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New Orleans

New Orleans

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Published by Stephen Read
Please contact me or find the final published paper before citing.
Please contact me or find the final published paper before citing.

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Published by: Stephen Read on Feb 28, 2010
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03/03/2010

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Re-visioning New Orleans – mapping ecologies of power and deprivation
Stephen ReadAlexander Vollebregt
Spacelab in New Orleans
The increasing vulnerability of our man-made world in the face of environmentalchange was starkly revealed when Hurricane Katrina struck and devastatedNew Orleans in August 2005. Architecture and urban research has since thentreated the city as a laboratory for the problem of living with environmental riskand has responded by coming up with many innovative solutions (as theexhibition in the US pavilion at the 2006 Venice Biennale demonstrated). Butwhen Hurricane Katrina struck, it opened up a whole spectrum of sustainabilityconcerns that went way beyond the purely environmental. These includedconcerns of social inequality, structural racism, and the presence of anunderclass lacking the means and the power to flee the devastation Katrinaprovoked.New Orleans is just one racially divided city among many in the United Statesand its problems at this level are by no means unique. A massive socialsegregation has emerged historically in US cities along with the evolution of ametropolitan urban form that leaves big business downtown, often alongsidepoor and usually Black or Hispanic residential populations, while the moreaffluent disperse to a much wider suburban region which includes otherbusiness and commercial ‘edge-city’ type centers. This has been as much aspatial as a social event and has involved a wholesale reconfiguration ofcentrality and peripherality in American cities. Social divisions becameassociated with the peripheral and marginal spaces of these cities, and theissues of social and spatial division have become therefore a possible topic forresearch in urban form and urban design. Urban design on its own will not solvethese problems of course, but what it can do is address the spatial ecologiesinvolved as well as a dimension of intervisibility and ‘public sphere’ that is oftenoverlooked in more mainstream social research. This is something that hascome to the fore in recent French scholarship in relation to a mostly immigrantunderclass hidden from view in
les banlieues 
of many large French cities. PierreBourdieu called these immigrants
atopos 
(out of place); New Orleans and thecameras of CNN presented us after Katrina with the even more startling anddisturbing vision of a people out of place in the city of their birth.New Orleans had been shrinking and dissipating as a result of suburbanizationprocesses since well before Katrina, and the focus of attention in our researchwould be on trying to understand its well-known vitality in its more central partsas well as its problematic social divisions and inequalities. We were looking totry to understand the complex social ecologies of this city and the way we mightbe able to use these understandings to imagine a place open to more enablingways of life and a richer and less divided public. We wanted also todemonstrate the ways the urban design discipline could contribute to problemswhich in truth require a coordinated response from a broad range of politicaland professional actors. We felt though that the vital and constructive part that
 
planning and design can play in such a response is often not well understood orappreciated by other interests and disciplines and saw our role as one ofrevealing how urbanism and urban design could contribute towards amelioratingdivisions that have become spatially entrenched and opening the way to a moreequitable and prosperous future for all the citizens of New Orleans. We wantedto demonstrate that there are other cities, and liberating and enablingpossibilities for new cities in the ruins of the particular city we found before us, ifonly we would put the effort into imagining them.
Spatial ecologies and ‘Ordinary Cities’
There has been in the last several decades a dominant perspective propagatedon the contemporary city and its function and meaning in the social andgeographic disciplines. This view, developing over time from a so-called WorldCities to a Global Cities perspective, has seen contemporary cities as existing ina network of global transactions and flows, strongly linked to the globaleconomy (Friedmann; Sassen). This view has understood different cities asexisting in a functional hierarchy in relation to their roles in this economy.Certain cities (Global Cities), contain high concentrations of the ‘advancedproducer services’ that support this economy, exerting a controlling influence onit, while others tend to become relegated to positions of ‘structural irrelevance’in the whole picture (Castells). While this view has contributed much to ourknowledge of cities in general, it has had an unfortunate effect on other moreordinary and less prominent cities in the Global Cities perspective, rendering theways they participate in a ‘world of cities’ and mediate and enable the lives oftheir populations as at best problematic, and at worst as simply negative (Amin& Graham; Robinson). The Global Cities view finds it difficult to fully engagewith and value the ways cities are constructed around multiple interests, rangingover all sectors and scales, and the ways people exploit the multifariousspatialities of the city to actively construct and underline value in their own lives.In practice its response to lower-ranking cities is often to propose sets of neo-liberal strategies designed to move the city in question up the ranks of theGlobal Cities list, and to sideline questions around multiplicities of interests andopportunity in favor of factors particularly related to the insertion of the city intoa narrowly defined global economic circuit (Robinson). In New Orleans today,the relative lack of response from Federal Government to the crisis may reflectthe fact that the city is seen as ultimately not very relevant to the nationaleconomy (Glaeser). In its extremely narrow perspective on ‘global flows’,‘advanced producer services’ and highly educated and well-paid ‘creativeclasses’ a neo-liberal perspective often simply fails to see the depth of the totaleconomy, and the role of this total depth in supporting the lives of untoldmillions of people world-wide – a fact pointed up by the observation that whilethere are very few officially designated Global Cities today, there is no city in theworld that is not globalizing.We take the view that cities, rather than simply being closed sites incorporated,or not, into a singular global economy, are by their nature particular generatorsof multifarious spatially located and situated social and economic opportunity –some of which may well end up being incorporated into formal economicstructures, but that may also contribute to the rich fabric of partial formality and
 
