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Mississippi Renewal Report

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."

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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 creative chaos.

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 individual reports.

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.

 

Andres Duany

 

Related links: Mississippi Charette Report is Complete
  Complete Mississippi Renewal Report

 

 

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