The New Urbanists' Losing Battle For Biloxi

The New York Times Magazine critiques the efforts of New Urbanists to redesign Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina, referring to the group as "faintly cultish".
May 24, 2006, 5am PDT | David Gest
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In the wake of Katrina, Mississippi "Gov. Haley Barbour put together a commission to jump-start the rebuilding and asked Jim Barksdale to be its chairman. Barksdale is an Ole Miss graduate who went on to become C.E.O. of Netscape..."

"One of Barksdale's first advisers was Leland Speed, a dapper man with a vivid manner, who had retired from the real-estate investment funds he managed and had gone to work for the Mississippi Development Authority. 'They want to tell me how it's going to be,' he said by way of explaining how the M.D.A. interacts with local governments. 'I say: "I got filthy rich in the real-estate business. Now you're going to tell me something about it?" And then they tend to listen to me.' Barksdale listened, too, and Speed persuaded him to consider a new way of thinking about cities and how they function, a movement in zoning and planning that emerged about 25 years ago and goes by a handful of informal names -- 'smart growth,' 'sustainable development,' 'form-based code' -- and, more formally, by one: New Urbanism."

"When [the initial Biloxi charrette] was done, the plan for Biloxi showed a picturesque little city, with graceful boulevards and pretty streets flanked by neat houses and stately mansions and even the casinos concealed in stylish towers...It looked like a quintessential sleepy Southern city, or perhaps a parody of one."

"Playing posthurricane politics in Biloxi is like trying to sword-fight on a rolling log, and as the months wore on, almost everyone found something to object to in the Congress for the New Urbanism's plan."

"The New Urbanists like to point to their inclusiveness and respect for regional traditions. Liz Moule told me several times that they had gone out of their way to bring local people into the forum. But judging from the list of invitees, that meant 'local designers.' Movement throughout Biloxi was significantly limited that week, with National Guardsmen stationed along the highway leading up to the Isle of Capri. Any unaffiliated citizen who wanted to stop by would have been turned away, and in any case, a lot of the evacuees hadn't come back to town yet."

"New Urbanism is like Whole Foods: it's meant to be good for you, but it's expensive, at least on the front end, and it comes with a set of cultural connotations that generally play best among the prosperous and the self-consciously progressive."

"Moreover, the movement can come across as faintly cultish, with converts rather than mere adherents, proselytizers instead of spokesmen and an air of Manichaeism that can seem both self-aggrandizing and somewhat paranoid. Leland Speed, who is neither, nevertheless put it plainly: 'I have drunk the Kool-Aid,' he said cheerfully."

"One designer who was involved in the Renewal Forum took up the Kool-Aid metaphor where Leland Speed had left it. 'There will be some people who drink the whole glass,' he said, 'and some who just take a sip. Biloxi sipped it and spit it back out again.'"

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Published on Sunday, May 21, 2006 in The New York Times
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