The mid-October charrette that the Congress for the New Urbanism co-hosted in Biloxi with the Governor's Commission for Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal was maybe the biggest charrette ever and it demonstrated the power of this form of multi-day, collaborative planning vehicle.
The charrette brought together 120 New Urbanist practitioners from as far as Canada and Great Britain, nearly 50 design professionals from Mississippi, local leaders from the Coast, and FEMA personnel. It assembled the diverse expertise of architects, planners, transportation engineers, development consultants, and other professionals. For seven days, they worked passionately toward the same goal -- creating designs and tools for the people of Mississippi to build their communities back even better than they were before Katrina. The resulting plans are comprehensive, refined, and sensitive to local contexts and concerns.
But that's not how they looked in The New York Times on December 8th. In a story by freelance Home section writer Bradford McKee, the plans appeared downright scary.
Told largely from the point of view of Andrea Harris, the concerned owner of a bungalow on Elmer Street in Biloxi's Point Cadet neighborhood, McKee's story linked New Urbanist plans to fears that residents will be evicted to make way for enlarged casinos and a new golf course. The plans, reported McKee, "made passing references to restoring sleepy older neighborhoods like hers [Ms. Harris'], but focused heavily on remaking Biloxi as a more polished tourist magnet to rival Paradise Island."
The article continued:
Ms. Harris [the owner of a Point Cadet bungalow] knew nothing of the New Urbanists. She went to the meeting hoping for answers to basic questions, such as what the new building codes and flood elevations for Biloxi will be, so she and her neighbors can begin rebuilding their houses.
She found the town meetings had more to do with plans for replacing her neighborhood than restoring it. Lately, she and several neighbors said, surveyors have started showing up daily on her ruined street, some taking pictures of their houses and one bearing a plan that would place a resort on her property. "We were told by the surveyors that a golf course was going to run through my yard," Ms. Harris said.
This scenario did more than just frighten Ms. Harris. It frightened quite a few New Urbanists who hadn't read the Biloxi report, since one of the things that drives us is a deep appreciation and respect for fine-grained, diverse city neighborhoods like Point Cadet. The image of New Urbanists conspiring to uproot residents to replace their homes with a golf course is so ludicrous it should be dismissed out of hand.
And it could have been dismissed by simply opening up the 65-page plan for Biloxi. Prepared by a team led by Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) co-founders Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, the plans could not be more explicit and upfront in spelling out the importance of preserving Point Cadet's existing neighborhood form and rebuilding homes for existing residents. Read the Biloxi plan for yourself.
After establishing "preservation" and "traditional neighborhood reconstruction" as the plans' most immediate priorities after debris removal, page 10 identifies the report's first "catalytic" project, the first major planning recommendation in the report. It's the rebuilding of Point Cadet.
The planners write:
In the heart of the eastern peninsula along Howard Avenue are located many of Biloxi's most historic neighborhoods. Two of these mixed-income neighborhoods were, before Katrina, the traditional centers of the African American and Vietnamese communities.
Unfortunately, some of the greatest destruction from Katrina's surge occurred here. Street after street of small cottages were entirely erased. Luckily, the urbanism of streets, blocks and infrastructure, along with large native trees remain.
These neighborhoods must be reconstructed for the low and middle- income families that inhabited them before the hurricane. We propose that they be rebuilt utilizing the modest, historic house types that are typical of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Preserving their traditional scale of neighborhoods, the character of their streets and, ultimately, the tight knit family life that has been lived there for generations is essential for the future identity of Biloxi. (Emphasis added.)
Far from being a means for accommodating gambling and golf at the expense of existing residents, as asserted by the Times, the plan makes existing residents a top priority and provides a means for neighborhoods to reassert their form.
Astonishingly, there is a mention of a golf course in the report. It's on page 26, where the planners refer to a course in Biloxi's Broadwater area, which occupies higher ground beyond the reach of Katrina's deadly surge. The report says:
"The urgency to re-house hundreds of families in a short period of time suggests that the existing golf course in the Broadwater area be redeveloped into two traditional neighborhoods and a Central Park."
The New York Times is the Gray Lady. Without a doubt it runs the nation's most detailed and authoritative reporting on national issues, including the government's role in funding and administering the reconstruction in the Gulf. Its cultural reporting is unrivalled in its sophistication. But there are problems at the paper too, and they extend to its coverage of architecture and planning. With architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff leading the way, the paper focuses its attention on buildings as iconic art objects. The places where ordinary people live, work or shop are often invisible in the paper's coverage. In its reporting of the entirety of the built and natural environment -- how buildings, streets, and public spaces add up to create worthwhile places, or not -- the paper lags papers such as the Chicago Tribune where architecture critic Blair Kamin has won a Pulitzer for his in-depth analysis of issues such as the interaction of Chicago and its lakeside parks and infrastructure -- and reported with sensitivity, intelligence and qualified enthusiasm about the plans for Mississippi.
