Farmer's Testimony on Rebuilding New Orleans

APA Executive Director Paul Farmer testified at an October 18, 2005, joint congressional hearing about plans for rebuilding New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The following is his oral testimony.

Download more detailed written testimony (pdf)

Chairman Shuster, Chairman Duncan and distinguished members of both subcommittees, thank you for hosting this hearing. I appreciate having the opportunity to speak on such an important topic and one that is central to my profession.

I am Paul Farmer, Executive Director of the American Planning Association (APA). I appear today both as CEO of the nation's oldest and largest association dedicated to the promotion of good planning that creates communities of lasting value, and as a professional planner having served the cities of Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Eugene, Oregon. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was fascinated by changes in my city. As a high school student I learned that a profession existed that was dedicated to improving choices for our communities and bettering people's lives.

I was in Shreveport 10 days ago with almost 200 colleagues who had gathered for our Louisiana Chapter Conference and a Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction workshop that we sponsored.

APA represents 38,000 professional planners, planning commissioners, and engaged citizens interested in shaping visions for the future of their communities and seeing that these visions are carried out. Our members are involved, in the private sector and at all levels of government, in creating and implementing plans that reflect local values, promote wise stewardship of resources, and increase choices for how we work, live and play, and enhance local quality of life.

Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding was among the greatest urban and regional disasters in U.S. history. The rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will include some of the most difficult planning issues of our time — environmental justice, racial equity, restoration of natural systems, infrastructure repair, property acquisition and condemnation, environmental cleanup, cultural heritage preservation, hazard mitigation, economic development and urban redevelopment — all at a scale never before seen.

Planners are trained to examine a situation and provide a comprehensive perspective. This viewpoint enables planners to identify both intended and unintended consequences of growth and change. Planning and the special skills of planners are used to help diverse groups find common ground and mutually agreeable solutions to community issues. Broad-based agreement is required for New Orleans's rebirth to be sustained. Community involvement will be a challenge, but one that cannot be ignored. This will take coordination of community town halls and meetings to an unprecedented level given the geographic dispersion of residents. Yes, New Orleans is its people.

Planning decisions are among the most essential local government responsibilities. The federal government, APA, and other institutions can provide technical assistance and new tools to replace lost local capacity, but working within the structure of the local planning commission and regional metropolitan planning organization is vital to a sound redevelopment plan that reflects local values.

Good planning facilitates responsible reinvestment. Investments of time, talent, creativity and, of course, money, are central to a city's success. Good planning is what ultimately drives investor confidence. Good planning is what investors need to feel confident that their work will be rewarded, not undermined. We heard Governor Blanco talk about the Comprehensive Plan her Recovery Authority will develop.

As noted by Governor Blanco, rebuilding levees only to pre-Katrina standards is unlikely to instill investor confidence. The levees failed. The types of levees must also be reconsidered, with earthen levees possibly replacing the highway-type walls that failed along the canals. Yes, government must be prepared to use the tool of eminent domain. Just as Rep. Baker outlined, some property will have to be acquired for any property to have value and for lives to be protected. We must also begin to implement the Coast 2050 Plan and restore the wetlands.

What is rebuilt, where rebuilding occurs and what standards should be used are challenging questions. Where not to build is equally important. In the last decade New Orleans set aside 20,000 acres. Rep. Shuster raised this "no build" issue earlier. Other opportunities abound. As just one example, schools can be brought back to life as true centers of community serving all residents 7 days a week. Public open spaces, too, can be enhanced. I think that far too often we only start with the hard infrastructure.

The area's unique sense of history and culture must be protected. Mr. [Wynton] Marsalis was eloquent on this point. More here than in most any city in the nation, historic structures are a critical part of both culture and economy. New Orleans should not sacrifice this key asset on the altar of expediency. We should use New Orleans as a laboratory of innovation in these areas by expanding traditional rehabilitation tax credits to spur reuse of vital structures in the city. Additionally, we should include a residential historic tax credit for New Orleans homeowners to assist in rebuilding in a way that preserves the vitality of existing neighborhoods.

We must also look at lessons we have learned elsewhere. Florida has shown how regional coordination of local decisions can be effective in post-disaster recovery. Florida has also demonstrated the value of mandated comprehensive plans with the force of law. My home state would do well to heed this lesson.

APA has posted numerous resources available online to help guide the rebuilding process, including model plans, planning tools, sample ordinances and lessons learned from other natural disasters. APA will send a team of planners to New Orleans to focus on rebuilding the city's planning capacity. Elsewhere in the Gulf Coast, Planning Assistance Teams will work with the impacted communities, offering their assistance, expertise and knowledge.

Effective disaster prevention, response and mitigation measures can occur only with adequate and effective investment in infrastructure for all our communities and for this specific region. APA supports Pre-Disaster Mitigation grants, and the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

Lastly, I would suggest that Congress provide new support for expanding community planning capacity. Promoting better planning and improving local planning capacity through technical assistance and other incentives would improve local policy making and make other federal programs more effective. Good planning stretches the dollars.

This isn't about a quick fix. Our efforts are sure to leave a lasting and permanent effect. This is precisely why we need to go about this rebuilding process systematically and comprehensively but with a sense of urgency. Our annual conference draws 5,000 to 6,000 people. You're invited to join us for our upcoming conference in New Orleans in 2010. Thank you.