New Urbanism Advocated in Gulf Coast Rebuilding

Gov. Haley Barbour has invited more than a 100 architects, engineers and other urban planners to discuss ways to rebuild and redevelop Mississippi's Gulf Coast region. The planners are proponents of new urbanism, a way of developing more compact, diverse and walkable mixed-use communities.

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Today the governor of Mississippi has invited more than 100 architects, engineers and other urban planners to the Gulf Coast of his state. They're discussing ways to rebuild and redevelop the area without increasing urban sprawl. The planners are advocates of new urbanism, a way of developing more compact, diverse and walkable, mixed-use communities. Mississippi is not really known as fertile ground for such ideas, but many locals are welcoming this approach. NPR's David Schaper reports this morning from Biloxi.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

There's no question that much of what the winds and storm surge of Katrina blew and washed away here is irreplaceable: historic beach-front mansions and cottages, century-old storefronts, houses and other buildings, many of which had an architectural style unique to Mississippi. But Mark Lishen, an architect and alderman in the small Gulf-side community of Long Beach, says a lot of other buildings constructed in the '50s, '60s and '70s really won't be missed.

Mr. MARK LISHEN (Architect): You can't undo ugly, but Hurricane Katrina did. And we have, as architects like to say, a pretty clean slate to work with over there.

SCHAPER: Lishen hopes to preserve Long Beach's laid-back residential charm and recapture its historic architectural character. It sounds like a relatively simply rebuilding plan, but even in a small town here along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the task is huge, and rebuilding will likely take several years, because in Long Beach alone, more than 1,500 homes were completely destroyed. In the bigger city of Biloxi, rebuilding is much more complicated.

Mayor A.J. HOLLOWAY (Biloxi, Mississippi): This is the main building of the museum right here.

SCHAPER: As he leads a daylong tour of his devastated city, stepping over debris along the way, Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway tells about a dozen of the visiting urban planners, architects and engineers of the many problems his city faces in rebuilding.

Mayor HOLLOWAY: That structure there, whatever it was, is destroyed.

SCHAPER: Holloway is welcoming the chance to have these experts come up with ideas for replacing the historic structures downtown in what's called the heart of Biloxi or rebuilding the casinos that had been floating on barges adjacent to huge coastline hotels but will now be allowed to rebuild on land, and balancing those needs with the critical need to rebuild entire residential neighborhoods.

Mayor HOLLOWAY: You know, I'm not a designer, not an engineer, not an architect, but I know what we had in Biloxi and what we need and what we want.

SCHAPER: What is it that you had, need and want?

Mayor HOLLOWAY: Well, as you can see right here, we had this and we need this and we want this back.

SCHAPER: `This' is a new housing development built as part of the federal HOPE VI program that wasn't even fully occupied yet when Katrina hit. It had brand-new low- and moderate-income single-family homes and duplexes, some owner-occupied, some rental housing, all of which are still standing but sustained serious damage. It's a compact, walkable neighborhood in the new urbanist style, something Holloway says might be a model for other impoverished Biloxi neighborhoods that will need to be completely rebuilt from the ground up.

But some in the Gulf Coast area aren't ready to jump on the smart-growth, new urbanism bandwagon just yet. In fact, many local officials initially recoiled at the idea that these outside experts would come into town for a whirlwind of a few days, telling them how to rebuild and then leave. Among them was the mayor of Gulfport, Brent Warr.

Mayor BRENT WARR (Gulfport, Mississippi): I have to tell you, this is exactly, exactly what we needed and what we need. I haven't seen one piece of it yet that wasn't dead-on on track.

SCHAPER: Warr now embraces having this expert advice, knowing that at the end of the six-day forum on Monday, the teams of planners will present his city with a menu of several different kinds of ideas and designs for the massive rebuilding challenges facing it, none of which his city has to select. Governor Haley Barbour was clear in stating at the start of the forum that the final rebuilding and redevelopment decisions for each Gulf Coast community must be made by the local officials. But he also insists that the reconstruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast be done right, with an end result better than what was here before. The governor's own commission will consider the plans forwarded by the new urbanists as just one part of its planning effort, which it must have completed by December 31st. David Schaper, NPR News, in Biloxi, Mississippi.

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