Now the Times has run a story linking planners to suspicions that middle- and working-class people in Biloxi will be displaced to make way for a golf course, and it's done this without reporting that the plan actually advises the opposite -- replacing a golf course with homes for people in need of shelter. And the reporter didn't bother to make a follow-up call to check these assertions with either Moule and Polyzoides or CNU. Does this reporting meet the standard the Times is working to reestablish in the wake of Jayson Blair's fabrications and Judith Miller's hawking of the Administration's discredited case for Iraq's nuclear threat? Editors at the paper's Home section apparently think so since they declined to print either a clarification or correction.
Compounding the impact, echoes of McKee's report continue to resound across the mediascape. The San Francisco Chronicle picked the story up off the newswire about a week ago. UCLA architecture professor Dana Cuff apparently used it to conclude in the Los Angeles Times this Sunday that New Urbanists are turning cities along the coast into "casino row, with a thin wrapping of 'nice,' 'old' and 'traditional.' "
A couple days later, the NBC Nightly News interviewed a homeowner from McKee's piece about fears of casino expansion. The reporter shared his assumption that New Urbanists were brought in to make the coast more attractive to tourists and shared the fear of unnamed critics that plans may wind up catering to "the rich and the white."
In the months following Katrina, post-hurricane planning efforts involving New Urbanists have grown more prominent. Three firms with long New Urbanist ties -- Calthorpe Associates, Duany Plater-Zyberk, and Urban Design Associates -- have just been hired to advise the Louisiana Recovery Authority in creating plans for Southern Louisiana. With this higher profile have come harsh rebukes from Tulane architecture department dean Reed Kroloff and a few other intellectuals who experience critical nausea every time they see vernacular buildings crop up in the plans for coastal Mississippi or in examples of New Urbanism across North America. An alumnus of Architecture magazine like Kroloff, McKee has advanced a similar line of argument in the Times Home section, penning a late November piece that questioned the validity of a charrette-generated pattern book offering Mississippians design guidance on rebuilding homes in established regional styles such as Gulf Coast Acadian Creole and Gulf Coast Classical.
Attacks on guides such as the pattern book overlook the fact that the charrette provided compelling examples of how contemporary architecture -- including glassy, mixed-use storefront buildings and a sleek boutique hotel casino -- can contribute positively to Mississippi's post-Katrina landscape. As the Charter of the New Urbanism makes clear, the creation of wonderful urban places is an issue that "transcends style."
Meanwhile, Kroloff's increasingly strident attacks transcend good sense and taste. This week he had this to say in a column by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel critic Whitney Gould: "Where you have towns that were all but wiped away (by Hurricane Katrina), there's absolutely no reason to re-create the past. And in a city like New Orleans, where the patterns are already established, we don't need CNU to tell us how to rebuild... So go home, CNU." Just warming up, according to Gould, he added, "Why do they even exist?"
In rejecting the New Urbanist vision for the coast that's open to a variety of architectural styles, and insisting that the coast's renewal meet a modernist litmus test, these critiques resemble the suddenly ubiquitous ideologues who demand that every holiday celebration be a "Christmas party."
On his blog, John Massengale has argued that this antagonism stems from a sense of fear. Members of architecture's avant garde "know they're incapable of mounting a response like the Mississippi charrette: architecture schools and the avant garde design exquisite objects for rich patrons and have no experience or tools above the scale of the building. On top of that, they know the demand for their services is small once one gets away from wealthy patrons and yuppies on the coasts," he writes.
More important than the motivations behind these "design wars" are their implications for everyday people. Although Kroloff now resides in New Orleans, his thinking is stuck in the academy, a million light years away from the thoughts and desires of everyday survivors of the hurricanes. What so many of these people say they want -- what they say over and over again â€"- is their homes, their cities, their blocks, and their lives back. What they usually don't say they want is to make an avant-garde statement with their reconstructed home. There is no discernable demand from middle-class Americans for houses designed as titanium-coated abstractions.
In their study of the fate of cities following disasters, The Resilient City, Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas Campanella observe that cities are usually rebuilt even after debilitating catastrophes and usually take the form of what was lost. "Even if a city's buildings are toppled, foundations are often reusable and property lines remain. Insurance claims and simple inertia help push landowners to rebuild more or less what they lost," wrote Campanella in a September Planetizen op-ed piece. "There is also a deep psychological need to see things put quickly back the way they were."
Some have used this conclusion to write off all post-disaster planning efforts as pointless and doomed. Where there was a strip mall, there will be a strip mall. Where there was a downtown, there will be a downtown, although new FEMA maps and guidelines may require the buildings of the main street to be built on towering, 18-foot stilts unless FEMA learns to adapt standards for substituting some degree of building-hardening for elevation.
