Friday, October 13, 2006

Emergent New Orleans: Cybernetic urban planning and some self-organizing alternatives


This post summarizes a presentation I plan to make at Tulane's symposium on Hurricane Katrina and the reshaped legal landscape of the Gulf South. I discarded everything I had previously planned to say in order to respond to a remarkable keynote address by Walter Isaacson, vice-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA).

BroadmoorIn an audience that included his parents and community activists as well as Tulane law faculty and students, Mr. Isaacson confessed that he had reversed field on a crucial point of policy: whether active urban planning -- of a decidedly up-front, top-down nature -- should precede the actual disbursement of Community Block Development Grants (CBDG) and other funds within the LRA's control. He said that he favored aggressive planning until he learned that much of his family's neighborhood, Broadmoor, had been targeted for bulldozing and conversion into green space.

The solution that Mr. Isaacson appears now to embrace, at least after his realization that an urban planner's preferred "footprint" could easily be a city resident's old neighborhood, is to award grants to individuals for building homes wherever they choose. The proper role of urban planners in this alternative model is to inform grant recipients of all known and foreseeable constraints on reconstruction -- infrastructure, geology, existing and prospective regulations on construction. But once the grants are disbursed, the resulting "plan," as it were, would emerge piecemeal according to individual homeowners' decisions.

At one level, this is merely a variation on one of the oldest themes in urban planning: aggressive zoning versus relatively unplanned growth. The debate over planning in the reconstruction of New Orleans has an eerie parallel to the problem of financing universal service in the law of regulated industries. I note this similarity in passing as a way of pledging, by and by, to unveil those connections on this forum.


Cybernetics and the art of urban planning
Since this is Jurisdynamics, after all, let me reframe this issue in terms of complexity theory. Allowing market forces to guide what principles of principles of self-organization would describe as an emergent process. The competing approach, one embodied in an aggressively planned approach, implements more rigorously designed cybernetic principles.

Emergence and cybernetics are not mutually exclusive principles, of course, and they share some crucial features. Most saliently, both emergence and cybernetic design give very heavy weight to feedback loops and how new information informs the reconsideration of prior decisions. But Mr. Isaacson's personal experience suffices to illustrate how easily the confidence of high-ranking officials, let alone that of ordinary citizens, in the beneficence and wisdom of urban planners can be shaken when reconstruction decisions are dictated ex ante rather than permitted to emerge on their own.

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