In Mississippi, the Reshape of Things to Come

(Duany Plater-zyberk & Company - Duany Plater-zyberk & Company)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

This week, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi began to design its way out of disaster.

Since Wednesday in Biloxi, Andres Duany, the visionary town planner, has been plotting the outlines of a new Gulf Coast.

"We'd love to set Mississippi up as the first 21st-century region," he said. "That's the idea."

At the invitation of Gov. Haley Barbour's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal and on behalf of the Congress for the New Urbanism that Duany helped found, the planner has engaged 100 allies and 130 local leaders in an intensive week-long brainstorming experience called the Mississippi Renewal Forum. The conference is taking place in the 12-story Isle of Capri casino-hotel, which survived while buildings across the street were leveled and the casino's own barge was thrown onto the parking garage, which collapsed. Participants are working against a Monday deadline to produce a comprehensive plan.

Commission Chairman James Barksdale, the former Netscape CEO and a Mississippi native, describes the area as a staggering "tabula rasa" stretching 80 miles, from Pascagoula to Waveland. For a mile inland, the storm surge reduced businesses to concrete slabs, shattered summer mansions and crumpled bridges and roadways. But the swath of destruction has also endowed Mississippi with the largest urban development opportunity in a lifetime. Some participants are already saying the results will provide a new model for coastal development elsewhere.

"I'm looking for big ideas," Barksdale says. "What can we do to really make a difference. You've got a wonderful opportunity, no matter how tragic it is. People should be able to look back and see this as a marvelous place."

New Urbanists advocate a utopian formula of walkable neighborhoods, vernacular architecture and access to public transit. The movement began in the late 1980s as a renegade group of architects such as Duany who opposed suburban sprawl. It now has 2,000 adherents in 20 countries, a fifth of them developers. They have compiled an impressive record of pedestrian-friendly "new towns," with leafy public squares and architecture that echoes the past. Kentlands, the neocolonial planned community in Montgomery County, was one of the first. Two Florida towns, the Seaside resort immortalized in "The Truman Show" and Disney's Celebration, are among the best known.

The anti-sprawl principles are shared by the Smart Growth Network. But critics have seized on one hallmark of New Urbanism: exploiting a yearning for an imaginary small-town America. The Congress for the New Urbanism Web site shows plenty of white picket fences and front porches. Streets are invariably safe, buildings pastel, vistas orderly and consistent. No building stands out. One gets the sense that people aren't meant to, either. Despite the planners' expressed desire to create economically diverse communities, the new towns have become synonymous with affluence.

Barksdale says he picked Duany for his experience in organizing planning sessions after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, rather than for New Urbanist values. But the decision has set some in the architecture community on edge.

"I don't think the answer is to bring somebody in with a canned response," says Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "There are fundamental issues of how to deal with that coastline, how to build, if you build at all."

He reads disturbing cultural messages in the quaint enclaves of New Urbanism. "It's right-wing developer-speak masquerading as populism," Moss says. "The ideological image-making would appeal to a kind of anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South as slow and balanced and pleasing and breezy, and each person knew his or her role."

Duany had worked out a glittering scenario in advance. Over the phone from Miami, where the Duany Plater-Zyberk firm is located, he envisioned an environment free of strip malls and parking lots. Fast-food outlets, gas stations and supermarkets would be redesigned. Some communities might choose to become more urban, Duany projected, and high-rises could be lined up along a new boulevard. An old rail line that was out of place in a tourism-driven environment might give way to mass transit. Casinos, no longer consigned to the barges Katrina tossed like bath toys, would need to be worked into the urban fabric.

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