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Reenvisioning New Orleans

Urban planning comes alive for students.

MIT students and faculty went south in January to join hands-on post-Katrina recovery efforts. Funding from MIT’s Public Service Center (PSC) and the Graduate Student Council (GSC) supported projects as diverse as a conference on rebuilding New Orleans’s tattered education system and an oral-history project to record survivors’ stories.

Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) graduate student Emmaia Gelman jumped into grassroots organizing in December and Janu-ary for the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition in New Orleans. The group gives survivors a voice in reconstruction decisions.

“MIT’s urban-planning program teaches students to ask serious questions about who has the right, not just the power, to plan a city, a community, a physical space,” Gelman says. “In post-Katrina New Orleans, these questions are a matter of life and death, as low-income and black homeowner communities face physical erasure from the reconstruction map drawn up by developers and institutions.”

Reinhard Goethert, director of the School of Architecture and Planning’s Special Interest Group in Urban Settlements, is involving 10 MIT students in a project to design housing for low-income people. Instead of building houses on stilts, the team is developing an innovative lift-house approach, where the house is built first then lifted into place on the site. This approach is safer for builders and therefore can employ volunteers instead of still-scarce skilled labor.

“But moreover, since the date of lifting is predictable, it gives an opportunity to celebrate revitalizing a community,” says Goethert.

GSC-supported projects include a team of three DUSP students who want to make New Orleans green again – both environmentally and with tourist dollars, a major source of city revenues. This five-month city-planning project is working with the New Orleans city government on ecological enhancement in urban rebuilding.

These outreach efforts continue through the spring and may have lasting effects nearer to MIT. In February, DUSP graduate student Laura Machala received a PSC grant to develop disaster media plans for five Massachusetts cities.

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