Coastal towns rethink development patterns
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged Pass Christian, Miss., last fall, people wondered how the coastal city would ever recover. But soon, it and other cities throughout the Gulf Coast began planning for long-term recovery, considering new community designs that encourage pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and mixed-use buildings.
To avoid repeating the building patterns that had led to sprawl, traffic congestion and poor land use, the Mississippi Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal hosted the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October, to incorporate the concepts of New Urbanism, smart growth and sustainable design into recovery plans. “We have a tremendous opportunity to improve communities while rebuilding them,” said Andres Duany, architect and leader in the New Urbanist movement, during the forum. “We want to give Mississippians the tools to create places that are more visually pleasing, more environmentally friendly, more diverse and more secure from hurricanes.”
Chief among those tools is the SmartCode, a unified land development code created by Miami-based firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. and others, which combines zoning, subdivision regulations and architectural form-based guidelines. Where zoning codes traditionally have separated land uses into commercial, residential and industrial sectors, the SmartCode includes sustainable mixed-use developments that allow cities to plan neighborhoods that encourage environmental protection, walkability, diversity and economic vitality.
Already, several municipalities across the Gulf Coast region have adopted the SmartCode to promote sustainable redevelopment. “The SmartCode is trying to group developments close together to improve efficiency, so people can walk instead of drive all the time,” says Gene Peralta, a Pass Christian building code officer.
Flowood, Miss., although not severely affected by Katrina, adopted the SmartCode in October. The city had been hamstrung by urban sprawl, traffic congestion and strict zoning, all of which were siphoning residents, visitors and money away from downtown. When the city approved the code, planners began designing Flowood Town Center, a mixed-use development that includes multi-family and single-family housing, businesses and civic buildings. “We are a small city, but we’re growing very rapidly,” says Keith Marshall, Flowood building official and zoning administrator. “We felt that it would be good to have an inner-city development that would bring people downtown like the old urban districts with a courthouse in the center.”
Some local officials are concerned about adopting ordinances developed by outside experts, questioning how new projects will be funded and whether New Urbanist developments will drive out poorer residents. Despite those concerns, however, larger cities like Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., have begun to consider adopting smart growth plans.
Meanwhile, other initiatives have championed sustainable redevelopment in the region. The Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council, for example, released a report in February that recommends rebuilding New Orleans in a way that promotes ecological protection and restoration, mixed-use development, diverse housing and new sustainable building codes.
As many decisions have yet to be made, a spirit of optimism pervades Gulf Coast towns. “People are trying to rebuild,” Peralta says. “Hopefully the momentum will now pick up. It’s a whole lot better than it was the day after the storm.”
Kim O’Connell is a freelancer based in Arlington, Va.