Rebuilding a stronger and smarter city applies to politics, too — not just physical infrastructure. Credit: CultureThirst

“This city is what it is because its citizens are what they are.” — Plato

There is no such thing as a resilient city without meaningful, and preferably formally structured, community-based, civic engagement.

An urban environment exists for and because of people. Thus the residents of any city are the primary stakeholders in that city, and in the resiliency of that city. Subsequently, any resiliency strategy that does not give primacy to the voice of the people is simply not effective or workable.

This view is widely supported in global best practices. Among the cities chosen for the Rockefeller Foundation-funded 100 Resilient Cities program, a sizable majority worldwide have formal civic engagement structures, from Accra, Ghana, to Sydney, Australia, including every continent and 13 of the 15 American cities.

New Orleans is one of the 100 Resilient Cities. And yet New Orleans does not have a formal civic engagement structure.

In the other Resilient Cities, the most common mechanism by far is some form of Community Participation Program (or Citizen Participation Program, CPP), with Participatory Budgeting (PB) being the second most common. Quite a few of the Resilient Cities have both CPP and PB.

There is no resiliency in a civic engagement vacuum.

The Unified New Orleans Plan, developed through community meetings and congresses after Hurricane Katrina, included a clarion call for a CPP. The 2008 amendment to the City Charter mandated such a structure, and gave force of law to the New Orleans Master Plan. In turn, Chapter 15 of Master Plan defines the framework and structure for a New Orleans CPP, and states that one must be implemented.

At the national level, the Department of Homeland Security included “citizen preparedness and participation” in its list of “essential capabilities that should be developed and maintained, in whole or in part, by various levels of government to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks and major disasters.”

After Katrina, a group of some 200 residents under the guidance of the Committee for a Better New Orleans developed a model for a local CPP. That model was submitted to the City Planning Commission in September 2010. The City Council passed a resolution the following month calling on the Planning Commission to present a final model to the Council for adoption by summer 2011. The resolution included funding for the Planning Commission to complete this task.

Unfortunately, Mayor Landrieu halted this process, and the entire issue has been in limbo ever since.

Now the city has released its formal Resiliency Strategy, as required by the 100 Resilient Cities program.  This document seems to understand that resiliency does in fact live in the community.  What it fails to grasp is that resiliency is also born in the community.  The Resiliency Strategy was prepared with minimal community input, primarily within the confines of City Hall.

While the Resiliency Strategy is in fact a good document, with a lot of good ideas in it, it is disrespectful of the community not to have developed the document collaboratively, and it will make community buy-in that much more difficult to achieve.

And without any formal structure for community input going forward, there is no opportunity to review it, refine it, adapt it, or monitor it. Consideration is being given to supporting individual neighborhoods in developing specific, localized strategies; but we don’t even have a current map accurately identifying post-Katrina neighborhood boundaries, let alone the structure or capacity across all neighborhoods to create such strategies.

In the context of the city of New Orleans’ participation in the 100 Resilient Cities Program — not to mention the mandates from UNOP, the City Charter and the Master Plan — it is time for strong consideration of a formal, permanent, inclusive, community-based structure for civic engagement. It is time for reconsideration of the New Orleans CPP model.

A city belongs to its people, and the people’s voices must be heard. There is no resiliency in a civic engagement vacuum.

Keith Twitchell is president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, which works to develop community leaders, foster civic engagement, and advocate for open, effective, accountable government.

Keith Twitchell

Keith Twitchell has served as president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans since 2004. He was worked on city budgeting issues since shortly after Katrina, and spoken at national conferences on Participatory...