Could the governor of Mississippi really be inviting 100 planners and architects to come to his Kartrina-ravaged coastal cities to expound upon their urbanisme nouveau to guide their massive rebuilding? Will the un-invited post-bellum carpetbaggers become today’s welcomed “carpetplanners”? And, by the way, where was my invitation? I confess to a fleeting envy of the invitees, the hubristic thought that offering my services might be a beau geste to cap a less-than-illustrious planning career. On almost instantaneous reflection I thought it best to stay home, but not shut up.
“Shut up,” or worse, is what I would likely have been told to do had I climbed up on a pedestal of debris and pontificated about “mixed uses,” “density transfers,” “smart growth,” “sustainable communities,” “neo-traditionalism,” and other secular googahs and gizmos of l’urbanisme nouveau . “Never one for planning’s latest fashions, I doubt I would have had little to offer to bring everything up-to-date in Mississippi. But I do understand the allure of the challenge; that’s because I am no exception to the sublimated hankering that many planners have for thetabula rasa, clean slate of space upon which their unfettered minds might give rise to the golden city on a hill, the New Jerusalem of urban order and beauty.
That brief inkling I had for booking a flight to the Gulf coast (figuring that FEMA would not be sending me a pre-paid business class ticket) is a carry-over from the enthusiasm I had when I was researching my book, New Towns and Urban Policy , many years and many urban disasters ago. That was back in the mid-60s when so much seemed possible in the “great Society” days of Kennedy and Johnson. Taking a page from utopian socialist English planner, the venerable Sir Ebenezer Howard, I was among the eager new generation of planners who would build whole, new towns from scratch that would stand as exemplary temples of what was at the time the urbanisme nouveau . We cared as well for the fates of inner cities and our new towns constructed upon the tabula rasa of suburbia would be part of the metropolitan matrix—decentralizing central cities, congealing suburban sprawl, and making regional mass transit efficient and open space permanent. Our new towns, built with financial assistance of the Federal government, would be a new beginning for American urbanism, an opportunity to plan free of the clutter and impediments of existing development.
So why not take such heady notions south to where opportunity beckons? C’mon, Jim, you could be like one of those “experts” that CNN plops down next to their blow-dried anchors to wax on about cities and peppering your exegesis with PUDs,” “TDRs,” and “TODs.”
It would be a grave error for planners, or the local pols who invite them, to mistake the communities that were leveled by Katrina as a clean slate upon which to construct a new urbanism. Beneath the rubble lie years and generations of urban experience, the ghost of a sense of place that was not blown away by Katrina’s category 5. There exist the lot lines and land tenure and ownership patterns and rights that were not washed away by storm surges. There is a pattern of lives that were interrupted and scattered, but not exterminated. Put differently, the Gulf coast communities are not a tabula rasa upon which planners possess the right to imprint their notions of land use upon what may have been an inefficient, and/or an aesthetically deficient urbanism, but it is a “shadow” urbanism that must be respected.
Leveled as these communities might be, they are not blank spaces ; they are residual places. This is a distinction that, in the past, the failure to understand or respect has resulted in the obliteration of viable urban communities in the name of such “slum clearance” and urban re-development. Planners are at risk to repress this distinction in the same atmosphere of complimentary advantages that existed between planners, civic and commercial interests in some of the lamentable applications of “urban renewal” a few decades ago. Planners, particularly “carpetplanners” could become unwitting accomplices to development interests who see the circumstances as a sort of meteorological urban renewal.
This is not to ignore that there are certainly aspects of the erstwhile land development pattern that violated the canons of public safety, efficiency and other public interests, particularly those that compromised environmental and ecological factors that exacerbated storm conditions and increased the amount of property damage and loss of life. But whether the latest fashions in urban planning, design and architecture will necessarily address such concerns is not axiomatic. Katrina’s winds and surges have scattered these residents of these communities, with now only memories of the places they called “home.” It is yet to be determined how many will be drawn back by dreams of regaining a life that approximates “as they knew it.” If they are not the client of the “carpetplanners” then who is?
©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.17.2005)