URBAN HISTORY & PLANNING
Director of The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for The Study of American Architecture
How did you first learn of the Katrina disaster a year ago, and what were your first thoughts?
I learned of the flooding in New Orleans like most people outside Louisiana and Mississippi, I assume: from TV, radio, newspapers and the internet.
I happen to live outside Philadelphia on a large stream myself. The previous September my home had been flooded by Hurricane Ivan. No sooner had I finished cleaning up five feet of water in my basement when I was flooded again three weeks later by Hurricane Jeanne. So I could certainly empathize on a personal level with the New Orleanians (including the difficulties of dealing with FEMA and local authorities), although my situation in no way approached their tragedy.
Like many people looking at the pictures of the destruction from afar, I wanted to try to contribute something to the relief efforts beyond writing a check to the Red Cross.
As various architects and architectural groups in New York and around the country began to get involved in thinking about rebuilding and undertaking planning and design projects, organizing a conference in the architecture school at Columbia seemed a useful idea. A series of dialogues focused mainly on issues of community rebuilding took place in October and November sponsored by the program in Urban Planning and UTAP (University Technical Assistance Program).
By the spring I thought it would be appropriate to focus on some broader issues of rebuilding, preservation, architecture and environmental design. But architects are often too quick to propose "solutions" in such circumstances, whether out of good intentions or opportunism. It therefore seemed important to try to educate people in New York to the realities on the ground. Most of the people at our March symposium came from New Orleans or were directly connected to the situation there.
The Buell Center's board was very supportive of the conference. The center had also presented a well-received lecture series in spring 2002 entitled "Out of Ground Zero", which we subsequently turned into a book. The lectures explored the response of cities around the world to both man-made and natural crises within a comparative and historical perspective.
What were some of the most interesting ideas to come out of your symposium on the future sustainability of New Orleans?
The conference brought home the social, political, environmental and architectural complexities of making decisions about the rebuilding and of gaining consensus. The complexity and magnitude of the problems in New Orleans make the post-9/11 rebuilding issues here in New York seem relatively straightforward.
One year later, how would you assess the reconstruction process? We understand from the latest report that the task is now largely in the hands of local residents. But shouldn't professional planners also be involved?
I am not a policy-maker and haven't been following the progress of the reconstruction day to day. But like many other people I've been astonished and frustrated at how slowly the process seems to be going. The federal government is evidently too busy with its adventures abroad to focus sufficient resources on this devastated American city. Clearly both local residents and professional planners and experts need to be involved in the reconstruction, which touches on social and environmental problems at every level from urban displacement and rehousing to global warming.
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