December 23, 2005
A Gulf Coast
Renaissance: Introduction to the Report by the Mississippi
Renewal Forum, Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding
and Renewal. Complete report can be found at www.mississippirenewal.com
This publication is but a synopsis of the 18 individual reports
that have been crafted to guide the rebuilding of the Mississippi
Gulf Coast. The writing and illustrations contained herein
are technical in nature but presumably self-explanatory. While
the report can stand on their own merits, it may be helpful
if I provide some background to those who must decide what
to do with it.
The genesis was, of course, Katrina, an astounding destructive
force which made landfall in Mississippi on August 29, 2005.
My own involvement did not begin with the Katrina of Mississippi
but the Katrina of Florida; for on August 26, just days before
Katrina had its way with the Gulf Coast, my hometown of Coral
Gables, Fla. was swiped. I had a first inkling that there
was something worse out there than the broken trees on my
street when the crews who were clearing them abruptly packed
their equipment and told me that they were "off to Louisiana."
A few days later I received a call from Mississippi architects
Michael Barranco and David Hardy and also Leland Speed, the
Governor's Director of Economic Development. They asked if
I could meet Governor Barbour and discuss plans for the Mississippi
Gulf Coast. On September 12 I was with them and Jim Barksdale,
whom the governor had designated to lead the Commission for
the Recovery, Reconstruction and Renewal. Later in the day,
the Governor arrived very tired after traveling through the
area of devastation. He listened silently to our proposal
as described by Jim Barksdale. He then turned to us and said:
"Go ahead. Do what you do - and do it well."
We were all exhilarated by the efficiency and trust implied
by this simple directive. This became characteristic of the
entire process. Without the fast decision-making we could
not have completed the task before us, which was to set forth
plans to rebuild 11 coastal cities and 120 miles of coastal
region. Ultimately we went from a handshake to conclusion
of an enormous body of work in little over a month.
This, of course, was beyond the capabilities of any one firm;
so the first call went to John Norquist, president of the
Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the national planning
organization based in Chicago. Norquist and I assembled a
team of some of the very best professionals in architecture,
regional and community planning, civil and transportation
engineering, environmentalism, codes and laws, retail, economics,
sociology, public process and communications. The CNU, whose
members are known for working quickly and on-site, with the
advice and participation of local people, was ready. It was
quite touching how some of the busiest people in the world
immediately accepted the call to dedicate a couple of weeks
to help. Such was the call of duty that we ultimately found
many more volunteers than we could accept.
Ultimately, there were to be 110 in the national team selected
to work with an almost equal number of professional volunteers
from Mississippi. Henry Barbour, executive director of the
Governor's Commission, worked with his staff to collect the
many and disparate community representatives that would join
the design teams at the Isle of Capri Hotel in Biloxi from
Oct 11 to 18. The majority of the funding was provided by
the Knight Foundation -the eleemosynary arm of the Knight-Ridder
newspaper chain (owner of the Sun Herald of Biloxi); other
funding was provided by Jim Barksdale. With their support,
the Mississippi Renewal Forum, as it was come to be named,
came into being.
The day arrived, three weeks after the handshake, and the
several hundred participants showed up on schedule. The work,
which can be roughly summarized as days of meeting alternating
with days of designing, took place for a total of 7 days.
There were 11 separate planning teams, each assigned to a
Gulf Coast community and supported by 7 additional teams with
expertise in various specialty fields. Some of the meetings
took place at the affected cities; others brought the citizens
and elected officials to the big, incredibly busy studio at
the hotel, where they could discuss over the drawing tables.
At least one mayor enjoyed staying past midnight and countless
other Mississippians became semi-permanent fixtures of the
A chaos that included an intermingling in the halls and cafeterias
with hundreds from the debris cleanup crews. It was a rare
and ennobling instance of physical and intellectual labor
having not only shared ends, but shared means.
It is perhaps unnecessary to state that we, the outsiders,
were shocked, and in some cases made despondent, by the devastation
that we witnessed. All were touched by the noble resiliency
of those who had lost everything. It was not unusual, for
example, to ask a serving person at the buffet line after
the condition of their home and receive the response: "I
lost everything, but it will be all right." We were thus
spurred to undertake work for 12, 14, and for some, 20 hours
a day. Barksdale called us "over-caffeinated architects."
Over the days and nights, everything that needed to be engaged,
was: The political process, sometimes in disarray, had to
be reconstituted; the challenge of designing housing that
must be both affordable and durable; the ambiguous potential
of the coming high-rises had to be evaluated - often with
differing responses for each city; the restoration of the
beachfront Route 90 which has become a brutal highway; the
moving of the CSX rail line north and the replacement of it
with transit; the attendant pattern of development that must
support the new transit stations; the reconstruction of a
lost neighborhood structure and its support by codes; the
casinos in their promising new land-based locations; recovering
the viability of the old commercial main streets, which are
under assault by the national chains located to the north;
and a dozen other major and minor issues that had to be adjusted
to each municipality. These, in detail, are presented in the
The challenge that unified the work was offered by Governor
Barbour on the first day of the Forum. He told us that the
coast must not only recover but also be renewed as a better
place than it has ever been. He helped us to understand that
Mississippi could not accept the pall of permanent regret.
Mississippians must not be forced to pine endlessly for the
good old days now lost. Nostalgia for "before Katrina"
cannot long be tolerated by a vital society. Indeed, the only
justification for the tragedy and the only true healing is
to create a better Mississippi. This is the "Renewal"
part of the Governor's Commission.
