Mississippi government officials are asking prominent New Urbanist city planners for help in rebuilding their communities following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The results will obviously differ from one community to another, but one thing is certain: New Urbanism will not be good for Mississippi.
Why bring in the New Urbanists?
“We got (new urbanists) because they were good task leaders in getting large groups of people together, not for new urbanism. These (local) people don't need anybody to come and tell them how to do their jobs.” So says Jim Barksdale, the former Netscape CEO appointed by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to head the Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal Commission.
But others are seeking to incorporate the design ideas of New Urbanism (NU) into Mississippi’s newly-rebuilt communities.
“This place has lost its neighborhood structure over the last 50 years,” said Andrés Duany, a Miami architect who is known as the “father” of New Urbanism. “This is a chance to rezone it in a much finer grain, so people can walk to the corner store, kids can walk to school.”
What is New Urbanism?
New Urbanism (NU) is a school of planning and architectural design that forms the foundation of Smart Growth (SG), which is concerned with legal and political enforcement of the NU standards. With strong, centralized design based around neighborhood centers, NU seeks to design self-sufficient communities where any citizen can live, work and play all within a small radius. The idea is that people thrive in these types of “villages” (as planners sometimes call them), with the added benefit that people are no longer dependent on their automobiles. The more ambitious NU plans call for entire cities to be restructured around a public transit system, with train or bus stations at the center of each neighborhood “village”.
With design aspects like this, NU conjures bucolic images of a time – and place – long past. In addition, many of NU’s advocates are adamantly opposed to the use of automobiles. For them, the automobile is responsible for creating “sprawl”, the suburbs, and smog, while destroying cohesive neighborhood community life. NU offers a solution to these ills by recreating the “good, old days” again, but with bolder colors and a more modern feel.
How will New Urbanism create problems for Gulf Coast communities?
By focusing new city planning designs on transit-dependent infrastructure, New Urbanism discards all the benefits that come from owning a vehicle. A recent study published by the University of California linked personal ownership of automobiles with upward mobility and found that families and individuals in poverty-stricken minority groups would benefit the most from owning their own car. In Mississippi, where 18.9% of the population lives beneath the poverty level and where racial tension is high, NU plans that aim to reduce automobile use will only serve to perpetuate high poverty levels and exacerbate racial division.
In fact, the NU communities with a heavy emphasis on public transit will have another significant liability: residents that are dependent on public transit will have difficulty evacuating the area if another natural catastrophe strikes the area. As noted by transportation expert and Smart Growth critic Randal O’Toole, “People with cars can leave before a storm hits. When earthquakes or other unpredictable events take place, people with cars can move away from areas that lack food, safe water or other essentials. What made New Orleans vulnerable was that a third of its households do not own an automobile.”
On October 11th, Jim Barksdale told the Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal Commission that "None of us wants to look back 20 years from now and realize we allowed ourselves to get locked into a rebuilding process that failed to take advantage of the clean slate, the clear opportunity we have right now. It's the worst possible time. But the opportunity makes it the best possible time.”
If Mississippians decide to restructure their lives and communities according to the design principles of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, they will find themselves increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and will actually inhibit the dynamic social and economic growth they desperately need right now.
It is hard to imagine a more spectacular way to botch such a tremendous opportunity.
New Urbanism: Exactly the Wrong Way to Rebuild After Katrina by Michael Park