet with various professionals and citizens, to give them a better sense of the kinds of work practicing planners (and others involved in the process of planning) actually do.

But this trip was special. No city-region in the United States has ever experienced a catastrophe of the scale and intensity witnessed in New Orleans. And no U. S. city has ever faced such a complex and important urban planning challenge.

On its first evening in New Orleans, the group went to City Park to hear Bob Becker provide an overview of the scale of destruction and the reconstruction planning that has been conducted thus far. On the following morning, Becker guided the group through some of the hardest hit neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Lakeview, and points in between. The extent of devastation was hard to take, even a year after the floodwaters receded. In the afternoon, the group met sequentially with Leslie Alley (Assistant Director of the City Planning Commission), Walter Brooks (Director of the Regional Planning Commission), and Steven Bingler (Head of Concordia Associates and Coordinator of the UNOP process).

On its second full day, the group met sequentially with Pam Dashiell (President of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower Ninth Ward), Dr. Ralph Thayer (a former professor at the University of New Orleans who assisted the Federal Emergency Management Administration [FEMA] with its long-range ESF-14 planning), Barry Hokanson (a 1986 graduate of the U of Iowa's planning program who has been working as a consultant for FEMA), and Dr. Robert Collins (head of the planning and policy studies program at Dillard University).

On its third full day in the city, the group met with Martin Landrieu (neighborhood leader for planning in District 5, which includes Lakeview) and Dr. Jane Brooks (a professor of planning at the University of New Orleans who focuses on the city's culture and historic architecture). In the afternoon the group contributed 120 man-hours towards cleaning up the city's much-loved fountain at City Park. While the group was doing this work, two young men walked up to ask what we were doing. When told, one of them said, "I used to come here all the time as a young man, and I can't tell you how much it means to us to see you down here doing this work." The other young man said he was producing a photographic essay about the city's reconstruction. He took photos of the students laboring hard.

On Saturday morning the group went to the Morial Convention Center to witness UNOP's first city-wide "Community Congress." At this event, a team of urban planners and engineers reported on the current status of the city's reconstruction and highlighted the vast amount of work that remains to be accomplished. Roughly 300 residents from New Orleans' various neighborhoods participated in this event, and provided immediate feedback to the planners by using a technology provided by "AmericaSpeaks." As the group of students began to leave, the person who was speaking (Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer) asked us to stop. She said to the crowd, "I want you to know that a group of students has come down here from the University of Iowa to help us with our city's reconstruction. Let's give them a big hand of applause." And then she added that she too is a graduate of the University of Iowa.

The trip was supported by funding from the Planning Program, Planning alumni who have made contributions to the University of Iowa Foundation, the Office of the President's Year of Public Engagement, and the University of Iowa Student Government, as well as by direct contributions from those who made the trip.

U of Iowa Planning students cleaning up fountain at City Park in New Orleans (L to R: Brian Craig, Abby Attoun, unidentifiable, Anne Russett, and Anna Lackender).

Tired group in front of the fountain after working for 3 and 1/2 hours.

Bob Becker speaking to our group.

Students participating in the Community Congress.