informality that enlivens the spaces of countless Ordinary Cities all over theworld. The real everyday welfare of people is as much, and in very many casesmore, dependent on situated opportunities for initiative and open potentials forlivelihood than they are on the more formal structures and designated spaces ofthe global economy. At the same time, the everyday spaces that people inhabitare replete with qualities that enrich lives and that people incorporate into theireveryday lives by choice.
Models, maps, modes of seeing
No single person can see the whole of the city – just as no single person, nomatter how wise or well-read can know the whole of reality. It is not just that thecity (or reality) is too big for us – there is another more important point andprinciple: this is that different starting points and different situated perspectives
on 
the world are part of the very warp and weft of reality (Mol). We exist in areality that is multiple, and that can be ‘framed’ in multiple different waysdepending on our particular concerns and the focuses of our attention. Or, inother words, the world can be all the time true and objective – yet change into a‘version’ different to the first with only a shift of the angle from which it is viewed(Goodman). In the same way we may encounter different objective ‘versions’ ofthe same real city depending on the focus and the eyes with which we chooseto look at it. New Orleans looks different depending on where one lives in it,where one works (or doesn’t), where one sends one’s kids to school, and whereone goes shopping or out to eat or drink. In a city as socially divided as NewOrleans, whether one is rich or poor, Black or White, or for that matter tourist,business traveler, or inhabitant, has a substantial effect on what New Orleanslooks like and the opportunities the city presents.This issue of ‘perspective’ doesn’t only affect the experience of the inhabitantsof the city: it is at the same time an issue of methodology, an object of research,and one of our basic tools for the planning or design of real urban spaces. Asurban researchers and designers, we see cities through the lenses of differentmodels of the city, bringing the values incorporated into these models to theviews we construct. But we also, as part of our practice, collect data and buildimages of what particular cities are – and we may do this in a slightly less value-led way. Carefully tracing and tracking the contours of real cities will inevitablyexpose more than the limited view of differently valued territories the moreabstract and schematic models present to us. It will inevitably expose layeringsof function and meaning, of formality and informality, of the expected and theunexpected, of growth and decay, of a generally more complicated, co-implicated, foldedness of different perspectives and ‘worlds’ over and withinother ‘worlds’. It will expose richness and variety, and the object’s own refusal toreduce to a singular perspective. It is this refusal – and the ‘remainder’ that isalways left outside particular models – that seems to us to be an essential partof the very nature of cities. We take it that different communities and interestswill find in these overlaid orders the means to articulate different lives, each ascoherent ‘worlds’, some working within larger and some within smaller spatialranges and horizons, and almost all exposed at critical junctures within thesespatial webs to other communities, other interests, other ‘worlds’. This highlyintricate and overlaid spatial ordering is part of the way that different urban livesand different urban ‘worlds’ pass each other on the street, setting up conditions

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