It is ironic that the challenge was catalyzed by a vast destruction,
and that it's potential for fulfillment is made possible only
because of vast destruction. It is not only possible, but
quickly so. One can indeed build anew and one can build better.
How much better, though?
There is no doubt that the latter half of the 20th century
has badly frayed American communities. The once marvelous,
walkable villages, towns, and urban neighborhoods of our country,
places that organically included the richer and the poorer,
the younger and the older, places that were not dominated
by the car - those places have gradually been replaced by
housing subdivisions, strip shopping centers and business
parks. Fine avenues have been replaced by arterial roads;
dignified housing is replaced by mobile homes, open space
replaced by pavement. It is not necessary here to rehearse
the betrayal of promise - the literature of the New Urbanism
has abundantly documented it.
The problem of suburban sprawl is not only an aesthetic one,
and it is no longer even a social one. It is simply no longer
a sustainable living pattern - not in coastal Mississippi
or anywhere else. The scarcity of petroleum and consequent
rise in its price is permanent. It will catalyze the restoration
of communities to what they were historically - places that
are walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods, towns
and villages. It is certain that such places will sooner or
later return, as all places must molt over time, adjusting
to this reality. What is so extraordinarily hopeful for Mississippi
is that the devastation of Katrina will allow the Gulf Coast
to arrive at this future faster - before anywhere else in
the United States. In Mississippi it will take less than one
generation. A blessing in disguise, if ever there was one.
And we found yet another blessing: In addition to the emotional
resilience of the people, there was an unusual clarity of
vision from the leadership. Apparently, some Americans are
still able to respond to crisis. Perhaps the lumbering bureaucracies
of the Federal government are incapable of acting quickly,
but the government in Jackson and the local leadership on
the coast, together with the slew of representatives in attendance
from national NGOs, were all hands-on, fast and confident.
At no time did we encounter hesitation.
With such leadership, if it can be sustained, this naturally
beautiful 120-mile of coast will be so attractive that there
is no question that it's currently dispersed population will
return, and that the stream of retired boomers looking for
sun and surf will continue to find their way to it. More important,
though, is that talented and well-prepared young people will
choose to settle on the Gulf Coast because it is a most pleasant
and also a most promising place to live and work. Of course
the climate and the sea are great amenities, but only with
the kind of communities projected through these reports will
this prospect be fulfilled. Don't dismiss this possibility:
the city of Portland, Oregon achieved it. Despite it's cold,
gray weather, Portland, as a result of planning similar to
that proposed here, overcame it's marginal location and it's
poverty such that it is now wealthy with the industries that
thrive on talent and youth.
The future requires a quality of life that attracts people
who have a choice of where to live and the companies that
follow them. It is necessary that the Gulf Coast create jobs
beyond the now-vulnerable fishing, the tourism with its low
wages, and the very ambiguous benefits of a gambling industry.
Spinning off from the research center at Kessler Air Force
Base and the current military contractors, better jobs can
be created. Guiding everything, could be the vision of a Mississippi
which is to be - not the Mississippi that, however beloved,
follows others but one that gradually takes the lead.
Are such visions fulfilled? Often not. There is usually too
much that needs to change, too much that needs to be destroyed
before it can be created anew. There is typically an insufficient
sense of urgency. Not often does our stable democracy have
cause to take the risk of being visionary. However, during
that week of October no one, from the Governor to the poorest
of citizens without a roof over their heads, saw any reason
to project anything other than a great vision. There seemed
to be something about the magnitude of what needed to be done
that cleared the mind and bolstered the spirit. Decisions,
rather than taking months and years, took hours and days.
Those who participated are unlikely to experience such an
event again. And there are reasons to be apprehensive. The
transition from those who crafted the proposals to those who
will implement them is notorious difficult. The need for everything
is such, that there will be a tendency to accept whatever
comes up for permit: casino designs of stunning size and garishness;
oceanfront condominiums so tall that they forever blow the
scale of the townscape; their attendant parking garages brutally
blocking the light and view of adjacent neighborhoods; any
of the many "improvement" that MDOT has to offer,
regardless of the consequences to pedestrian life; the instant
slums of ill-designed mobile home parks; the low-end models
of the big box retailers, instead of the better ones available
for places that require it.
There is no doubt that some of the eleven municipalities
will succumb to what can only be called a "beggar's syndrome".
The situation of being grateful for anything that comes your
way is common enough, even without the current crying need
for taxable projects and housing and shops. It may be hard
to break the trance of inferiority. Yet it only requires the
consciousness that these place in Mississippi are too good
for that kind of abuse. It must be borne in mind that any
condo developer, or national retailer, or casino needs a site
on the gulf coast as much as the gulf coast need them. Their
business plan has been made. They want in. They will not go
away if told to go back and do a better job. It will take
spirited leadership of the kind that was apparent during the
week of the design forum. It takes self- respect to demand
excellence. Just once. The better result will break the trance
of low expectations.
We hope that this spirit will continue as long as it is necessary.
This is difficult because this process will take a generation
or more - and that is perhaps the heaviest burden. For the
time required to achieve the vision will surpass our personal
ability to be involved. The task is not only to begin, but
also to institutionalize the vision so that it survives and
transcends us. For this purpose this report offers codes that
will be an integral part of the long-range planning effort.
And, no less important are the other reports presented to
the Governor's Commission that will join this one in addressing
the future of the Gulf Coast in it's many other particulars.
This will be an epic journey. It is the hope of those of
us who were present at the first steps that when they look
back, the people of the Gulf Coast will not be seen as victims
of tragedy, but as a generation fortunate to have been there
at the beginning of a renaissance.