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What the People (and Planners) of Houston Can Learn From Hurricane Katrina

As the water continues to recede in Houston and local residents begin the dreary process of mucking and gutting more than one-hundred-thousand homes and businesses, residents there will face an urgent set of questions:


How will I support myself and my family, while the business that I depend on is out of commission?  


Where will I send my kids to school?


Should I stay here or move to higher ground?


Would stricter zoning laws have prevented this?


Who do I trust to help me answer these questions—them or me?


As a urban planner and a New Orleanian, I heard and asked most of these questions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Following that cataclysmic storm, then-Mayor Ray Nagin pulled together a set of “Bring New Orleans Back” committees to address everything from education to economics. One of these committees, led by local real estate developer Joseph Canizaro, was responsible for urban planning. Within weeks, the Urban Land Institute arrived in town with dozens of architects, planners and engineers to heed the call for a recovery plan.


The plan was hastily assembled and presented in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel, to a crowd of a thousand anxious residents, many from the low lying neighborhoods most severely impacted by the storm. Included on the presentation were maps of New Orleans with the now infamous green dots placed over those neighborhoods that were proposed to be rezoned as “green space” to avoid future flooding. Most of these areas were occupied by the city’s most vulnerable African American residents.


After the presentation, the floor was opened to comments. “Mr Canizaro, I don’t know you,” said one despairing resident, “but I hate you.” The subsequent responses went downhill from there, and as the mayor quietly exited by the ballroom’s back door, two months of top-down planning dissolved into a roomful of acrimony.


A second plan initiated by the City Council suffered a similar fate. It wasn’t until five months after the storm, with resources provided by the Rockefeller Foundation and others, that our firm Concordia was engaged to coordinate the work of twelve urban planning firms towards the creation of a “Unified New Orleans Plan” (UNOP) that would ultimately engage the voices of more than 9,000 local residents in the recovery planning process. It was then—and only then—that the people’s questions would be answered, and federal funding could be released to begin the implementation phase of the recovery process.


Houston, and other communities along the Gulf Coast, are now faced with some of the same challenges. Government leaders often assume that they were elected to represent their constituents’ best interests. Non-government and community-based organizations, many of whom engage with residents early on as first responders, are already mapping out strategies for how to ramp up their recovery programs, and philanthropic organizations are standing by to help.


Meanwhile, most local residents aren’t sure where to turn with the urgent quality of life questions that lie ahead. The answers lay somewhere in a process called co-creation, which includes all of the above players. The most important ingredient in this puzzle is trust.


After a two-year interdisciplinary study exploring co-creative design processes in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, Stanford University researchers Joanna Levit Cea and Jess Remington, have concluded in “Creating Breakout Innovation” that only a small percentage of co-creation efforts are delivering systems-changing solutions that are aligned with the needs and priorities of the participants.  “Meanwhile,” Cea and Remington write, “our world cries out for designs that reimagine the way we do pretty much everything, if we are to solve pressing problems like climate change, extreme inequality, and poverty.”


After interviewing more than 70 co-creative organizations, with projects that included UNOP, they have devised a set of five principles that determine whether these complex projects meet their mark. These principles, I think, hold important lessons for planners and designers working to rebuild Houston and the Gulf Coast.


Share Power: In an equitable process, community members help shape the goals, devise solutions, and prioritize which ideas should be implemented first. This is an ongoing process. All participants get to participate, as well as help make decisions moving forward.


Prioritize Relationships: Don’t treat people as a source of survey data, or as a means to an end. Value the building of relationships and trust with community members. This means taking care of one another and getting to actually know them as human beings.


Include All Points of View: Diversity is intellectual strength. Including all points of view means that you value everyone’s input and actually need it to come up with the smartest solutions. To insure that, everyone has to feel respected and comfortable enough to share their point of view.


Use All Kinds of Knowledge: Whether it comes from technical training or formal education, or from life experiences, emotional responses or intuition, give equal respect to different kinds of expertise. When we use knowledge from a myriad of sources, we open up more possibilities for good ideas.


Test Ideas Early and Often: Doing this allows participants an opportunity to share and talk through possible solutions, before developing them in detail. In collaboration with the community, planners need to facilitate the creation of ideas, then help prioritize them, and figure out exactly how they will work. Testing early gives the community an opportunity to change paths and course-correct, if need be.


In Texas and along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, the leaders of government, community organizations, philanthropies, and planning and design firms, will be wise to take heed of the urgent and complex task ahead of them, and plan accordingly. With so many lives at stake, there will be little room for error.


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