Rebuilding New Orleans into an Urban Model

Which approaches would work best?

Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

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Article created by the Urban Institute.

1. What makes New Orleans such an interesting urban study?

Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was facing tough challenges — challenges that were particularly problematic for low-income and minority families. The city was losing jobs and population. And high levels of racial segregation and concentrated poverty had created neighborhoods of severe distress.

Unemployment, poverty, and single parenthood — problems shared by other cities in the country — were particularly intense in New Orleans. Sheila Zedlewski’s essay on the city’s social safety-net programs documents how especially difficult the situation was in New Orleans even before the storm.

But at the same time, New Orleans stands out from other cities because of its special artistic and cultural heritage. People throughout the country knew about and valued New Orleans’ unique character. It was a city that recognized how important art and culture are to its identity and to its economy. A lot of that art and culture bubbled up from low-income and minority communities.

2. Why is simply rebuilding the city not enough?

The city’s social infrastructure needs as much attention as the physical infrastructure. Because just about everything was wiped out by the storm, rebuilding gives New Orleans a chance to correct past mistakes. It can build a stronger system of social supports and opportunities as the reconstruction happens.

Just having streets and levies rebuilt won’t enable people to come back to the city. People need to know there is a job there, schools for their kids to go to, and affordable housing to live in. The communities and social supports need rebuilding too. It’s really in the city’s interest to tackle everything, or the population won’t return.

As a nation, we owe the most vulnerable residents of New Orleans help. The city’s low-income and minority populations were really suffering before the storm. They bore the brunt of the storm’s devastation and of the horribly handled aftermath. They are understandably skeptical about whether they will be welcomed back — whether there will be a place for them. It would be unjust to close them out of the city’s rebuilding.

Rebuilding New Orleans right could be a model, even for cities not devastated by disaster. Although no other city has to rebuild everything, lots of cities are struggling with unpredictable school populations, insufficient affordable housing, and a lack of adequate supports to give poor children a healthy start in life. If New Orleans implements some of the best thinking from around the country on these issues, it could become a model for other cities that aren’t in such dire straits but still struggle with similar social challenges.

3. Are children particularly vulnerable in this transition period?

Olivia Golden’s essay on children makes it clear that young kids — babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers — are at severe risk of long-term damage. Many experienced trauma and lost family members, friends, and home.

Some children were rushed out of their home, into the Super Dome, possibly into a shelter, and then to a motel. Such traumas can set children back emotionally over the long-term, especially if their parents are struggling to reestablish a safe and secure life.

As New Orleans rebuilds, it needs to focus on a support system for young children. Olivia outlines a proposal that builds on the successful Head Start model, but goes farther. Without such a support system, a generation of children in New Orleans may suffer a lifetime of disadvantage because of what they experienced.

Jane Hannaway and Paul Hill in their essay on education have proposed combining charter schools with vouchers. Both ideas are controversial in the school reform debate, but when you don’t know month-to-month how many kids are going to come back and where they are going to go, building a traditional school system all at once doesn’t make sense.

Letting schools come back one at a time, and letting families direct public money to the schools that they think will meet their kids’ needs, really seems sensible in this shifting environment.

4. Will there be enough jobs, and such services as health care, for the families that return?

These pieces interconnect in complicated ways. One of the issues addressed by Bob Lerman and Harry Holzer in their essay on employment is that thousands of jobs were lost. Yet, thousands are likely to be created in the rebuilding process.

You also hear about how businesses are ready to reopen, but can’t because the workers aren’t coming back. The lack of housing, schools, and health services makes it hard to reopen establishments that would provide more jobs.

So Bob and Harry’s proposals focus less on creating jobs than on helping people get back to the jobs they had before — or to better jobs. They draw on experience from other cities with effective job placement, job readiness, and skills-development strategies. This way, the lower skilled and lower income residents of New Orleans who were not doing well in the pre-Katrina economy have a shot at, not just coming back, but at doing better.

Steve Zuckerman and Terry Coughlin in an essay on health care point out that New Orleans relied heavily on a single hospital (Charity Hospital) to meet the needs of poor and uninsured people. Katrina physically devastated that hospital. Steve and Terry argue that a more dispersed network of community health care facilities would better serve needy residents.

A rebuilt Charity Hospital would probably still be at the center of that network, but there would be more community-based facilities as well. This hybrid approach could give low-income families more access to care, including preventive care, and improve the health care situation for people without private health insurance.

5. What models might make New Orleans stronger than before?

Each of these Urban Institute essays draws from widely varying innovations around the country. But all share some important principles that should be central to the debate on New Orleans’ future.

The first principle is that individuals and families should be able to make their own choices. That’s really reflected in the school proposal — with vouchers and charter schools — but also in the ideas that Sue Popkin, Marti Burt, and I outline in our essay on how affordable housing options should be available in every part of the city, giving people choices about where to live.

But choices aren’t worth a lot without good information. So the second principle becomes information — the information that people need to make good choices. That doesn’t mean pamphlets. It means counselors and resource rooms and intermediaries that can help a family sitting in Houston figure out where to live, where to work, where to get job training, and where to send their kids to school. People need help from professionals and skilled volunteers to put their lives back together.

All of these strategies emphasize flexibility. In an environment where you can’t predict how many people are going to come back, where, or how fast — public systems have to be much more flexible than they typically are.

The last of our proposed principles focuses on asset building. Sheila Zedlewski makes a compelling argument for not just helping families get by, but helping them to accumulate savings and build a buffer so they are not tossed around by changing circumstances.

It’s not just individual financial assets, but also social assets at issue here. In her essay on arts and culture, Maria Jackson points out how social organizations — community-based cultural and artistic groups — are crucial assets for the city and its neighborhoods. These too will have to be rebuilt if the city is really going to come back.

This essay collection is not trying to tackle the whole rebuilding challenge facing New Orleans. Nor does it address the needs of the “diaspora” — former residents now scattered across the country, some of whom may not return. These are important issues, but we wanted to highlight the challenges of low-income and minority communities in New Orleans, and to offer strategies that could enable them to come back stronger.

All the rebuilding strategies outlined in our collection are designed to forge stronger connections between low-income families and the economic mainstream. In other words, the underlying goal is not just to ameliorate poverty, but also to break down barriers that prevent people from escaping poverty.


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