New Urbanism and the rebuilding of Mississippi

In this week's New York Times magazine, there's an interesting article on plans for rebuilding the Mississippi coast towns that were devastated by Katrina. According to the article, unlike New Orleans, Mississippi has been more successful in jump-starting the plans to rebuild, partly because of better planning and political leadership, and partly because private companies have infused the initiative with a little cash.

When it came time to draw up a plan for Biloxi and surrounding towns, the people in charge decided to call on the Congress for New Urbanism. What happened then was a real study in how American values can clash.

The article touches on a number of issues demonstrating why the ideal (at least, the New Urbanists' ideal) is hard to achieve. As many of you know, the idea behind New Urbanism is that many amenities, such as the post office, shops, food, and the town center, should all be within walking distance of people's residences. So the first issue this raises, of course, has to do with poverty. Part of the plan involves building new houses, and in fact, the issue of affordability was addressed, but the question of "affordable to whom" still remained. Andres Duany, one of the main architects of New Urbanism and the man contacted for the Mississippi job, projected that "affordable" houses could be built for $145,000. The problem was that the lower working class is only able to afford houses between $65,000-$95,000. Said one person from the poor, black community—which was not consulted about the plans—
"A poor lady like me, what the hell am I going to do with that? Walk by it and admire it? We can't buy it. The white man will always have us pushed to where we have to just...go by and admire it and then go home somewhere and eat them old beans and bread and be thankful."

Another problem has to do with individuality. The building codes for New Urbanist homes are much more restrictive than general zoning laws, and leave little room for personal preference.

Similar to this idea of personal preference, but one which truly embodies the whole issue, was raised in regard to the Vietnamese immigrant community in Biloxi. With these Biloxi residents, it might also have been the case that they were shut out for being poor shrimpers who could not afford the new properties. But that's apparently not what they were worried about. Instead, as a spokesperson for the Vietnamese community put it:

many of them left behind a world where only poor people walk everywhere and a car is a sign of success. "That's the American dream: you get your own lot, and you get your own little house, and you get your own car," she explained. "And now you're talking about these walkable neighborhoods, and some people will say, 'I came to America so I could drive.' Some of these New Urbanist ideas don't really match up for this area."

In the end, Biloxi and surroundings have entirely given up on the New Urbanist plan. No one could agree on it, and most pressing, they could not meet the FEMA specifications for the elevations of the homes. Oh, and of course, many people see the casinos as the future of Biloxi, and they didn't really fit into a New Urbanist plan.

I will be interested to see whether, and how long it will take, for a preference for urban or semi-urban landscapes to come around. I'm not arguing that New Urbanism per se is the way to design these towns, but the traditional "town center" model reigned supreme before the Oil Age, and I would venture to say that there was a reason for it. Furthermore, when it is put as bluntly as it is in this article—people come to the US to chase a high energy lifestyle that reigns as a status symbol—it becomes ever clearer that before major changes are made, the initiative to undertake them will have to come from the people. Not only is it unlikely that planning boards or governments will be able to impose such lifestyle changes on people, but until the small town model is seen by everyone as a sustainable living arrangement, it will continue to be treated as an ideal but unattainable living arrangement for the rich.

(See also earlier TOD posts on New Urbanism.)

Thanks for drawing attention to this issue. The complete issue of the New York Times Magazine for last Sunday bears reading - I seldom make that recommendation any more, as it focuses on architecture and urban planning.  Issues intimately related to all aspect of our consumption of fossil fuels, whether it is transit or heating/cooling of our structures. I have only skimmed the piece on Biloxi, but can imagine the reaction.

Smaller cars and more intimate living arrangements are perceived as the creations of "pointed-headed academic or professional 'libruls'" such as me, out of touch with the desires and realities of the common folk. Since there is no national conversation about resource limitations and depletion, a compelling case cannot be made that these choices should or need to be made.

After the recent Peak Oil & Environment conference in DC, I had dinner with the consultants for the Baltimore streetcar plans for Charles Street.  Discussed some options that they overlooked (IMO).

One of the consultants was just back from the MS Gulf Coast and talked about that.  The Gov's commission wanted a light rail line to link up communities along the casino coast.  A string of New Urbanism settings for casino workers and shrimpers, etc.

The MS Highway Dept wants to build a new highway on the CSX railroad ROW and could care less about rail.  And they are controlled by elected board and do NOT answer to the Gov. or anyone else.

Blow $700 million to move CSZ 3 miles inland so a close to the beach highway can go in.

