2006-08-29, 15:14

The 'new urbanism' in the wake of Katrina

By: Jonathan Groner
Today marks the first anniversary of the date on which Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2005. To commemorate that sad and troubling event, I thought I'd put up a relatively optimistic post with interesting thoughts about the future of that area. It's based on a USA Today article by reporter Larry Copeland, dated Aug. 27, 2006.

Copeland's article, entitled "Gulf Coast taking a look at 'new urbanism,' " focuses on the possibility that the new urbanism -- in which mixed-use development is a central concept -- can hold a key to the rebuilding of some of the towns on the Mississippi shoreline. The article focuses on Ocean Springs, Miss., a city of some 17,300 people that Copeland writes "seems the most likely to emerge as the kind of welcoming, village-style community envisioned by Gov. Haley Barbour and the 'new urbanists' who designed Mississippi's blueprint for rebuilding."

The article continues, "New urbanism uses zoning to try to recreate the best of the USA's pre-sprawl, small-town past. It promotes communities where people can walk from home to shops and offices. Houses have front porches to encourage neighborliness. Condominiums and apartments are built above shops.

"Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran says she was quick to embrace new urbanism because her city already cherishes its principles. 'It's the old urbanism to which we aspire,' she says. 'The new urbanism is recreating the old urbanism, and Ocean Springs is a prime example of that.' "

However, the article points out, the new urbanism is by no means easy to bring about in the hard-hit area. Copeland writes:

"The process has been slowed by a lack of funding, a shortage of staff planners and the cumbersome legal process of making zoning changes, says Ann Daigle, Gulf Coast new urbanism expert for the Mississippi Development Authority, which is supervising much of the rebuilding.

"New urbanism isn't an easy sell to some local politicians and state transportation officials, Daigle says. 'The people in general . . . are really listening and learning about this alternative for rebuilding,' she says. 'What I am discouraged about is that . . . in general, I think the elected officials are not interested.'

"Neither are some residents. In a part of the state where tens of thousands of people still live in government trailers and thousands are fighting their insurers over storm damage to their homes, esoteric concepts such as new urbanism are often very low on the priority list.

" 'It's something different,' says Marty Wagoner, 45, a financial planner and 40-year resident. 'A lot of people don't accept something they've never seen before.'

"As residents get long-awaited checks from the federal government to rebuild their homes, they're doing so in traditional subdivisions.

" 'I'm disappointed because the developers coming in are not as open to developing around these principles,' Daigle says.

"New urbanism emphasizes development in 'pods,' communities with a discernible center, often a square or a green. The center has a transit stop because public transportation is valued over the automobile. Homes are built in a variety of styles for young and old, families and singles, and people of various incomes. Neighborhoods are designed within a five-minute walk of the town center. Shops and offices are located at the edge of the neighborhood, and the streets are relatively narrow and tree-lined.

"Coastal Mississippi, pre-Katrina, had developed in a far different fashion. It was a land of strip malls and distant suburbs, a place defined by the car culture. It has no regional transportation system."

It will be fascinating to see if the new urbanism catches on in this challenging geographic and historical environment.

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