New Urbanist Planning Essential To Gulf Rebuilding

Ricky Mathews, Publisher of the Biloxi Sun Herald and Vice-Chairman of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal after Hurricane Katrina, argues that Andres Duany and other New Urbanists have been critical to the early success of rebuilding efforts in Mississippi, providing citizens not only with the hope of recovery, but with master planning that has inspired confidence in a bigger and better Gulf Coast community, all while respecting local traditions.

Photo: Ricky Mathews

It has been five months since Hurricane Katrina altered the landscape of the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and Louisiana and changed forever the lives of those of us who live here. For understandable reasons, the national focus has been on the post-Katrina challenges in New Orleans. But it's important to remember that New Orleans suffered a flooding disaster precipitated by a hurricane. South Mississippi got the hurricane.

A storm surge exceeding 30 feet leveled structures and ripped apart the infrastructure for nearly 100 miles along our coastline. Some 50 million cubic yards of debris must be removed. More than 30,000 families now call FEMA trailers home, with thousands more waiting to get trailers. Our South Mississippi economy, leading the state prior to Katrina, is sputtering with near-record unemployment and reconstruction costs in the billions. Visitor after visitor has told me this is a see-it-to-believe-it experience. You can't truly understand the magnitude of destruction -- or the rebuilding job ahead of us -- unless you're here to see for yourself.

And yet there's something else you might have to experience first-hand to see its potential. Amid the rubble, hope grows. The reason is, we have a plan.

Because I am both publisher of South Mississippi's principal newspaper, the Sun Herald, and vice-chairman of the privately funded Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal, I've been in a unique position to watch -- and to encourage -- this transition from despair. It began in mid-October with the Mississippi Renewal Forum, in which architect/planner Andres Duany led more than 100 international specialists and a like number of their colleagues from Mississippi in a six-day charrette sponsored by the Commission and organized by the Congress for the New Urbanism. Those six days of intense planning produced sets of principles, process suggestions, and actual plans for 11 communities in the three coastal Mississippi counties.

At a public meeting shortly after the Forum, someone asked me to explain how we could think about the future when we were still in the recovery mode. It's the question that remains such a tough one for New Orleans officials. For us, the answer lies in the genius of the Governor's Commission's effort. In order to get out of this mess we are in, we have to have an approach that matches the depth and breadth of the effects of the storm. Katrina didn't target one sector of our lives or one class of our citizens or one stage of our preparations. It didn't wait on our readiness to cope before escalating to the next level of destruction. Katrina was a comprehensive, equal-opportunity force. And we have to deal with its aftermath with comprehensive strategies. We have to recover and rebuild at the same time; because, the fact is, each short-term recovery decision has critical long-term rebuilding effects.

Duany and the New Urbanist planners, engineers, and other specialists have taken their shots along the way, usually from critics outside Mississippi and often from people who didn't bother to read the reports of the Forum teams. Many of us who worked on a day-to-day basis with the New Urbanists were especially offended at the suggestion their agenda was to create a playground for the rich at the expense of cultural diversity, regional tradition, and working class neighborhoods. What the New Urbanists proposed was just the opposite. Every plan was rooted in research and discussion with locals about traditions -- including design traditions -- citizens most wanted to preserve. And I saw first-hand the passion of these planners to protect and to rebuild neighborhoods such as those settled by working-class Yugoslavian, French, Vietnamese and African American citizens in East Biloxi.

Too many in the news media haven't yet understood the scope of what was lost or the ambitions we have to build back better than before. We have whole cities to re-imagine and to reconstruct. Every social and economic issue we may have ducked before the storm is now in plain site. But what is different about where we are right now from where we were in September and perhaps for years prior to Katrina, is that, thanks to the Commission's foresight, the courage of our citizens, and the expertise of the New Urbanists, we have a plan. What's more, we have increasingly reasonable expectations that we can implement its key components.

What the New Urbanists brought to the table was hope. They brought a belief that the obliterated communities that make up South Mississippi could emerge bigger and better. They introduced common-sense principles and approaches to planning, like the SmartCode that links so many of our rebuilding ambitions together and can help us recapture the essence of what was lost. They gave us a strong understanding of how to create a sense of place through design. And they demonstrated how synergies inspired by thoughtful design multiply value that can be measured in classic economic development terms and in the quality of life enjoyed by a community's citizens.

If you're reading and viewing only reports of the struggles in New Orleans, these rising expectations on the "other" Gulf Coast will seem beyond imagining. But there are plenty of us who have been eyewitnesses to this beginning transformation. Every day more of our citizens and their leaders emerge form the Katrina fog and begin to see the value of the New Urbanist approaches and the Governor's Commission recommendations that reflected so many of them. Many of those ideas are already finding their way into rebuilding strategies in individual towns and counties. And I can assure you that, as time goes on, more and more will begin to get their hearts and minds around these gifts of hope and apply their energies to implementing them in ways that will create a story of recovery, discovery and renewal never before seen in American history.

Ricky Mathews is Publisher of the Biloxi Sun Herald, which received a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in April of 2006 for its outstanding coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and Vice-Chairman of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal. The Pulitzer Prize Board acknowledged the Sun Herald "for its valorous and comprehensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina, providing a lifeline for devastated readers, in print and online, during their time of greatest need."

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