MS is rolling in $$ from the feds (Gov is former head of RNC, two senior R senators, one named Trent Lott) while LA starves.

My actual exposure to "new urbanist" projects has been limited, comes mostly from books, but what I know of them gives me the feeling of sort of a "Disney World". That is that they attempt to create a "simulation" of fragments of the built forms of the towns of the 1800's, but by means of design standards that are it seems to me in their way every bit as restrictive as the modern zoning bylaws that the New Urbanists (NU) decry.

The prototypes that these projects mimic had things the modern experiments lack which obviously shaped the way they were in profound ways:

  • A surrounding agarairian countryside, connected to the town center not only by walking but also by horses, and horse drawn vehicles of various sorts.

  • A small scale (by modern standards) industrial manufacturing environment. The town in which I lived up until a few years ago had, in the 1800's, several breweries and malting operations, an iron foundry that made things like axe heads and plough blades, a carrage works that made horse drawn vehicles, a couple of grist mills, a wire mill that made such things as nails and fence wire, and a weaving mill that wove wool into fabric. This was enough to make it a regional manufactering center, yet none of these factories was larger than a smallish North American grocery store.

  • The powerful in this place lived in grand stone houses that survive to this day, most working folks had small, simple, wood frame houses now almost all gone.

  • Dirt roads, wooden sidewalks, no electricity, gas, or sewer system, water hand pumped from wells, profound startification of social class , etc etc. All of these things shaped the way that this place looked, very difficult to reproduce in pieces, in my opinion
I live in the premier US example* that the New Urbanists tried to model; the Lower Garden District of New Orleans,

* At some of the 90+ hours of meetings post-Katrina we had various New Urbanists who parachuted in.  I spoke for the superiority of "Old Urbanism" over "New Urbanism".  They admited that New Orleans was their premier US model and the Lower Garden District was the neighborhood first mentioned most of the time, as they rattled off our various older neighborhoods (I have lived in several).

I have had a one day tour of the "Pearl" in Portland OR by Urban Planning promotors and visited the Inner Harbor of Baltimore; two shining examples of "New Urbanism".  I am not an expert but I got a good taste of New Urbanism.  MUCH better than standard US design, but my neighborhood is MUCH better.

I differ from the New Urbanists as to the specific reasons WHY our neighborhoods work so well.  I live here, they study it.  One is that allocate too much room to the automobile in their plans.  Linear green space (our neutral grounds) is important.  Little "surprises" stuck here and there help add variety to the urban fabric.  A streetcar line adds an enourmous amount to a neighborhood....

Quite frankly, the rest of America needs to know more about "what works" as we rebuild our cities into more livable and sustainable patterns.  The New Urbanists, IMO, have some things right but have missed many more points.  They need to come back and learn more.

The Pearl District in Portland is definitely an example of an expensive place to live.

I live out in the western suburbs of Portland, a big development called Tanasbourne, on the Beaverton - Hillsboro border. It is not a fashionable address by any stretch - on the rare occasions where I find myself in some social mixer event, I can pretty much kill any conversation by admitting that I live here. Which means the place is an affordable place to live and not a status symbol.

The first six years I lived here, I didn't own a car. It didn't require any extraordinary effort. Right within walking distance there are grocery stores etc. and quite a few office buildings and even some light manufacturing, with lots of apartment complexes and houses priced near the Portland median, down to maybe 75% of median. Sidewalks almost everywhere and generally wide enough streets to be bikable comfortably.

The distances here are probably longer than the textbook recommendations. I walk about 1.5 miles to work and still probably a tad over a mile for groceries.

We do have one high profile "Disneyland" development here, Orenco. I walked through last week on the way to the upscale grocery there & saw a "brownstone" for sale there at like $540K, i.e twice the median and you don't even get a patch of dirt for your beans and tomatoes. Orenco is our little local echo of the Pearl District.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out that around Portland there is some planning going on that can work quite well and not be a millionaire's playground like the Pearl.

I did finally give up and buy a car a few years ago. I generally just drive it to church on Sunday. If I would content myself with the neighborhood church I wouldn't need it, but since I am pickier about religion than about groceries, I head into Portland. It would take like two hours on public transportation to get where I can drive in twenty minutes on a Sunday morning. I like that extra hour of sleep!

