Published on Sustainable Cities

A Profound Sense of Place – The Intangibles of City Life in New Orleans

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City Street, New Orleans, LA, USAA recent learning trip to New Orleans by the East Asia and Pacific Transport, Urban and Disaster Risk Management team introduced the unique charms of this city to many of us for the first time. Anyone who has been to New Orleans will remember the city for its historic but lively French Quarter, its living jazz tradition, with bands of talented local musicians playing for tips in the narrow streets, its Mardi Gras floats, its Cajun food, the oldest continually operating streetcar system in the world, and the varied history of the city that has resulted in its distinct Creole culture. As Dave Roberts, a local tour guide, explains to tourists, this was where the classical music tradition of the French colonialists came into contact with the pulsating African rhythms of freed slaves escaping to Louisiana from Haiti. The fact that jazz music was consequently born in New Orleans “was not a coincidence,” he says. “Few things are.”

Everywhere we went in New Orleans, we heard painful stories of those who had lived through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But what was striking was the pride that the residents of New Orleans have in their city and their determination to rebuild it. As my colleague Artessa Saldivar-Sali describes, city officials and the US Army Corps of Engineers have dedicated themselves to strengthening the city’s defenses in order to ensure that the next time the city is hit, it is better prepared. Well-educated New Orleanians and outsiders have come to work at the city redevelopment authority, the disaster preparedness agency, and community-based affordable housing organizations. These are people who could easily abandon New Orleans for well-paid private sector jobs in other US cities but who have chosen instead to use their talents in aid of the poor and vulnerable and towards the greater good of their city.

A good example of the disaster recovery work being done there is the Musician’s Village, built by Habitat for Humanity with the help of volunteers. It provides affordable housing to musicians who were displaced by Katrina, ensuring that the city’s musical heritage is not lost. It also includes a community center where the children of the city can learn instruments from local musicians.

ImageIt is hard to imagine people spending so much effort to save a generic American city, but it is not hard to understand why so many people are inspired to save New Orleans. It has to do with what Jim Pate of Habitat for Humanity described to us as the “intangibles” of the city, or what the Hurricane Katrina exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum called “a profound sense of place”.

Soon after the storm, while the city was reeling from its loss of life and livelihood, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser suggested in an essay that as New Orleans has been “declining” for the past several decades, it is not worth rebuilding. Instead, he argued, it would be better for those whose homes in low-lying areas were destroyed (mostly poor African-Americans) if they were handed a check and told not to come back. They would be better off in Atlanta, Houston or Las Vegas, he claimed.

This argument seems to confirm the worst caricatures of tone-deaf, narrow-minded economic thinking. It uses the word “decline” to mean low GDP growth, without making this explicit, as though it goes without saying that it is the only metric by which to judge the worth of a city. This line of thinking proposes that since Las Vegas has higher economic growth, of course everyone would want to move there. Music, food, culture, history and community cannot be counted, so they do not count.

Glaeser has since made a similar argument in favor of letting rust belt cities like Buffalo decline without spending large sums of money on propping them up. While this argument too had its critics, the case of a city in gradual decline, with residents leaving voluntarily to seek opportunities elsewhere, is fundamentally different from a city that was evacuated in response to a natural disaster. His essay on New Orleans makes an important point about the moral hazard of providing cheap insurance to live in risky areas, which should be taken into account. Also, providing households with the option to relocate elsewhere is not necessarily a bad idea. However, this does not have to entail denying people who wish to return the ability to come home.

The point of view reflected in the essay (which, to be fair, probably does not reflect the views of most economists) apparently fails to see that letting New Orleans drown would be a grave loss, maybe not to the American economy, but certainly to American culture. Paying attention to the “intangibles” of city life is not misguided sentimentality; I think it reflects a more comprehensive and realistic understanding of what human societies value.

The world, East Asia in particular, has embarked on the largest city-building project in history. What are we trying to achieve? As the World Bank, our goals are clear – we aim to eradicate poverty and boost shared prosperity. For those of us that deal with sustainable infrastructure, our responsibility is to help governments build roads, bridges, water treatment plants, and other kinds of infrastructure, which benefit the poor with the least possible environmental impact, making them as resilient to disasters and climate change as possible. However, as urban specialists, I think we have a special obligation that goes beyond this, which is to help build cities that foster that “profound sense of place”, cities in which people would be proud to live and raise families, to develop an identity, to express themselves, and to call home.

We build cities to provide a venue for efficient production and consumption, but the higher, more elusive goal of city-building is to anchor people in place, in history, in nature and in community, to protect them not just from economic hardship and natural disaster, but from alienation and despair. Despite our best efforts, it is likely that in the coming decades our cities will be battered by storms and submerged by floods. Many of these will be poor cities, and if we were to adopt Glaeser’s position, we would not bother rebuilding them. Instead, we not only have a responsibility to rebuild them and make them physically resilient, but to make them places worth rebuilding.

Photo credits:  Chandan Deuskar



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