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In Mississippi, the Reshape of Things to Come

(Duany Plater-zyberk & Company - Duany Plater-zyberk & Company)

To discourage a hodgepodge of architectural styles as homeowners rebuild, Duany was prepared to recommend that aesthetically acceptable designs from pre-approved plan books be subsidized. He was hoping to line up a factory to produce regionally appropriate designs for mobile homes, which might give more character to emergency housing developments. But the disadvantaged would follow a time-honored script.

"Poor people end up further inland," Duany said.

Retreating from the water's edge, as some communities in Asia have done in the wake of last year's tsunami, and as some have recommended for New Orleans, was not on Duany's agenda. He was prepared to counter any environmental argument with an economic one.

"In New Orleans, the flooded areas were lower value," Duany said. "In Mississippi, they were the highest value. You can't wipe out millions of dollars of real estate value. You can pull back from New Orleans but not from the Mississippi coast."

New Urbanists lean on the powerful tool of building codes to reengineer communities and pump up property values. But Duany deflects criticism that they act as the taste police. He conducts smaller versions of the forum three times a month and experience has taught him that "in a democracy, people get the cities they deserve."

In the case of Mississippi, he said, "I'm concerned that people who may not necessarily want McMansions will not find themselves with any other choice. The default setting in America is the McMansion and the strip mall. It's what you get if you do nothing."

In a statement issued after Hurricane Rita, the American Planning Association warned of "trade-offs between idealistic goals and expediency" in any rush to rebuild. It offered a dizzying list of issues to be confronted, including environmental justice, racial equity, restoration of natural systems, infrastructure repair, property acquisition and condemnation, environmental cleanup, cultural heritage preservation, hazard mitigation, economic development and urban redevelopment "all at a scale never before seen."

David Siegel, president of the association, had flown to the forum from Portland, Ore. After a tour of Pascagoula, including the site on which Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had lost a home, he expressed awe at the power of hurricanes. He was also impressed by the depth of expertise -- top planners, designers, engineers, environmentalists, sociologists and others -- the New Urbanists had assembled in Biloxi. When asked whether their work might produce a new model for coastal development in other states, he responded, "You bet."

With so much at stake, opening the discussion to a wider range of architects might be prudent. The new landscape will need to include the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art designed by Frank O. Gehry and partially completed on the Biloxi waterfront when Katrina hit.

The commission intends to file a report to the governor on Dec. 31. The charette, as designers call the session, was only a first round. Barksdale did not invite developers or casino owners.

"We wanted to get this started, to see the big picture," he said, "Then let the vested interests get in."

Between forum meetings on Thursday, Susan Henderson, a volunteer from Albuquerque, who had designed a Mississippi vernacular mobile home for Duany, reported that insurance company representatives were also missing. On Day 2, discussion had centered on the redrawing of a flood-zone map, she said, which would determine the form of new buildings that would be insurable.

"It's going to radically change the beach appearance," she predicted, regardless of which designers are in charge.

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