The rail plan for the Missippissippi and Alabama gulf coast is to tear up the newly rebuilt CSX line from just outside New Orleans through Gulfport and Mobile.  This would mean trains would use the already congested Norfolk Southern line to get from New Orleans to Meridian MS to Montgomery AL then CSX to Tallahassee FL.  The old CSX coast rail line right of way would then be used for a new US 90 highway built to 4 & 6 lane interstate highway standards.  The developers and casinos are promoting this idea and politicians are obliging with $700 million in federal money.
This plan would preclude any future high speed intercity or commuter rail service from ever serving the gulf coast cities between New Orleans to Mobile to Pensacola.  The rail freight that goes from New Orleans to Florida would then have to use a route nearly 200 miles longer than the highway route.  The message these politicians are sending is: keep everybody in their private autos and keep the freight in trucks, to hell with the energy efficient mode - rail - which can run on any energy source.  Peak oil be damned, full speed ahead with our energy wasteful cars and trucks!
It's just amazing, isn't it? Where's westexas's Iron Triangle?
Ed Tennyson told me the same thing.  Ed is an 80 soemthing transportation expert that lives in the DC area and had forgotten more than I will ever learn.  He thought it ws a VERY bad idea.

I talked with Ed after meeting with the consultants.  The consultants talked about the 3 miles inland move.

The difference nay come from thw law.  A government can "take" an active rail line, but it must provide an alternative route.  So Mississippi will "plan" to move it 3 miles inland.  But CSX will/might up the $ at the end and offer this alternative, shating track with N-S much further north for more $.

I really only know what was told ro me, and sources vary on where CSX will go.

This may well be a flood plain issue, and if the sea level is rising Biloxi maybe moving . . . inland.

As I taught my daughter, do not live below a dam, do not live on a floodplain, do not live directly on an earthquake fault. These are good rules to live by!


After more than 20 years, it is time for all of us to ...

Even before Hurricane Katrina, the risk of flooding from a storm surge along the shoreline of Mississippi was frightfully underestimated.

As the overseer of the National Flood Insurance Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was remapping the flood plain in South Mississippi and reevaluating the recommended elevation of buildings within the plain long before the catastrophic events of Aug. 29.

This work was long overdue.

The last time it was done was in 1983. Since then, the landscape of South Mississippi has significantly changed, and the science and technology and data used to determine the potential risk of flooding has significantly improved.

My Dallas suburb (where I am the community weekly paper editor) approved a Traditional Neighborhood Design overlay district, followed by three TND residential developments, one with retail interspersed, about 2.5 years ago.

The process took about 9-10 months, with extensive give-and-take from both city and developers all the way through the process. This included extensive discussion at both the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council levels. One thing that some city leaders found good was, indeed, the bump in prices that it promised. Plus, as we are on the south side of Dallas (or the "wrong side of the Trinity," as many people in the northern parts of the Metroplex think( it was a point of pride to get this passed.

I wrote a series of editorials in support of the overlay and the developments, both for the environmental reasons mentioned above, and related ones such as car congestion, etc., AND for the aesthetic reasons. A TND/New Urban Design development beats hell out of big-box, cookie-cutter, mass-market residential developments.

As for more restrictions? Depends on where you live. Mine, and most Dallas suburbs, require 80 percent or so brick on new houses, so allowing Hardie Plank, dressed stone, etc., actually LOOSENS design up. New Urbanist projects need support for this reason, and the non-tangible benefits of these aesthetics, as well.

Since then, many developers coming in with new developments have claimed they have "Mills Branch characteristics." (The name of the overlay district.)

As for the pricing issue, as noted above, a bump in prices in one of the lowest-priced cities in the Metroplex was hugely desired by city staff.

That said, the overlay district has some basic standards for mingling house sizes, spelled out in more detail for each of three original developments. (A fourth, by a different developer, has been approved since then.)

These standards include requiring extensive commingling of houses of different sizes and prices, not just within a development, but on a block-by-block basis.

The overall oaverage price is still a moderate chunk ahead of a typical big-box cookie-cutter neighborhood, tis true; people at the bottom of the housing price affordability index will be priced out of this. But, the commingling, etc. mean that people of different inoome levels will be mixed, and people of solidly middle-class incomes who have an eye for quality, not quantity, can buy in one of these developments.

That said, and as an apartment dweller myself, some of the lower middle-class complainers in Mississippi do have that option. At the same time, if TND is being used for brightening urban blight, a careful use of housing vouchers should be part of the mix, too.

I admire the New Urbanism concept, but 'Seaside, Florida' looks ridiculously opulent. No wonder its difficult to transfer these ideas to lower-class areas - there's no space for 'Walmart' in New Urbanism.

Basically, New Urbanism is very workable, but only if the middle or upper classes populate it. Sure, it has space for 'poor' people - students and others recently independent - but definitely not uneducated, (dare I say black?) working class families.

Then again, I am an Australian with little experience of American social conditions.

Whilst the point of 'New Urbanism' is raised, I would like to highlight continuing Australian urban developments, from companies such as 'Delfin'. These 'communities' are, whilst materialistically pleasing, ridiculously reliant on automotive transport, and offer no space whatsoever for local small businesses. Furthermore, they are located at the outskirts of Australian cities - massive developments are occurring around 40km from the Melbourne CBD.

More to the point on Mississippi (no edit button?) - shouldn't  local planners be more worried about the impact of rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity, than about specific theories of planning?

Seems pointless to have a well-planned town when its underwater.

A few thoughts in response to this:

1. The article reinforces the dictum that journalists focus on conflict and acrimony, even if they have to manufacture it.

The facts that ten of the eleven cities are supportive and enthusiastic about the Renewal Forum plans, that six cities have held follow-up charrettes to flesh out the original designs, and that four cities have taken active steps to implement the SmartCode, while another six are giving strong consideration to implementing the SmartCode, are airily glossed over and dismissed with a single sentence:

"...smaller, wealthier towns, like Ocean Springs and Pass Christian, were enthusiastic about adopting them; New Urbanism, after all, reconstructed the kind of life they'd been living all along."

Statistical corroboration is absent from that sentence. Let's look at the evidence, shall we?

a) Waveland, Moss Point and D'Iberville have median incomes less than or equal to Biloxi.

b) The poverty rate in Gulfport, Gautier, Pascagoula and Moss Point is higher than Biloxi.

After dismissing the Renewal Forum's achievements on most of the coast, the article focuses its attention on Biloxi because it is "bigger and more diverse" ... a place where the new urbanist principles supposedly do not apply to "the kind of life they'd been living all along." But is Biloxi the biggest city on the coast? No. Gulfport is the county seat with a 40 percent larger population.

Is Biloxi the most diverse city on the coast? No, Gulfport has nearly twice the minority percentage. "Wealthy" Pass Christian has a minority percentage that is nearly 50 percent larger, as do Pascagoula and Gautier. Moss Point has more than three times the minority percentage than Biloxi.

2. Affordability: The writer goes out of his way to push the emotional buttons on this one. Most of the case against new urbanist plans comes from a couple of women at a barber shop who glance at the designs and think that they look too expensive.

In addition, Duany mentions $140,000 as an affordable price for a nice 3-bedroom house, and Stallworth counters with a $65-90,000 range, but are they talking about the same size house, with the same number of bedrooms and amenities? Who knows? The writer's agenda is to disparage new urbanism, not an educational exploration of options and alternatives. There's no mention of the Katrina Cottage, even though it's gotten the most press and attention of any single Renewal Forum design.

And why is new urbanism the bad boy in this story, when Biloxi is proposing to replace single family housing with "multi-family buildings, which can exist side by side with vacation condominiums and so-called 'condotels' "? Common sense suggests those options will be more expensive than the new urbanist proposals. Where is the biting comment from Stallworth about that? Where is the snap judgment from the women in the barber shop? The unequal treatment in this article is pretty clear.

3. Participation: There's no doubt that the Renewal Forum had less-than-ideal participation and representation from many sectors of the Gulf Coast community. Poor and minority citizens were notably underrepresented. On the other hand, to say the working people of Biloxi weren't consulted is just untrue. The Renewal Forum participants sought and obtained the opinions of many working class citizens during the charrette. Jim Barksdale estimated that 10,000 citizens were contacted about the charrette plans during October, November and December 2005 in town meetings, presentations and online forums. A fairer article would acknowledge that massive effort to obtain feedback, along with the several follow-up charrettes, in addition to the deficiencies in participation during the charrette itself.

4. Codes: New urbanists codes are more permissive than standard codes on land use. They can be more restrictive about form (building envelopes and placement on the lot) so that walkable environments are established and/or maintained. Like conventional codes, new urbanist codes can be permissive or restrictive about style -- or they can ignore style entirely, whatever the community decides through the public process. Finally, the most common implementation in the Gulf Coast is shaping up to be parallel codes, i.e., for any particular parcel, landowners have a choice between standard codes and new urbanist codes.

The plans and codes for the Mississippi coast are available at

Also, this lengthy and detailed article about new urbanists' activities on the Gulf Coast by a New Yorker editor paints a somewhat different portrait than the NYT article:
Laurence, thanks for your input. That's very helpful. So I take it from your comment that the article does not correctly describe the final plans? It sounds like while Biloxi may not have decided to go with a New Urbanist plan, several other towns did. Is that the case?

