Wrong Way Home

To rebuild the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast, Mississippi’s governor picked a panel of vaunted New Urbanists to submit plans. But is their nostalgia for small-town America appropriate, nevermind prepared for the task?

In 1982, the first homes opened in Seaside, Fla., a planned beachfront community midway along the state’s panhandle. Seaside was, and still is, more than just a housing development. The apotheosis of “New Urbanism,” it boasts narrow plots bordered by picket fences; tightly knit, crushed-shell streets; pastel-painted wooden houses; and a town center with shops and restaurants, above which sit apartments and offices. Its quirky architecture and small-town feel—think Pleasantville, or the set of Desperate Housewives—contrast starkly with the 500-unit condo towers in Destin, 20 miles to the west. Not surprisingly, despite the fact that most of Seaside’s “residents” are wealthy absentee landlords who are only there a few weeks a year, it quickly became famous within architectural and planning communities, resulting in god-like status for the minds behind the plan, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and seeding the ground for a New Urbanist revolution in town planning.

Twenty years ago, Seaside was relatively isolated, with little development around it. Today, though, visitors must pass through scads of copy-cat developments, which have turned the once-lonely stretch of coast into one of the panhandle’s hot real-estate markets. But few, if any, of these new developments take to heart the design principles embodied in Seaside—most are high-rise condo towers that merely ape the architecture found down the road while eschewing the pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use ethos that defines New Urbanism. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the Seaside experience, and those unable to get in (and these days, that’s pretty much everyone) will happily settle for knock-offs.

The Seaside experiment is about to be repeated more than 100 miles to the west, along the Katrina-ravaged Mississippi coast. Last month Gov. Haley Barbour, impressed with the work of Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s eponymous firm and the movement they institutionalized in the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), had Duany lead a six-day charrette, or planning session, as part of the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal. The charrette was intended to generate different ideas about rebuilding towns like Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, and Gulfport, but the ideas all came from the same source—CNU members dominated the design teams assigned to each town, while Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) staff stocked the management, IT, and coordination teams. There’s no guarantee that the towns will accept all, or any, of the charrette’s plans, but for the moment those are the only ones around. All of this raises a question: In 20 years, will the new Mississippi coast look like Seaside, with Seaside prices and Seaside demographics?

At first glance, DPZ and the CNU seem the perfect choice to lead the early stages of the Mississippi planning process. DPZ is based in Miami and helped plan for South Florida’s rebuilding after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It has planned dozens of New Urbanist communities around the country—from Rosa Vista, Ariz., to Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts—and CNU members even more. Moreover, New Urbanism is all the rage in town-planning circles, so why not turn to the purported future of the profession to guide Barbour’s vision of the future of Mississippi?

Indeed, it is hard to argue with the basic tenets of New Urbanism. Communities thrive on interpersonal contact, so you should plan around mixed-use development and pedestrian traffic, the better to encourage random encounters. Large yards are inefficient, so plan for density. Stay away from cul-de-sacs and gates. Give the community a center—a park, a shopping area—within walking distance of all residents. And so on. These principles have been gaining popularity over the last 10 years among mayors and city planners, who are looking for ways to use them in guiding local growth. And, in fact, overlaid on existing urban fabrics, New Urbanist principles provide a strong philosophical tool set for moving towns away from auto-centric and anti-pedestrian planning.

There are, however, several reasons why Barbour and Gulf Coast residents should be wary of relying too much on New Urbanism’s guidance. The first is the most obvious: Post-Katrina rebuilding is like nothing ever confronted by American town planners. A string of towns, home to tens of thousands of people, must be rebuilt almost from scratch. Thus even with their (much more limited) post-Andrew experience, DPZ and Co. are essentially flying blind. This is even more the case when one considers that the firm’s experience has been otherwise limited to either new developments or tightly defined renewal sites within existing towns. What they have not done—and what New Urbanism in general has yet to confront—is figure out how to rebuild a vast, diverse community, one that might lack the desire or resources to maintain the added expenses, such as light rail systems and community centers, that New Urbanism celebrates. (True, few others have done this either, but that only argues more strongly against leaving the project to one firm, with one set of ideas.)

There’s a reason why developers have been rushing to adopt New Urbanist principles, and it’s not because they suddenly found environmental consciousness.This shortcoming was borne out by the charrette itself. While few criticized the plans—who, after all, wouldn’t like new parks and prettier waterfronts?—few saw much relevance to the area’s current needs. The charrette plans focused on things like fishing villages and kayaking facilities, but, as one woman who sat through part of the meetings told the Biloxi Sun-Herald, “We don’t have running water, or gas, or power… I think it’s just too early to consider what we will be in 10 years, when I don’t know what we’ll be in 10 days.” New Urbanism, like all utopian ideas, is great at depicting a better life, but rather poor at showing how to get there.

Yet another problem with the wholesale change envisioned by the charette is that it rarely works: In their book The Resilient City, Thomas Campanella and Lawrence Vale show that post-disaster rebuilding plans are always undone, to a surprisingly large extent, by resistance from residents who, while paying lip-service to progressive rhetoric, want nothing more than to return things to the way they were. To Duany and others, the pre-Katrina Gulf Coast may have been a sprawling, anti-pedestrian nightmare, but to those who lived there it was home. And it’s not as if the communities envisioned by the charette bear much resemblance to the pre-Katrina landscape. Indeed, New Urbanism works great in very specific circumstances—upper-middle-class subdivisions, seaside resorts, downtown commercial centers—but it is less applicable to large, mixed-income communities, let alone working-class places like the Mississippi coast. A Gulf Coast oriented around mass transit is a nice idea, but what do you do with the tens of thousands of low-income residents who have already invested thousands of dollars in their cars, and are thus loath to throw even more money, through taxes, into mass transit?

On the other hand, if it succeeds, New Urbanism presents a different kind of problem. There’s a reason why developers have been rushing to adopt New Urbanist principles, and it’s not because they suddenly found environmental consciousness. New Urbanism, with its blunt overtones of 1950s white-washed America, appeals to upper-middle-class Americans who feel they’ve lost something in their rush into monochromatic, über-secure suburbs two hours from downtown. “New Urbanism reminds me of something old and familiar,” wrote one such middle-class mom in the Washington Post. “A time and a place when all my proportions were smaller. A time and a place where no sidewalk in the world will ever take me again: the unhurried days of childhood, and all that time to wonder.” New Urbanism is, in other words, a yuppie infantilist fantasy. Not for nothing did Seaside serve as the set for The Truman Show.

Seaside is pretty, but ironically, because it is so perfectly planned, it doesn’t feel alive. If there is a jaunty spiral staircase running up the side of an apartment building, you can be sure its placement has been analyzed and hashed out by urban planners. It is the simulation of spontaneity, perfectly tuned, but tuned nevertheless. And it attracts a large but narrow swath of people—those wealthy enough to afford it and nostalgic enough to take simulacrum over reality. It’s not hard to imagine a Gulf Coast both rebuilt and gentrified, an enormous Seaside in the place of what had been a more diverse, if less aesthetically pleasing, community. A New Urbanism-driven rebuilding process would likely draw the thousands of people waiting in line for just a few days’ stay at Seaside. But it would drive out those who just want to go back home.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen