Rebuilding the devastated Gulf Coast.

What we build.
Jan. 11 2006 1:13 PM

Mississippi Spurning

How is the Gulf Coast faring post-Katrina?

Town meeting at Waveland
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Town meeting at Waveland

While the focus of post-Katrina media coverage has been mainly New Orleans, the damage along the Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastating. An estimated 125,000 dwellings have been destroyed. The latest reports are that more than 430,000 people, fully 15 percent of the state's population, have registered for FEMA disaster assistance. Yet the distinct impression is that small and poor Mississippi is coping with reconstruction more capably than neighboring Louisiana. This may have something to do with the leadership shown by Gov. Haley Barbour, but it is also the result of several important differences.

First, scale. The Gulf Coast communities are small: The largest city, Gulfport, has only 71,000 people, Biloxi has 50,000, and places like Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian are small towns. When there are fewer people, the technical problems are more manageable, and it's easier to form a consensus about the future. Second, fewer evacuees appear to have been relocated far away. Almost 80,000 people are living in temporary shelters, many of them close to the sites of their original homes; others are with family and friends. Third, at least in some places, economic recovery has been swifter in coming. Three casino hotels have recently reopened in Biloxi. With them come jobs, visitors, and, most important, returning residents.

Proposed Beach Boulevard, Waveland
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Proposed Beach Boulevard, Waveland
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The Gulf Coast has another advantage for reconstruction—it has a well-thought-out plan. Or, rather, 11 plans. In early October, only six weeks after Katrina and under the auspices of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal, a six-day planning and urban-design forum involving mayors, citizens, and local and visiting town planners, architects, and design professionals, developed plans for 11 affected coastal cities and towns. The aim was to rethink a number of issues, including how large commercial enterprises such as casinos and big-box stores could be better integrated into their urban surroundings, codes and plans that would help buildings withstand future hurricanes, and regional transportation. In Waveland, a small town near the Louisiana border, for example, the planning team suggested rebuilding devastated areas as mixed-use neighborhoods and proposed inner-block footpaths as well as a trolley line linking the town to other beach communities. This wish list will probably be only partially realized—and only over a long period—but the plan represents a sensible, down-to-earth vision and a useful guide for the recovery process.

The organization that Mississippi invited to spearhead this planning process is the Congress for the New Urbanism, which promotes what is popularly known as smart growth—compact development, mixed use, walkability. When it comes to the appearance of buildings, new urbanists are biased toward tradition. A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods has been distributed free to residents as part of the rebuilding effort. The book illustrates details, materials, and forms that have traditionally been associated with local styles and demonstrates how these can be practically adapted to even mobile homes and manufactured housing—which will likely form the bulk of new houses. A chapter shows how typical Gulf Coast houses can be adapted to meet FEMA requirements. Four local styles are recommended: Acadian-Creole, Victorian, Classical, and Arts & Crafts. One looks in vain for such Gulf Coast perennials as Funky Beach Shack, '50s Googly Motel, or Down-and-Dirty Shopping Strip. Like most design guides, the Pattern Book is as much about taste as style. Whether it will succeed in turning the Mississippi coast into a Southern version of Santa Barbara remains to be seen.

Proposed redevelopment, Highway 90 area, Waveland
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Proposed redevelopment, Highway 90 area, Waveland

Critics of this approach—and so far there have been many —miss the point, however, when they use words like "historicism" and "nostalgia" and call for more cutting-edge designs. New urbanists aren't promoting tradition—they don't have to; American home-buyers made that decision years ago. They prefer houses with pitched roofs, clapboard siding, bay windows, and porches. Visit any subdivision in the country and you won't find any ersatz Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas knockoffs. Gehry's public buildings are popular, so are Koolhaas'. But most people prefer not to make a home in them.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

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