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Promise Unfulfilled?
Three Years After Katrina

By now, the story is familiar: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, exhausted from touring the devastation wrought by Katrina, listened to Jim Barksdale's description of how new urbanists could help bring the region back. He then turned to Andrés Duany and said, "Go ahead. Do what you do -- and do it well."

What followed was the Mississippi Renewal Forum, a seven-day design marathon held in Biloxi, Miss., in October 2005 under the auspices of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal, headed by Barksdale, former chief executive of Netscape.

It was surely one of the largest charrettes in the history of the new urbanist movement.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the right way and make the Coast bigger and better than ever," Barbour said at the time.

The commission brought in a dream team of 110 architects, planners and other specialists, assembled by Duany and John Norquist, president and chief executive of the Congress for the New Urbanism. This team met with a similar number of locally based professionals to draft rebuilding plans for each of 11 communities along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, the "string of pearls," as they are known. The plans were shared with the local communities, which are continuing to refine them and adopt them.

How has it worked out so far? "A mixed bag of tricks," says Ann Daigle, who moved to the region after she was hired as a Smart Growth consultant by Leland Speed, director of the Mississippi Development Authority. "The vast majority of the subdivisions proposed or permitted [in the rebuilding of the hurricane zone] is conventional sprawl."

On the Gulf Coast, a part of the country that seems to be about "old" rather than "new," and to be about small towns rather than cities, new urbanism may not seem an obvious fit, at least not without some explaining. Fortunately, the new urbanists were ready to do a lot of explaining. "We showed so many pictures," Daigle says of the visual preference surveys she conducted. "This got people understanding what was possible."

Some people, though, are obviously unclear on the concept. Daigle cites an attempt, billed as "new urbanism," to build 300 acres of townhouses and nothing else. There was not a single bit of mixed-use development, she says. At least with this one, though, "the permit was denied."

Jeffrey Bounds is an MIT alum with many years' experience in the Boston area but deep family roots in Mississippi. After the storm hit, he returned there to help with the rebuilding effort.

On balance he finds that the reconstruction effort has gone "shockingly well," he says. "I've stayed here on the remote possibility of change here in an area that usually has a tendency to avoid rational good ideas," such as new urbanism.

He's done much of his work in Pass Christian, one of the most significantly damaged of the "pearls," and finds what's been accomplished "quite incredible." There have been "some very good decisions" made, he stressed in a recent interview. The town has already adopted Smart Code plans for three of the town's four planning zones and is now acting to adopt the fourth.

The town started with "some idea of good urbanism," Bounds says. It's a small community, one of several dozen bedroom communities along the coast that hadn't grown enough to endanger its original layout and much of it was still preserved. "But it was slowly being corrupted by sprawl development."

After the storm, though, "the downtown was reduced almost to its foundations." It's being rebuilt, but slowly, because of the general economic slowdown.

How well do the people there accept new urbanism? Do they "get it"? he is asked.

"Southerners are pretty predictable," he says. They're susceptible to persuasion when they're presented with the option of traditional neighborhood design, because they can be sold on the "traditional" part of it. They tend to be "open to a story line," he says about how "our grandparents knew how to do it right," and to appeals to pride of place and fond memories of the past. "That got us inside the door."

But as a practical reality, he adds, "Southerners have adapted to suburban sprawl as well as anyone." So, they can get "incredibly crabby" when people try to suggest that the car needs to have a less prominent role in their communities.

What's been critical to the success of new urbanist planning has been the presence of local practitioners who know Smart Code and know the local communities, too.

He speaks of the way he "snuck through the razor wire" to get into the October 2005 mega-charrette in Biloxi, which didn't otherwise have all that many people with on-the-ground local experience, he suggests. The "fly-ins," however talented and capable, needed local support to make the original plans from the mega-charrette really work.

One unexpected outcome for Bounds has been the extent to which Mississippi communities outside the storm zone have tuned into the planning process going on along the coast. There's actually a lot of "avant-garde" thinking about planning in those places, Bounds says, sounding a little surprised to be using that term to describe a dozen or so small towns across the state that have called him and his colleagues to express interest in improving their own planning process.

Daigle calls this bubbling up of interest "the primary impact of the Forum" across the state. The forum encouraged people across the state to feel they "could aspire to something really great," she says.

She acknowledges that in any community, there is only "a small minority" that recognize that planning is valuable. Still, it's exciting that so many traditionally underserved communities "have gotten the planning bug," she says. They see the link between good planning and economic revitalization.

In the reconstruction after Katrina, different layers of government have often worked at cross-purposes. Bounds says that both state and federal government have tended to act to impede the adoption of new concepts. "They didn't get that they had to do anything," Bounds says.

Both Daigle and Bounds take issue with the decision taken early on to extend water and sewer lines across the county lines in a zone significantly inland. At one level, the move could be charitably construed as an effort to move quickly on rebuilding, and to foster development away from areas likely to be clobbered by other storms in the years to come.

But at another level, it was a decision "guaranteed to encourage, if not facilitate, sprawl," as Daigle puts it. The decision was made with no regional plan in place. Nor was much thought given to clustering development. On top of that, the area to which the new development is being directed is largely wetlands. Daigle clearly finds it all mind-boggling.

She knows what she would do if she were the czar over the territory: She'd grind up the parking lots of the local strip malls and redevelop the land as mixed-use developments.

"And I'd incentivize the heck out of them."

These malls tend to be fairly evenly spaced along the highways, each one a natural "ped shed," she says, which means they're a natural for the kind of everything-within-walking-distance kind of neighborhood that seniors, particularly, need. The community needs some other kind of housing than just single-family houses on one hand and Florida-style apartment complexes on the other, Daigle says.

The Walmart in Pass Christian has become a symbol for the kinds of compromises communities have made in their efforts to introduce Smart Codes planning. In some cases the compromises have been so severe that it's not clear whether the result can be called new urbanism. The Walmart falls under this heading. It got classified as a "special district," which gets it out from under the Smart Code controls.

But, Daigle points out, all the land surrounding the big box store is Smart Coded. So as the area develops, the store, which has no frontage on a public street, will be hidden by Smart Growth development. "It was a compromise. But it's going to be all right."

"We've learned a lot in the last three years," Leland Speed, the former director of the Mississippi Development Authority said in a video interview on the occasion of the third anniversary of Katrina. "One thing we've learned is how hard it is to implement good planning, especially in built-up areas. . Have we seen everything, or even a big percentage of everything, that we've wanted? Of course not. But it's happening, little by little."

"There's so much going on," Ann Daigle says of Pass Christian. "And people are so excited about their future.

Learn More

For more background on Mississippi's Gulf Coast three years after Katrina, visit: