Bill Walsh | October 10, 2005
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has asked architect Andres Duany of the Congress for the New Urbanism to organize a design forum to plan the rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast communities. Elected and other key public officials and stakeholders are being invited to participate in this process to be held October 11-18 in Biloxi's Isle of Capri. The Congress for the New Urbanism was recognized by the New York Times as "the most important collective architectural movement in the United States in the past fifty years."
HBN: I've always loved the metaphor I once heard architects Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano use to describe their contrasting commissions near Chicago's Grant Park: an architectural conversation. After completing his signature design, Gehry said he was thinking, "Let me hear from you, Renzo." The metaphor comes to mind as I think of the design challenge in rebuilding the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Nature has spoken through Katrina, what do you have to say?
AD: First, I am glad it is going to be a very big conversation. We expect to be joined by some 200 highly experienced design professionals, highly motivated public officials, and a genuinely interested public. The nature of the challenge will require that much experience and collective intelligence.
HBN: How so?
AD: The situation is very problematic. We are not starting with a clean slate. Not to rebuild along the Mississippi coast would obliterate billions of dollars of wealth. So there is really no question about whether the coast will be rebuilt. That horse has left the barn. Yet it is a dangerous place to build: One can envision structural solutions, but they are all very expensive and therefore have social and political implications.
HBN: What are some of the trade-offs in your view?
AD: For example, one could elevate new construction so as to absorb future storm surges. Apart from being costly, it is a challenge to create a walkable town that is essentially on stilts. Another option would be to "harden" construction to a hurricane code standard. This has been done in certain communities along the Florida coast since hurricane Andrew. In either case, the cost of coastal rebuilding designed to withstand another Katrina makes affordable housing on that land very difficult, and may even be beyond the reach of middle class property owners.
HBN: That statement legitimizes the concerns of many who believe that across the Gulf Coast, but especially in New Orleans, former residents who were poor, and especially poor and black, will not be included in rebuilt communities. The current President of the National Council of Churches, Bishop Hoyt, whose diocese includes Louisiana and Mississippi churches, has called for a just rebuilding. How do you respond?
AD: Too often we don't use the freedom we have in this country to speak publicly about unpopular things. We must have a free discussion of sensitive subjects in order to create a true dialogue. The discussion involving race and poverty and what it costs to deal with it in such circumstances is crucial and we should have it. By the way, circumstances in New Orleans, which is what everyone is usually referring to, are different from the coastal communities. These have their special challenges, but also more opportunity in some ways. In Mississippi, I look forward to learning from Bishop Hoyt and the collective wisdom that the charrette process is designed to tap.
Let's not delude ourselves, the rebuilding is not going to eliminate poverty. But as a nation we do have enough wealth to create all of the affordable housing we need. And we can see to it as part of the rebuilding that poverty is not concentrated to become new slums. We must reframe the value of affordable housing in terms that appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. For example, the repeal of many bureaucratic permitting processes would lower costs and increase the capacity of the poor and the middle class to construct simple, decent homes for themselves.
HBN: We at HBN have a specific interest in materials policy and environmental justice. These come together in Louisiana where citizens have been trying to transform the petrochemical industry for years. By not using vinyl in green buildings for example, we can reduce indoor air contaminants, but since most vinyl plants are in Louisiana we can help transform the industrial base to less harmful materials, bio-based materials for example.
AD: The issues of materials policy and environmental justice are compatible with the New Urbanism movement, but they are not intrinsic to our movement. I am wary of stringing other agendas onto the New Urbanism. There are so few of us. Should we not focus our own unique contributions?
HBN: So if we come to the New Urbanist table, in Mississippi, for example, with such an agenda, you welcome the ideas so long as we bring resources to implement them?
HBN: This has been a far ranging discussion. We will take up your ideas about New Orleans in another edition. I appreciate the extra time you have spent with us today.
AD: It has been a special pleasure to converse with you as I gradually found you not to be an uninformed idiot.
HBN: That may be news to a few people, so I'm going to quote you.