The one thing that David Brooks got right in his NYT op-ed, "Katrina's Silver Lining  ," is that the devastation of New Orleans does offer a unique opportunity—indeed, an obligation—to rebuild this American city in a way that reduces endemic urban poverty.
But when he describes just how that should be done, Brooks reveals his real interest. This denizen of the American Enterprise Institute is not so much keen on transforming the lives of poor people as he is in reinforcing the suburban miasma that is essential to conservative political power in America. How? Brooks wants to integrate the poverty-stricken and now displaced residents of New Orleans into middle-class neighborhoods around the country:
In the post-Katrina world, that means we ought to give people who don't want to move back to New Orleans the means to disperse into middle-class areas nationwide.
Obviously, that means sending them to the suburbs, where their cost of living will skyrocket. First, they will need cars. To get the cars and pay for the gas, they will need better paying jobs than they will likely be qualified for. If they get a job, perhaps in a Wal-Mart, they will need child care because their extended families are no longer living in the neighborhood, or even the state. Of course, housing costs will go up, unless, of course these families are relocated to suburban ghettos—defeating the entire purpose.
The fact is, poor people are moving into middle-class suburbs across the United States and it is not working. As wealthy young couples and asset-rich retiring baby boomers rediscover the utter sensibility of well-designed, higher-density neighborhoods in our transit-served urban cores, they are pushing the poor folks out into the first-ring suburbs. [That, in turn, pushes middle-class folks into outer, often new, suburbs that extend commutes and stress middle-class families, state budgets and local ecosystems.] This dynamic, sometimes called gentrification, sometimes urban renewal, is, in effect, displacing poverty and crime into the suburbs where the lack of community and extended family and social connectiveness makes it even harder to address. And, call me cynical, but I seriously doubt that a federally imposed relocation program is going provide localities with the incentives and oversight to make such an experiment work.
There is a better, more feasible way. Instead of reinforcing our failing 50-year experiment with the low-density suburb, the reconstruction of metropolitan New Orleans should be seen as an opportunity to correct the problems that not only caused the human poverty and physical vulnerability of this city, but to lead the way forward for all American metropolitan areas.
This will entail integrating three concepts into a metropolitan redevelopment plan negotiated with the residents of New Orleans. The first is smart growth. The second is transit-oriented development. The third is distributed power generation. Smart growth is the practice of designing higher-density, mixed-income communities that strengthen families, build community and place everyday services within an easy walk from home. It's happening all over the United States. Transit-oriented development is the idea that new development or redevelopment should be based around energy-efficient mass transit that increases metropolitan mobility while reducing time in the car (and thus our dependence on oil). Linking these two concepts allows for a network of healthy communities, connected by efficient, affordable transit, increasing commerce, opportunity and choice across the metro area.
The last idea, distributed power generation, is the most exotic, but most strategically important. Distributed power, the use of smaller, highly efficient power generators sited locally is in contrast to the traditional use of massive centralized power generation at a big, inefficient and polluting power plant. The technology exists and many office buildings in urban areas and high-tech factories needing highly reliable power already use them. Indeed, New York City has mandated that a certain percentage of new power generation be distributed to reduce the load on central plants as power consumption increases. The effect is to create a more robust metropolitan energy grid that can withstand localized disruptions more effectively while eliminating approximately one-third of the inefficiency due to transmission losses. With rising energy prices and the certain threat of more hurricanes, efficiency and resiliance are essential.
Local participation, down to the neighborhood level, will be critical in such an effort. Post-war reconstruction efforts in the Balkans (largely ignored in Iraq) learned the hard way that without local participation, relief efforts can go horribly wrong. Between the participatory "charettes" developed in the smart growth practice and the community-based methodologies of the humanitarian relief community, these three elements of a sustainable new New Orleans can be tailored to the needs, hopes and values of the area's residents. In the process, local political involvement, already shaken up, will be reinvigorated while the local economy will boom from the reconstruction work.
Taken all together, we have the knowledge, skills and technologies to work with the people of New Orleans to transform that city from a symbol of the worst in America to a vision of what America could be; indeed, what America needs to be.
What we cannot do is merely rebuild urban injustice and suburban dysfunction.