In that case, though, what about providing affordable housing?  At least from this piece on the Mississippi Renewal site, it makes it look like affordable homes are either 300 sq ft Katrina Cottages or Habitat for Humanity homes. What was a reasonable size house for lower-income people before Katrina hit? It's really an interesting problem. Normally, the lower class can afford to buy old, rundown property, but what happens when all the property and homes are new? Are they still affordable?

For the record, I really hope that New Urbanist ideas can be successful, so I was a little disappointed to read this NYT article, but glad to learn that it might not be the case after all.

It sounds like while Biloxi may not have decided to go with a New Urbanist plan, several other towns did. Is that the case?"

Yes, certainly. In addition to the many activities reported on, there is an Ocean Springs charrette currently underway, and a Waveland charrette upcoming in a few weeks. Note also the head of Biloxi reconstruction planning said there were some good ideas in the Moule & Polyzoides' new urbanist plan, so even there it's not a total rejection. We'll see just what that means when Biloxi releases its planning report next week.

The new urbanists were charged with developing plans, designs and codes for the Mississippi coast. Their work was part of the Infrastructure Committee, which in turn was just one committee of 22 convened by the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. Affordable housing was a major area of focus for the Commission, and the "Affordable Housing" chapter (pp. 48-76) of the Commission's final report offers 36 recommendations to help build an adequate stock of affordable housing. (If anyone would like high-resolution versions of the charts, send me a note.) The state of Mississippi is starting to move its policy apparatus in the direction of implementing some of the recommendations, like the recent request for funding to rebuild damaged public housing units.
Aurbach, I live in Biloxi.  You're a nut-case here, and I wonder why.  First of all, the guy didn't talk about all those other towns you brought up, he talked about Ocean Springs and Pass Christian, which are too richer and easier to deal with.  Second, he didn't say "biggest and most diverse": he said "bigger and more diverse" (than Ocean Springs and Gulfport, and actually than most, but not all of the cities on the Gulf.)  Ask anyone who lives down here, and they'll tell you that Biloxi is our New Orelans, which doesn't make it better or worse, just different.

Also, you have your facts wrong on poverty rates, median income, and per capita income.  You need to go back and recheck them.

Second, the $140,000 figure came out of Duany's mouth, not the reporter's.  

Third, the story certainly didn't seem to favor casino or condo development.  Few of us down here do.  It just pointed out that those developers seem to be winning, mostly because the New Urbanist folks were so obnoxious.

Fourth, as Bill Stallworth says in the article, you don't ask for feedback after a plan is completed, no matter how flexible you pretend the plan is.  You ask for input before you begin, otherwise people like me feel you're trying to cram something down our throats.

Fifth, which do you think people care about more?  General land use?  Or their own homes?  I don't care if you let people build stores alongside apartment buildings, but I am sure as hell not going to let you tell me what kind of windows I can put in my own house.  That's one of the reasons why we kicked you people out of town.

That, and the kind of dishonesty and snottiness you show in your posting here.

Halliday, the statistics are the most recent ones from the Census Bureau, 1999 and 2000. If you have more up-to-date sources, please provide citations.

The casino developers are winning because new urbanists were obnoxious? Come on now, that's silly. The casino developers are winning because they are supported by a mayor and city council who seem unwilling to challenge the city's key source of jobs and taxes.

There's lots of development pressure in Biloxi now, and the city's leadership could leverage that to create a more walkable and sustainable Biloxi that will survive the post-Peak era better (and not coincidentally create a better quality of life for Biloxi residents). But instead the future Biloxi is likely going to have a beachfront of auto-oriented towers and bigger highways to service them.

As a sidebar, a number of doctors, nutritionists etc. link the rise in obesity in the US to the decline of walking.

It turns out that most people, most of the time, do not exercise as part of their regular routine.  If you do not build in some form of calorie burning into your daily life eg walking to the subway every day, it doesn't happen.

It is always a shock to us Europeans to experience American neighbourhoods, where you can walk nowhere, there is no public transport, and often there aren't even sidewalks.

However I have tracked in the UK the growth of the 'car' culture-- suburbs without sidewalks, big box stores etc. (we actually invented the concept in a place called Hampstead Garden Suburb in the late 1800s, and its first mass usage was a suburb of Toronto called Don Mills, in the early 50s).  90% of UK kids are now driven to school (creating the phenomenon of 2 additional traffic jams a day).

And lo, and behold, although we have more exercise clubs, we also have more obesity.