Post by Tenaj Jones and Kathleen Onufer.
In what Andres Duany once called “the Superbowl of planning,” New Orleanians eventually emerged as the Most Valuable Players in planning for an equitable recovery. This was not incidental, but rather the result of residents’ passion and determination coupled with groundbreaking partnerships with local nonprofit organizations and national philanthropy.
The citizens of New Orleans began in 2006 what would be a long process of asserting our voices in the city’s recovery. The Foundation for Louisiana – previously the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation – has helped citizens – especially those living in historically marginalized neighborhoods — to have their voices heard in post-Katrina decision-making by publicizing public meetings through channels that actually reached residents and advocating for greater public involvement through the Foundation’s Neighborhood Organizing and Planning Fund (NOPF). Neighborhoods and communities in New Orleans became key drivers of the planning process, demanding to be heard and bringing equity to the planning conversation.
Community conversations about the Master Plan in the Lower Ninth Ward and Central City, 2009.
We are two players in the planning process at the Foundation for Louisiana. Tenaj Jones is a native New Orleanian, a long-time community leader, and the Senior Program Officer for the Foundation’s Neighborhood Organizing & Planning Fund (NOPF). Kathleen Onufer is a newly transplanted New Orleanian and works as a planner on place-based projects at Foundation for Louisiana.
TJ: At the time of Katrina, I worked in the New Orleans Mayor’s Office as the Director of Volunteers and Government, which meant I did everything with the community: town halls, volunteer events, everything. So I had a lot of experience organizing residents and helping them to communicate with government. I was also a homeowner in the Lower Ninth Ward, so my family was displaced to Texas for 3 years after the storm. I got to work volunteering and organizing and helping spread information to other displaced New Orleanians in Houston and then in Dallas for those first few years. After I helped organize participation in the America Speaks recovery planning process, I returned to New Orleans. Soon after, what was then the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation launched the Neighborhood Organizing and Planning Fund to make sure all communities were participating in the planning processes and recovery. The NOPF program officer position was a perfect fit for me, and I was eager to be back in the neighborhoods I knew so well, helping residents to reconnect and organize around shared agendas for equitable re-building.
KO: At this point it was three years after the storm, and while New Orleanians like Tenaj were building back their neighborhoods block by block, they also embarked on the major process of creating a new official Master Plan. After the New Orleans Master Plan came a new comprehensive zoning ordinance (CZO), the first update to citywide zoning since 1970. Taken together, the Master Plan and CZO would largely shape, by force of law, the next 20 years of the city’s future.
TJ: The more I understood the Master Plan and CZO, the more I realized how critical it was to be engaged in all of the planning processes to ensure that my community’s needs were met. But I went to meetings, and historically marginalized neighborhoods were not participating the same way. Residents were not at the meetings, and when they were, they were not successfully getting their voices heard. I talked to the consultants, and while they expected “planning fatigue” on the part of residents weary from post-Katrina planning and rebuilding, they did not expect participation to be so low. I helped them understand that the problems were more fundamental: there was a lack of engagement in vulnerable communities due to a lack of effective grassroots outreach strategies. Planning materials were often highly technical and difficult to understand, and residents had limited access to planners and decision-makers to ask questions and really understand what was happening at planning meetings. This was not intentional on the part of the planners and consultants, but a process that took access for granted was not working.
With this in mind, I developed and implemented a grassroots outreach strategy by connecting my work at Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation with the efforts of local churches, homeowner associations, neighborhood associations, faith-based organizations, and community-based non-profits. Together, we created a “Citizen-Friendly Civic Engagement Strategy” that helped the Master Plan and CZO consultant team, Goody Clancy, improve their public meetings by making them more accessible and more responsive to every community’s needs. Then we hosted “Community Conversations” in targeted neighborhoods to make sure that more citizens were aware of the planning process and the means by which to participate in it effectively. These efforts evolved into a standing series of “Lunch and Learns” on planning topics like the Census and what the new numbers mean for New Orleans, disaster preparedness planning, and explaining technical details of the zoning ordinance to enhance citizen understanding of potential impact. The “lunch and learns” were a great place for planners, academics, policymakers, and residents to learn from one another.
What we heard continuously in these efforts from both community members and professional planners was the need for a clear, common-sense resource that residents and practitioners could use to establish a common language and thus a more meaningful dialogue in planning and design processes. Foundation for Louisiana created the Citizen’s Guide to Land Use and the Citizen’s Guide to Urban Design to meet this need.
KO: I am a planner, and I will own up to that title, but I also have to remember that the title frequently comes with weird jargon on urbanism and development standards that can make it hard for residents to feel comfortable participating. As Jeff Hebert, recently appointed Executive Director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, said at the launch of the Guides, “A lot of us planners use coded language to the exclusion of the wider community. This tool really helps break that barrier down.”
Each Guide provides an introduction to basic concepts, planning processes and participation opportunities, and contains easy-to-follow diagrams and illustrations, as well as a glossary. The Citizen’s Guide to Land Use explains the standard land use categories, intensity and density in land use, and how standard colors and shades are used to represent land use categories in planning maps. The goal of this guide is to help prepare citizens to read and comment on land use maps, particularly as part of a master-planning process, and to understand land use patterns such as districts and mixed use.
The Citizen’s Guide to Urban Design explains how to read design drawings such as a concept diagram, plan, and rendering; illustrates the elements of urban design; and provides a guide to participating in design processes. Individual design elements like setbacks and massing are clearly depicted and explained, as are relationships between elements of urban design with transportation, density, and infrastructure.
Both Guides are value-neutral: we do not try to say what is “right” or “good” for a community, but rather equip community members with the language and concepts to understand and influence planning and urban design in their communities. Because the goal of the Guides is to achieve a common language for residents, planners, and designers, we subjected the Guides to multiple “user reviews” by residents, planners, designers, and community leaders to make sure it was a clear and accurate tool that everyone could use. Despite all of her planning experience, Tenaj likes to claim that she is not a planner; with the Guides, she is, and so is everyone because they have that common ground of expertise and the language to communicate that knowledge.
To extend the reach of the Guides, we at Foundation for Louisiana are conducting training sessions around the state for both planning practitioners–on how to use the guide as a public engagement tool–and for community groups–on the content of the guides and how to use them as a tool to influence planning and design processes. In addition to distributing physical copies, we have also made the Guides available for free download on our website at www.foundationforlouisiana.org — check out a copy and let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org if they are helpful for you in your community!