Katrina’s Legacy Conference Offers Lessons for Building Robust Metropolitan Regions

from left:  Justin Babino, Mary Braxton-Joseph, Ambassador James A. Joseph, John Marshall

from left: Justin Babino, Mary Braxton-Joseph, Ambassador James A. Joseph, John Marshall

“The city of New Orleans is a tale of two cities. Some people live better and feel better after the efforts following hurricane Katrina. Some still worry not enough has been done.” James A. Joseph, former ambassador to South Africa originally from Louisiana, addressed a captive audience at Georgia State University College of Law on October 2.

The Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth in the College of Law hosted a conference, Katrina’s Legacy: Creating Robust Metropolitan Regions through Law, Planning and Leadership, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of hurricane Katrina, study the lessons learned from rebuilding New Orleans, and discuss how the lessons learned apply to current work in Atlanta and metropolitan regions around the world.  Ambassador Joseph’s observation, that so much has been done in New Orleans and yet so much more needs to be done, was a permeating theme throughout the conference.

The first panel discussed economic development. “You have to bring a healthy dose of humility to the work” Frank Fernandez, the vice president of community development with the Arthur Blank Family Foundation, commented. “The work can be muddy. You have to embrace the complexity, and you have to be clear eyed about the tradeoffs…you can only move at the speed of trust.” James Alexander, the director of the Atlanta Beltline, Inc. discussed the trade-offs in Atlanta. The Atlanta beltline is a development project that has had “catalytic” positive effects on development in Atlanta and owes a great deal of its success to community support and ownership. Still, new development and revitalization threatens to alienate lower-income community members as housing prices increase. “In many ways the more successful we are, the harder my job becomes,” said Alexander.  The Atlanta Beltline has so far built 985 units of affordable housing along the beltline, but according to Alexander, “it’s not enough.” Jessica Venegas, director of Strategic Parnerships at Community Solutions in Washington, D.C., similarly lamented that despite her success in building affordable housing in New Orleans after the storm, “it’s not enough.”

The second panel illuminated the tradeoffs in education reform with a heated discussion about Louisiana’s charter school model, and whether that is a model that should be replicated elsewhere – an important issue as Georgia considers creating an opportunity school district run by the state to turn around failing schools.  How do we provide the best education for children that helps them compete in the global market place, while also taking into account their culture, history and environment? The panel consisted of Kristen Buras, associate professor at Georgia State and strong critic of the school revitalization efforts in Louisiana after Katrina; Liza Cowan, the south region executive of Global Philanthropy at JP Morgan Chase & Co.; and Delano Ford, who worked intimately with the revitalization efforts in Louisiana and is now the executive director of Teach for America in Metro Atlanta.

Ambassador James A. Joseph illuminated a way forward in his keynote lunch address. “We must reconcile conflicting pictures of the past in order to move forward into the future.” Urban problems are not new, nor are they likely to leave us soon. Still, as we work to rebuild cities and communities, we must recognize that that, “I am because you are.” We must carry the sense of community that emerged in the wake of disaster well beyond the immediate response. Ambassador Joseph closed with a word of encouragement: “The biggest lesson I took away from Katrina is that when you give help, you give hope, and the gift of hope is as good as the gift of life itself.” Despite differences in opinions and methods discussed by the panelists, the conference gave a lasting impression that our goal can and should remain singular: to build a more forgiving, more just and more hopeful city.

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