2010 National Planning Conference: Opening Keynote Address

Shaun Donovan

By Ann Dillemuth
APA Research Associate, Planning Advisory Service

View a gallery of photos from this event

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan opened the 2010 APA National Planning Conference with a message for planners that their passion and commitment was needed now more than ever. He outlined the Obama administration's vision for a new federalism in assisting state and local planning efforts and overcoming the mistakes in housing and redevelopment policies of the past, calling for the recovery and revitalization efforts at work in New Orleans to serve as a model for other cities in the U.S. and around the world.

Of New Orleans, the conference host city, Donovan noted that no city more deeply demonstrates the need to plan for both recovery and revitalization to provide the broadest range of choices and opportunity, and stressed the importance of ensuring that rebuilding happens smarter and stronger as the city moves from recovery to true revitalization.

Donovan outlined three levels of rebuilding efforts underway in New Orleans that can extend to the larger context of the Gulf Coast as well as the entire nation: project-level, neighborhood-level, and metropolitan level. He cited the Iberville public housing development to illustrate the Choice Neighborhoods program, which emphasizes place-based solutions that respect existing communities in contrast to the approach of the past with its focus on clearing and building new housing projects monolithic in their architecture and homogeneity. The Choice Neighborhoods program expands funding opportunities beyond public housing and includes a full range of stakeholders to create inclusive, sustainable communities.

Next, Donovan connected the lingering devastation of the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East to neighborhoods across the country suffering from the recent foreclosure crisis as well as longer-term patterns of disinvestment and economic decline. Again, rather than the old approach of clear-and-rebuild, today's Neighborhood Stability Program is encouraging revitalization of these communities through collaboration across jurisdictional lines to pool resources and ideas, and bringing all stakeholders, including nonprofits, to the table. This program has recently granted New Orleans $30 million to assist a dozen nonprofits in taking unique strategic approaches in helping to rebuild eight neighborhoods across the city.

Finally, Donovan invoked federal policies of the past that pitted city against suburbs and hastened urban decline by focusing investment and development activity on the city's outer fringes. The new Sustainable Communities Program, a joint initiative of HUD, the EPA, and the Department of Transportation, epitomizes the new federal effort to reverse these trends. Based upon six livability principles, this initiative will allow the federal government to speak with one voice on housing, environmental, and transportation policy issues. It also allows the federal government to put its money where its mouth is, providing $100 million in regional planning grant funds and $40 million towards local planning efforts, representing the largest federal investment in planning to date.

Donovan acknowledged that for too long, the federal government has sat back and left state and local governments with the bulk of responsibility to address planning and revitalization efforts. But today he announced that it is time for federal government to emerge from mistakes of the past and take on a new role — offering tools and strategies to local governments to achieve their visions and realize desired outcomes.

He cited the work of the Long Term Disaster Recovery Working Group as an example of this new role. Its recommendations, reached after extensive public input and soon to be delivered to the administration, cover preemptive approaches of planning and preparation as well as strategies to ensure that post-disaster recovery happens both stronger and smarter. This include flexible funding programs that won't limit rebuilding efforts and policies that encourage the valuable efforts of nonprofit and volunteer groups. The Working Group's recommendations will result in a sea change in the area of disaster planning and help the US better address any future catastrophic events.

Donovan reiterated the Obama administration's bedrock commitment to rebuilding urban areas as exemplified in their support of the ongoing efforts in New Orleans. Federal officials have been coordinating with the incoming Landrieu administration to smooth the transition, and have been working to reform the New Orleans Housing Authority to serve as a model for the rest of the country. HUD is working to not only listen to communities, but to provide a catalytic investment in community revitalization to build capacity across the country and provide technical assistance funding for local governments.

The recovery efforts in New Orleans will be a source of national pride, and he tasked planners with a special obligation to seize the moment and emerge from crisis stronger and smarter. He recounted the enthusiastic roar from the international community at the World Urban Forum in Rio when he announced that the U.S. had just passed health care reform, and reminded planners that our work not only changes lives, it can change the world.

Sen. Mary Landrieu

Donovan was preceded by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who for 15 years has been a champion of good planning and has worked hard to support the region's post-Katrina recovery. She offered conference attendees a heartfelt welcome to the city and expressed appreciation to planners from the Netherlands, who have shared their expertise on how to safely plan and build coastal communities below sea level. She exhorted planners to stress the value of planning on the front end, citing the $150 billion in recovery costs that could have been avoided with $1 billion in upfront planning and preparation. Landrieu reminded the audience that Thomas Jefferson leveraged the resources of our fledgling country to ensure control of the Mississippi River system through the Louisiana Purchase, and called for strong efforts to plan and engineer safe coastal living.

Ambassador Renee Jones-Bos

Renee Jones-Bos, Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States, shared the experience of living in a county two-thirds of which lies below sea level. She explained how the impacts of climate change has raised the stakes, forcing Dutch planners to rethink their 20th-century approach to water management of aggressive manipulation of the landscape and massive engineering projects to protect urban centers. Their new approach, "Room for the River," rethinks the way cities interact with the natural environment. Building higher and stronger is no longer an effective way to safeguard cities; instead, respecting natural principles and the fundamental qualities of the landscape is necessary to adapt to the new realities of climate change. She highlighted the cooperation of Dutch and American planners in developing a new understanding of the issues involved in delta urbanism and assisting with New Orleans recovery efforts.

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