When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 it brought global attention to the city and its long-standing financial problems. As described in Jonathan Schlefer’s “Plans Versus Politics: New Orleans After Katrina,” funding shortages had impacted the city’s infrastructure, public education system, healthcare and delivery of services. 27% of the city’s residents were living below the poverty line—double the national average—who were disproportionately African American and living along racially segregated topographical lines. The wealthier areas of the city, including the French Quarter, universities and hospitals, were built on a raised crescent with the poor living in the bowl beneath. The aging levee system that should have protected the city had not been maintained due to federal cutbacks, and the flood walls built on top of them were poorly constructed. Additionally the bayou had suffered from decades of environmental damage and no longer provided protection against storm surges. This combination created conditions for one of the worst disasters in American; not just Katrina but the years of aftermath.
Mayor Ray Nagin called upon Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to quickly form a responsible development plan to restore the city. Although both groups attempted to engage the communities to get their ideas it was nearly impossible. Some neighborhoods had been wiped off the map and most of the residents had fled the city, uncertain if they could return. BNOB and ULI moved ahead without their input to draft a practical approach. They saw no reason to rebuild a city that had been broken. Redevelopment would be focused in areas that were raised above sea level—predominately rich and white—while the lower lying areas that remained susceptible to flooding would be put on indefinite hold. When the development plans were revealed to the community they were perceived as racist; there were no plans to help the communities that had faced the worst devastation. Worse, the city had limited funds available to buy out the people in these areas. Since the community as a whole could not participate in the development decision, it was perceived as biased against segments of the community and interpreted as a plan to keep them from returning to their homes.
Similarly urban centers used to be built for humans, but following the broad-adoption of the automobile, urban plans favored accommodating vehicular traffic. This segregated pedestrians to the margins. Thousands of pedestrians are killed by automobiles every year, accounting for 13% of fatalities. The misguided plan to build cities around cars was raised by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities; removing residents from the streets destroyed the community. Hartman and Prytherch’s essay, “Streets to Live In: Justice, Space, and Sharing the Road”, discussed the problem of streets use in terms of societal justice. They offered an alternative in the shalom street, which allows the street to be shared equally. We have seen a gradual retaking of city streets where cars are removed or restricted in favor of greenways that provide space for pedestrian and bike traffic. These initiatives not only help provide a safer and healthier alternative mode of transportation, they also allow provide people opportunities to engage with one another and build community. These efforts take leadership, community engagement, money, and notably time, to achieve.
Achieving a more inclusive community has benefits. Susan Reed’s, The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth About Diversity in Corporate American…and What Can Be Done About It, tracked the years of incremental progress to building a more inclusive company. One chapter focused on pharmaceutical giant Merck’s diversity strategy. It started with one CEO, Roy Vagelos, who saw a problem in the lack of diversity in upper management; it was not reflective of the company. He began with not just a token hire, but added a mix of women and minorities at the top to send a message throughout the company. Merck was acknowledged for its efforts by the industry, but within the ranks it was seen as only the first step. Over time the program was expanded through the company by actively engaging the employees, gathering feedback, and providing a safe platform to air concerns. The big difference with Merck was they actively used this information to make progress toward their inclusive goal and continue to make this a daily, not annual, initiative. This path took time and continuous effort, but they were rewarded in building a more resilient company where people from different background felt included in the company, shared their ideas and experiences. Merck claims that they focus on patients over profits, and they expanded this goal to people over profits. This inclusive strategy can be applied in any organization, including government, urban planning, and our unified approach to sustainability. When people are encouraged to participate they become the solution.
Image Credit: Diversity Index