Planning Column -- Form Follows Function

The recovery and long-range redevelopment of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region is a complex undertaking requiring simultaneous planning in a wide range of disciplines. For this reason, there is a paramount need to create a planning infrastructure that will enhance collaboration and reduce duplication. In order to accomplish this goal, the Louisiana Recovery Authority has embraced the concept of Nexus planning and the development of comprehensive Community Nexus Centers.

Community Programs and Services

Every citizen is entitled to a wide array of support services that are currently delivered through multiple public agencies. These programs sustain basic educational, health, social, cultural, recreational, transportation, safety and other individual and institutional needs. The degree to which these services are effectively delivered is determined largely by their accessibility. To a large degree, the complex network of agencies and providers established to deliver these services is inefficient and cumbersome. With respect to low-income communities, where barriers to access are at their highest, the need for physical proximity and information access is especially critical.

One of the reasons the delivery of public programs is less than adequate is because the process of their design and implementation is usually disaggregated. For example, programs for early childhood education are managed autonomously from educational programs at the elementary, middle and high school grade levels. Programs for vocational, as well as for community college and higher education, are usually administered through another independent agency. And, programs for adult literacy are most often offered through yet another delivery system.

For the underserved population of workers whose livelihood depends on multiple jobs, or whose technology access or literacy may be challenged, or whose income levels are too low to support private transportation, access to these programs and services is often severely limited. It is for this reason that a new strategy for the planning and distribution of public services must be created.

Challenge Brings Opportunity

In most cases, the barriers to change are formidable. Longstanding commitments to existing physical infrastructure and administrative alliances are often among the more prominent of these obstacles. However, in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, these barriers have been significantly reduced by the need to rebuild at a previously unimagined scale. In the rebuilding process, close attention must be paid to how a wide spectrum of community programs and services can be provided more effectively.

Why Is It Called a Nexus?

The“nexus” concept advocates for a managerial, programmatic and physical planning model that is highly integrated in its design and execution. A fully developed community Nexus center is conceived of as a place where a wide range of programs and services are effectively sited, coordinated and administered in a way that addresses the needs of the people who most need them. At the core of the concept is a cooperative governance model called the Community Trust.

The Community Trust

Community programming is typically divided among a wide assortment of elected and appointed bodies. Non-governmental organizations (NGO/s) add additional programs and facilities to the mix. Each entity usually plans, funds, builds and operates its own administrative and facilities infrastructure. In order to improve efficiency and quality of service, the Nexus planning model proposes the development of a collaborative planning entity called a Community Trust, composed of representatives from a full range of public, not-for-profit and community-based organizations with responsibility for coordinating and improving the delivery of all community programs and services.

Form Follows Function

The programming and design of a community Nexus center must be conceived and developed as part of a common and collective whole. Included in each center could be spaces designed to serve a full spectrum of individual and community needs, such as public open space, centers for K-12 education, career and technical training, adult learning, community fitness, visual and performing arts, recycling, community health and other social services. With a collaborative approach to public and private planning, these centers can also provide walkable access to localized farmers markets, community gardens, grocery and dry goods outlets, retail services and public transit.

National Issues of Confidence and Trust

In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, community Nexus centers can be an important tool for engaging the community in neighborhood and community planning. But the need for a more collaborative approach to planning is also endemic to cities and neighborhoods across the nation. In this environment, it is often difficult for communities to maintain a common vision for the planning and implementation of integrated community services. A more democratic model that is authentically implemented at the scale of rural villages and urban neighborhoods could help to foster more inclusion and stability. It is in this way that the Nexus planning concept could be useful for collaborative planning throughout the nation.

Steven Bingler, an active member of CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International), is the founding principal of Concordia llc, a community planning and architectural design firm in New Orleans, Louisian