The reconstruction of New Orleans represents an opportunity to employ techniques for civic participation that have been developed and tested over the last 30 years. For example:
Some entity (the federal or local government or a major nonprofit) could offer the dispersed citizens of New Orleans a chance to deliberate about basic issues. Should their city be developed primarily as a port, with lots of blue-collar jobs? Should its main focus be culture and tourism? How big should the population be? Should parks be built instead of houses in the most flood-prone areas?
There are excellent methods available for public deliberation. Over the next three months, people from New Orleans who have congregated in cities like Houston could be invited to forums run by AmericaSPEAKS. That’s an organization that uses technology to mediate discussions among hundreds or thousands of people who gather in convention halls or other large venues. Meanwhile, dispersed citizens who have Internet access could deliberate online using a mechanism like that of e-thePeople. Finally, small clusters of people could use the Study Circles process to deliberate in living rooms, shelters, and church basements. All these discussions could be framed in the same way, and all the groups (large and small, offline and online) could report their results to a central agency.
In Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities, portions of the municipal budget are turned over to public assemblies to allocate. This “participatory budgeting” process has decreased corruption and increased efficiency. Why not try it in New Orleans, using (say) $20 billion of the $200 promised federal aid?
Another good prompt for public deliberation is a “charrette” process, in which teams of citizens come up with ideas for buildings and neighborhoods, and architects use software to whip up quick illustrations that the citizens can review. Adolescents should definitely be included in charrettes.
I’m not sure how many of the city’s schools need to be rebuilt because of storm damage. And there may be some desire to rebuild old neighborhood schools more or less as they were. However, to whatever extent possible, I’d recommend building much smaller middle and high schools. I’d also try to attach some of them to adult institutions like colleges, libraries, museums, and even police stations and hospitals, so that adolescents have chances to work with people younger and older than themselves. I’d also recommend designing the school buildings so that they contain spaces for democratic deliberation that the students can use frequently, and community members can use on special occasions. A good model is the new high school in Hudson, Mass., designed with civic goals with a lot of input from the kids.
Instead of reconstructing the wires that once crisscrossed New Orleans, could we make the phone and Internet systems entirely wireless? Once you start thinking about decentralized, “peer-to-peer” networks, even more radical ideas come to mind. For instance, could there be incentives for people to build solar panels on their roofs, so that residents could contribute a considerable amount of energy to the “grid” on sunny days? Having solar panels everywhere would also generate lots of skilled maintenance jobs. Or could some of the city’s sewage be treated by entrepreneurs who set up greenhouses to process waste? I have no idea what’s cost-effective, but the general idea would be to replace “hub-and-spoke” systems that reserve skilled jobs for a few (and that cost lots of cash) with decentralized systems that provide more opportunities.
I do not mean to suggest that the destruction of New Orleans is in any way a good thing, but we should try to rebuild as well as possible. I’m taking a cue here from E.J. Dionne’s interview of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Blumenauer sounds like my kind of person: an enthusiast for public participation, an environmentalist who’s optimistic that we can make the lived environment better than it was before, a hawk about federal deficits, and a guy who’s “always seeking to put together left-right coalitions on behalf of his eclectic mix of ideas.” He told Dionne:
I’ve been in Congress for nearly 10 years and I’ve never been so optimistic that we have a chance not just to engage in the gargantuan task of helping people in the Gulf, but also of healing the body politic. … You’ve got to build a citizen infrastructure along with all the roads and bridges. … [P]eople should have a role in what it should be like, rather than have it done to them
I don’t know if his optimism is justified, but we certainly need ideas, energy, and innovation.