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Taking Steps to Reinhabit New Orleans

by Kristin Sanderson

Professor Tridib Banerjee, teaching assistant Ferdinand Lewis, student Rowena Magana and professor Deborah Torres attend the American Planning Association awards banquet.

This past spring USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development faculty member Deborah Torres encouraged her urban planning lab to tackle the rebuilding New Orleans question in a whole new way.

“Preface to a Plan,” a pioneering approach to the massive rebuilding project, will be exhibited as part of this year’s International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia in Venice, Italy � the largest and most prestigious art and design exhibition in the world running Sept. 10 to Nov. 19, with more than 50 countries represented.

Torres’ project was chosen for the exhibition in part for its unique approach as a planning tool and also because its methodology is on-theme with the focus of the exhibition.

Titled “Cities, Architecture and Society,” the 10th International Architecture Exhibition will allow visitors to interact with the USC SPPD “Preface to a Plan” project � an interactive, navigable wiki Web site, or a site that allows users to add, remove, edit and change content.

According to the site, “because the rebuilding of New Orleans is a planning and design challenge of unprecedented complexity, ‘Preface’ is not conceived as a direct design intervention, but rather as an instrument for the ongoing collection and assembly of the research needed to begin a collaborative urban design process in post-Katrina New Orleans.”

Before the city can be rebuilt and reinhabited, a great deal of planning, coordination and discussion must take place across the various levels of the public and private sectors.

“New Orleans has gotten more complicated in the past year; the whole process is moving very slowly. Many proposals have not even been reviewed yet,” Torres said.

Before the planning can even begin, she said, large amounts of information must be gathered, assessed and processed from a host of government officials, private industry, residents and interested non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Torres and her class created a mechanism to collect and synthesize information from various constituents in one central location. “Preface to a Plan (via wiki)” was engineered to gather all the conversations and research related to rebuilding.

Torres began by working with the USC Center for Scholarly Technology, using its Confluence wiki software.

One of only two paperless classes working with the center at that time, the urban planning lab learned that the wiki technology would change the way they interacted with each other. Torres quickly realized that “the wiki had high potential to change the way we worked as a group.”

As an educational tool, the software enables students and faculty to have real-time conversations and get immediate feedback. As a planning tool, it facilitates collaborative authoring across many disciplines.

In “Preface to a Plan,” this ability to collaborate integrates topics such as affordable housing, economic recovery, infrastructure, psychological aspects and tourism redevelopment into a continuous conversation about reinhabiting New Orleans post-Katrina.

The site proclaims itself as “a living document, updatable by its users, specifically structured for collaboration.”

Master of Planning Program Director David Sloane explained that “Preface to a Plan” is an important contribution to New Orleans’ reconstruction because it provides a set of collaborative resources that can draw on a range of expertise, including those at USC.

“The wiki creates a platform to think about what needs to be done,” he said. In this way, he explained, an institution located some distance away from the recovery area can “offer a mechanism to make the planning process more participatory, collaborative and effective.”

Marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the group is working with Tulane University’s CITYbuild program, a studio coordinating the efforts of more than 20 schools and universities as well as several NGOs helping with the rebuilding effort in New Orleans.

USC student Margeaux Randolph recently was recognized for the wiki project’s service to the city with a proclamation from the New Orleans City Council. The USC SPPD group has been able to collaborate with leaders in the area largely due to the connections of New Orleans native Jason Neville and Eunice, La., native Ferdinand Lewis � both teaching assistants for the course.

For their efforts, Torres and her students have won the 2006 Education Project Award from the Los Angeles and the California chapters of the American Planning Association. Later this year, “Preface” will compete for the national APA Public Outreach Award.

At the Biennale, USC SPPD joins 13 other institutions � including Tulane, Princeton, Columbia and Harvard � as part of the larger exhibit “Resilient Foundations: The Gulf Coast After Katrina,” curated by the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.

While the wiki is currently in beta format for the Biennale, it will be accessible for all the groups working with Tulane later this year.

Taking Steps to Reinhabit New Orleans

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