PLAN 79: Article
Still Rebuilding New Orleans

SA+P’s Sustained Commitment Seeks to Extend Still Further

In the years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, SA+P’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning has been and continues to be one of the nation’s most active urban planning departments on the scene, and one of the most effective. While many schools have devoted time and effort to reconstruction, MIT’s contribution has been especially distinguished by its focus on empowering local communities.

Through involvement with studios, theses, practica, projects, research and advocacy, our students, faculty and alumni have provided assistance to community organizations, city departments and neighborhoods with challenges ranging from economic development to housing to environmental justice and more. Several students have written masters theses focused on the region and student proposals for specific revitalization projects have won development grants for community organizations that range from $15K to $1.2M.

Support for New Orleans

A number of students have also moved to New Orleans permanently, joining a growing community of SA+P alumni working in the Gulf area – 17 alums, at last count, ten of whom have moved there since Katrina– working with government, NGOs and private industry on a wide range of planning issues.

All of this involvement demonstrates a clear commitment by SA+P to sustaining a meaningful presence in New Orleans and its surrounding areas. And now a movement is afoot to extend that commitment still further by developing a Living Laboratory at MIT to solidify our relationship and commitment to New Orleans over the next four years.

Designed for undergraduates from all five schools in the Institute, the Living Laboratory is a revised continuation of the City-to-City course that has been offered by the planning department for the past several years, providing students an introduction to client-oriented research and the use of urban planning tools in urban planning contexts. Historically, that course has focused on two different cities every year, comparing policy and planning practices in Boston with those of foreign cities such as Montreal, London, Barcelona, Venice, Mexico City, Copenhagen and Paris.

But beginning this year, students are concentrating their efforts on New Orleans, working directly with government and community agencies on post-disaster planning issues. The class is led by Lecturer Cherie Abbannat with help from alumni/ae consultants in New Orleans Jeffrey Hebert (MCP’04), Jeffrey Schwartz (MCP’08), Jacquelyn Dadakis (MCP’10) and Lackshmi Sridaran (MCP’09). The alumni act as external teaching assistants, helping develop the curriculum to include what they know is needed in the field.

Aimed at improving our understanding of how a city deals with disaster in terms of immediate response, recovery and rebuilding – in hopes of accelerating the progress from one stage to the next in order to move a city forward more quickly – the class responds to work requests by neighborhood groups and city officials looking to move redevelopment projects forward.

Students are currently working with the city on how to handle blighted property; on how to leverage federally funded charter school development into neighborhood development; and how to take advantage of major intersections as opportunities for growth. Others are working with city planners on a comprehensive zoning ordinance; on developing design standards for nudging growth in desired directions; and on how to develop neighborhood activism to influence policy.

In the process, students are learning about planning processes, politics and policy and how a disaster forces change, rethinking and reprioritizing. They learn methods of social science inquiry and discovery, and how to use tools such as GIS analysis, census data analysis, rapid survey evaluations, interview techniques and documentation of work. And while the learning context is a post-disaster situation, many of the issues and problems are relevant to other contexts, including urban disinvestment, community development and rapid urbanization in developing countries.

By targeting undergraduates – most of the work that’s been done in New Orleans to date has been done by graduate students – the program aims in part to encourage more undergraduate majors in urban planning and/or double majors with other disciplines. Another aim is that students will develop their in-class projects into summer internships and/or viable theses while developing working relationships with alumni that could eventually lead to employment opportunities.

Undergraduates will also have the chance to move from the Living Laboratory to Karl Seidman’s ongoing graduate courses in Economic Development Finance and Revitalizing Urban Main Streets. The urban main streets practicum is focused on integrating urban design and economic development to prepare revitalization plans for city neighborhood commercial districts. An example of their work is the development of a rebuilding plan for New Orleans' Broad Street corridor, a plan that led to the creation of Broad Community Connections, an initiative to revitalize the street into a vibrant connector for its four adjacent neighborhoods.

Since 2007, Seidman and his student teams have assisted Broad Community Connections with developing and implementing several projects in the area, two of which have resulted in $15K development grants through the JPMorgan Chase Community Development Competition, an annual contest showcasing the talents of college students nationwide in supporting and furthering redevelopment of New Orleans communities.

Broad Community Connections was also a client for a project in Seidman’s Economic Development class to design a commercial property revolving loan fund. Over five semesters, student teams in that course have completed 24 such technical assistance projects for community and economic development organizations on program design, project feasibility, business or project financing.

For more information on Seidman’s courses, and on the book he is currently writing on neighborhood rebuilding, contact him at seidman@mit.edu. For more on The Living Laboratory effort – led by Seidman and Abbanat with department head Amy Glasmeier – contact Abbanat at abbanat@mit.edu or Seidman at seidman@mit.edu.



Support for New Orleans Work to Date

Many of the students who have gone to New Orleans since Katrina have been supported in their efforts with summer internships or year-long fellowships from the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), a center for planning and development in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

More than twenty more students have taken part in redevelopment efforts with funding support from MIT’s Public Service Center, a part of the Division of Student Life that every year sends thousands of students around the world to apply their skills and knowledge for the betterment of humankind.

In 2009, the Public Service Center and CoLab joined forces with Senior Lecturer Karl Seidman to create a NOLA Fellows Program that places students with community partners in need of sustained support. And five of the NOLA fellows formed a student group, NOLA@MIT, to help keep MIT engaged with New Orleans over the long term.