But the charrette's accomplished planners, designers, and engineers led by Andres Duany are making a calculated bet that the outcome can be a bit different this time. They are presenting the residents of the coast with optional tools for recapturing what many loved most about what was lost, for avoiding what many liked least, and yes, innovating where they feel it's right to innovate. (One fine example of innovation is a plan created in close consultation with Gulfport's new Mayor Brent Warr for a walled, European-style viaduct that not only raises port-bound truck traffic above downtown streets but houses appealing and civilizing storefronts and offices along the sidewalk.)
The real challenges on the coast are considerable. The dire need for quickly built, affordable housing is one. In response, architects at the charrette poured forth with dozens and dozens of designs for modest homes that can be built on reasonable budgets yet still deliver character that will enhance their neighborhoods and make their owners proud. In Point Cadet and other low-lying neighborhoods, an added challenge are new FEMA flood maps and rules which require that replacement homes be built on towering pilings, an expensive requirement that will make it all but impossible for many residents to rebuild there without major federal assistance that is beyond what anyone considers likely.
"The little Vietnamese neighborhood behind us, Point Cadet, was a bellwether neighborhood. It was affordable. It's no longer affordable. So we have a crisis on our hands," said Duany, in his concluding remarks on the last day of the event. The study of lone buildings that beat the odds and survived in places such as Pass Christian teaches that elevating homes and other buildings isn't the only way to protect them from storm surges, he said. "One way is to raise the building. Another is to harden the building," said Duany in proposing a more flexible standard from FEMA. "The code is this, 'The building has to survive a category 3 hurricane and it has to dry out. Whether you achieve that by building high or building well, doesn't matter."
Across coastal Mississippi, there are other concerns. Pre-Katrina development had been characterized more and more by titanic casino complexes, towering condominiums rising from parking lots, widespread strip development, McMansions, and other threats to the remarkable character of the region's cities, towns and countryside. The shock of Katrina only threatened to accelerate these trends by putting pressure on financially stressed and desperate property owners to sell to speculators ready to roll out more sprawl.
The region's overbuilt highway infrastructure offers another worthy point of debate. The oceanfront promenade that once connected the cities of the Coast has been replaced by a wide, graceless stretch of asphalt that everybody calls Highway 90. Downtown Biloxi is overshadowed by a monstrous elevated freeway, Interstate 110, that is intended to whisk drivers past downtown to the beachfront casinos. "Your downtown died because you can't make a left turn into it," architect Stefanos Polyzoides told Biloxi officials and residents gathered at the charrette.
Amazingly, the Mississippi Department of Transportation is responding to Katrina with similar efforts to improve the Coast's transportation system. It has two more elevated highway spurs in the works. And it's gearing up to replace the 4-lane bridge connecting Biloxi and Ocean Springs with a 10-lane behemoth (6 lanes, plus two distress lanes, and bike/walk lanes) that will overwhelm neighborhoods on either end and depress real estate values there.
At the charrette and in the weeks that followed it, New Urbanist planning teams haven't shied away from tough issues. We've made the case for new form-based zoning codes that will help new development take the form of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods -- and we've seen a strong appetite for these codes from people on the coast who want the form of their beloved old towns back. We've joined Mayor Connie Moran of Ocean Springs in calling for a rebuilt, 4-lane bridge that adequately accommodates traffic while complementing her beautiful city. In Biloxi, the planning team advocated tearing down the big elevated freeway spur and replacing it with an urban boulevard that would help knit together the city's ruptured fabric.
Presented with the opportunity to help determine the shape rebuilding takes in their communities, the people of coastal Mississippi and Louisiana are responding quite positively. For every out-of-touch Reed Kroloff there is one, two, maybe fifty people like Pierce White, a Gulfport schoolteacher who wrote Alabama-based architect and charrette participant Gary Justiss because she sees a future for herself in one of his designs, a shotgun cottage featured on page 128 of the pattern book. "I love your plan. Would you please send information re: possible costs for building -- etc? Like so many others I need affordable housing," she wrote, explaining she was saddled with a mortgage on a demolished home that's more than double what she's due in insurance money.
Another message soon followed. Both of them help remind us of what's really at stake in the Gulf and what design can help people accomplish. "My real name is Pierce White but my friends call me Piji -- please call me Piji. This is the highlight of my Katrina experience -- thinking of building a neat cottage. I am a minimalist by nature and my 1200 sq. ft. home was actually too much for me. I love simplicity -- This is truly wonderful."
John Norquist is President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and formerly the Mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2003. He is the author of The Wealth of Cities, and has taught courses in urban policy and urban planning at the University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and at Marquette University.
Stephen Filmanowicz is the Communications Director for the Congress for the New Urbanism. Before joining CNU, he held positions in the Mayor's Office and Department of City Development in Milwaukee and was a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine.