November 30, 2005
Planners suggested pedestrian-friendly
thoroughfares in Ocean Springs.
A sketch of Long Beach shows
how its commercial core could be moved further from the
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,
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 CNUdesigners,
engineers, and other specialistsplus 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 Gulfs 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 citys 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
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 urbanisms 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 CNUs 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.