Every year since Hurricane Katrina mauled the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coasts, I’ve returned to Mississippi around the storm’s August 29 anniversary to renew friendships and refine my capacity for humility. The friendships have turned out to be the most rewarding outcomes of the 2005 Mississippi Renewal Forum, the historic charrette in Biloxi six weeks after the storm. The humility training is less fun, but it’s starting to take.
What’s clear is how naïve I was about the extent of the devastation and the appetite for “building back better than ever.” At least in the ways we outsiders imagined. Now I understand: It would have required monumental effort for places with intact infrastructure and energized leadership to tackle the to-do list the Forum left behind. It was delusional to expect the 11 towns and three counties of coastal Mississippi to digest our ambitions, then marshal the resources and energy for implementation, when everything they knew had been blown out from under them.
Thanks to the Knight Foundation and a partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism and the South Mississippi SunHerald newspaper, we offered an update of progress on the Mississippi coast for the third anniversary of the storm in 2008. By then, the chasm between the recovery assignment and the rebuilding dreams was beginning to sink in. Since then, a 2007 overview, narrated by the then SunHerald publisher, Ricky Mathews, has emerged and provides an even better context from the local perspective:
The anniversary events this year rightfully celebrated the distance covered since 2005 and not the distance to “better than ever.” Here is the SunHerald’s map on projects completed along the coast.
Anniversary event speakers, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour — who initiated the Governor’s Commission that, in turn, enabled the Mississippi Renewal Forum — offered thanks to the thousands of voluntary organizations and individuals who played key roles in comforting those the storm dispossessed and in supporting the beginnings of the renewal process. The richest memories were the person-to-person encounters, the helping hands extended in the direst moments. Here is the SunHerald’s report on the major event in Gulfport on Aug. 29. The words and music at that gathering felt right, bought down to human scale from makeover delusions in the months after the storm.
Andres Duany, who led the Forum charrette in 2005, has been rethinking the makeover impulse. I videotaped some of his ruminations at the 2010 CNU Congress, and my PlaceMakers partner Howard Blackson wrote about implications of Duany’s perspective in a previous post.
So, from the hopeful perspectives of those of us who participated in the mega-charrette in 2005, what achievements can we point to? Not built-out towns. Certainly not Monte Carlo on the Gulf Coast, as we re-imagined Biloxi’s casino district. And, sadly, not fully recovered neighborhoods for the least affluent in the region. But there are two concepts the designers, planners, and engineers can be proud to have introduced:
One is the tool of form-based coding, maybe not in letter-perfect SmartCode calibrations everywhere on the coast, but at least in concept. Coding reform is in place or in development in many of the communities. The other achievement is the Katrina Cottage, not just as an individual, storm-fortified emergency dwelling, but as a foundational element in a new kind of infill neighborhood. Thanks almost entirely to the persistence of Ocean Springs architect Bruce Tolar, the model for such a neighborhood, has reached a critical mass in Cottage Square. Here, in a video from earlier this year, Bruce updates the Square story.
I wrote about the traction the cottages were getting last year. And this time around, I cornered Jason Spellings, who built the original Katrina Cottage – the “little yellow house” – from Marianne Cusato’s design. Here is my interview with Jason, who joined Gov. Barbour’s office to expedite the Mississippi Cottage program inspired by the Katrina Cottage movement.
Coming soon: An update on how the Katrina Cottage/Cottage Square model might finally bump out of the emergency housing discussion and into the broader conversation about creating safe, affordable workforce housing and neighborhoods for “aging in place” beyond the storm zone.