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Mississippi Charette Report is Complete

Planners suggested pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares in Ocean Springs.

A sketch of Long Beach shows how its commercial core could be moved further from the water.

Designers envisioned an area Wal-Mart that would be built along the street line to be accessed by pedestrians. Its traditional exterior and small scale would fit in with the neighborhood.
Images courtesy Mississippi Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, Renewal

Amidst the bleak news from the Mississippi Gulf Coast comes a beam of optimism: the completion of a report on the mid-October planning charette led by the state and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Biloxi. The report, released in print on November 21, posits that the Gulf will emerge a better place, and that the nearly clean slate left by Hurricane Katrina offers the area an opportunity to be the first U.S. region “to arrive at the inevitable future” of sustainable development.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour gave Miami-based architect and planner Andres Duany the go-ahead to lead the charette, which took place from October 11th to 18th. One hundred and twenty members of CNU—designers, engineers, and other specialists—plus an almost equal number of Mississippi officials and professionals, gathered for a week to brainstorm ideas for resurrecting a 120-mile coastal region, including 11 cities.

The report first suggests reconnecting the Gulf’s towns and their region by turning Highway 90 into a beachfront boulevard, moving the CSX freight rail line to the north of I-10, transforming the abandoned CSX right-of-way into a boulevard for cars and transit, and creating a high-speed east-west rail network linking the Gulf Coast with Mobile and Pensacola to the east and Baton Rouge or Houston to the west. Improved freight and passenger rail service, says the report, “has the potential to substantially bolster the economy and vitality of the Southern states.” As for roads: “There is a sense of urgency to restarting the local economy that can be assisted through strategic road and bridge projects.” Because “design matters,” all road, transit, and bridge projects “should pay attention to the details of place-making.”

Beyond advocating such New Urbanist trademarks as pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, and transit-based communities, the reports suggests stopping the exodus of retail from historic towns. To revive downtowns, it suggests establishing business improvement district authorities. Historic buildings would be rebuilt or restored and form-based zoning codes and regulatory boards would be adapted. Coordinated leasing plans could be used to attract leading retailers and big-boxes, and it has been suggested that new casinos could be located in downtown shopping districts, or linked to them. Overall, regional planning would be used to discourage sprawl.

A section on housing options makes the point that time is of the essence. The report recommends that temporary buildings be designed so that they can later be made permanent, and points out that permitting needs to be expedited. Modular and prefabricated structures “with individual identity” could cut construction time, and that bringing manufacturers to the region could reduce costs and delivery times. Setting regional design standards for architectural detailing could enhance safety. The report also recommends appointing town architects to oversee the rebuilding. As a companion to the report, Urban Design Associates produced A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods, a resource for homeowners, builders, and communities.

The report also exhorts FEMA to replace prescriptive flood-control standards with performance-based principles and offers some alternatives to expensive, “anti-urban” stilt houses. Recommendations include “submersible dwellings,” designed on raised porches using hurricane- and mold-resistant technologies and materials, and buildings with wide openings, tall ceilings and appropriate ground-floor finishes that permit storm surges to flow through. These ideas are not universally accepted. Todd Davison, mitigation director for Federal Emergency Management Agency, insists it is not possible to build beachfront homes or buildings that can withstand a major hurricane without "ugly and expensive" pilings. Architect and urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides of Pasadena, Calif., who led a charette design team for rebuilding Biloxi, told that city’s leaders, "You have two choices, as I see it. Either scrap Biloxi and move north, or create a town that can take a swim every 30 years."

Time is of the essence, warns the document. The best policies, codes, and design criteria must be put in place quickly “so that redevelopment on an appropriate scale can take place just as quickly as sprawl development would.” The report says that mayors and other officials will have to take projects under their wings, the Mississippi Department of Transportation will have to be convinced to relocate roads and infrastructure, and builders and developers will have to be persuaded of traditional urbanism’s value. Finally, the report urges towns to stay in close contact with each other during planning and rebuilding, so that good “solutions can be duplicated elsewhere in the region.”

Predictably, the CNU’s proposals have met resistance. Clay Risen, a New Republic editor, wrote in the online magazine The Morning News that “[Duany Plater- Zyberk] and Company are essentially flying blind.” What the New Urbanism has yet to confront, he says, is figuring out how to rebuild a vast, diverse community, “one that might lack the desire or resources to maintain the added expenses, such as light rail systems and community centers, that New Urbanism celebrates.” New Urbanism, like all utopian ideas, he points out, is great at depicting a better life, but rather poor at showing how to get there. Moreover, in their book The Resilient City, Thomas Campanella and Lawrence Vale show that post-disaster rebuilding plans are always undone, to a surprisingly large extent, by resistance from residents who, while paying lip-service to progressive rhetoric, want nothing more than to return things to the way they were.

Andrea Oppenheimer Dean