• Anne Whiston Spirn, an MIT professor of architecture and urban studies and planning, spoke at an Oct. 18 symposium on "How Can We Plan for a Safe and Sustainable Region?" as part of an MIT series exploring questions created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Professors weigh in on planning for new New Orleans

"The destruction of New Orleans was the tip of an iceberg," Professor Anne Whiston Spirn asserted at a symposium held Oct. 18.

In many cities, Spirn has found through her research, the poorest residents live on buried floodplains, suffering the effects of mold, frequent floods, subsidence and cave-ins. In many cases, people are forced to abandon their homes, Spirn said.

Spirn, an author and MIT professor of architecture and urban studies and planning, penned an award-winning 1984 book about nature's role in city planning called "The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design." Spirn spoke during the third in a series of four symposia exploring the "Big Questions After Big Hurricanes."

Speakers at this symposium, titled "How Can We Plan for a Safe and Sustainable Region?," focused heavily on the lack of planning evident following Hurricane Katrina.

"It is unconscionable that there was no plan for this occasion," said Spirn. "This is not a surprise, why are we scrambling now?"

Spirn is especially interested in city planning that takes nature into account. "Cities are part of nature," said Spirn. "If we saw them that way, we would design them differently … Every city is prone to some sort of natural hazard."

Spirn said the rebuilding effort should allow residents "a stake and a share in rebuilding the place where they live."

Professor Chiang Mei of civil and environmental engineering drew parallels to other flood-plagued regions, including Venice, Italy, and the Netherlands.

"They are very different in nature and scope, but they face a similar problem," said Mei.

The current solution in Venice is a series of three mobile gates across the three inlets that lead to the islands, but environmental as well as organizational concerns have slowed progress. In the Netherlands, which lost 1,800 people in the North Sea Storm of 1953, the solution was to build a series of dikes or dams, which changed the ecology and morphology of the blocked estuaries. In the more recent projects, movable gates were constructed instead, to allow tidal flow in and out of the estuary and to preserve the natural balance.

Among the lessons Mei gleaned from his explorations into both areas is the importance of planning. A project to fix New Orleans must be well thought out and the future carefully considered. Additionally, it is "important to have the community and the engineers work together," Mei said.

Professor Michael Fischer of anthropology and the Program in Science, Technology and Society discussed the social effects of disaster.

Although there has been talk of mega projects in New Orleans, such as super sea walls or "floating city" reconstruction, Fischer argued that the role of the local communities in any reconstruction needs to be fostered if there is not to be mere gentrification or a nostalgic remnant rebuilding, such as was the fate of Galveston, Texas, following its famous flood.

Fischer called for New Orleans reconstruction to become an experimental urban space for deliberative democratic planning, drawing upon the black churches, black universities, civil rights organizations, burial and second line societies and neighborhood organizations. At stake, he said, is the Creole, African-American, Cajun and Southern amalgam that has been a distinctive source of U.S. culture.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 26, 2005 (download PDF).

Topics: Civil and environmental engineering, Humanities, Urban studies and planning, Faculty


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