There’s probably no place in the U.S. where new urbanism has a better shot at taking hold than the Gulf Coast. By getting wiped out, many of the towns and cities along the coast have a chance to start over — to reimagine what their communities can be. Lots of people seem to have the right idea:
Gov. Haley Barbour’s rebuilding commission and many small-town officials advocate a planning approach known as New Urbanism, which supports pedestrian friendly, historically themed developments where people of mixed incomes share the same neighborhoods and are closely linked by public transportation. Given a rare chance to redesign their landscapes, many residents and officials want to see towns designed around trolley cars, pedestrian walkways and open spaces.
And of course, lots of people seem to have the wrong idea:
But critics here mock New Urbanism as being impractical and ignorant of the preference of most Americans for privacy over community, and as creating towns that often look like film sets rather than real communities.
What do "real communities" look like?
"Biloxi is going to be high-rises and condos," said Duncan McKenzie, president of the Chamber of Commerce and a vice president of the Isle of Capri casino. "People refer to what happened here as a tragic opportunity." Even before the storm, casinos were Biloxi’s second-largest industry after the military, employing 15,000 people and generating $19.2 million in taxes.
The hook of the story is that Biloxi — committed to casinos and high-rises — is connected by bridge to Ocean Springs, which is committed to preserving its quaint, walkable character. The bridge was wiped out by the hurricane. Now Biloxi officials want to replace it with a behemoth eight-lane expressway, while Ocean Springs officials want a four-lane drawbridge, complete with bike lanes.
One of the interesting aspects of the conflict is the language people use to criticize the new urbanist faction. Like this:
"A lot of people there are more into the arts and come from other areas," said Mayor A. J. Holloway of Biloxi, speaking of Ocean Springs and its preference for a smaller bridge with a bicycle lane. "And I don’t see people riding bikes 85 feet in the air."
… Officials deride the idea of trolleys replacing cars on busy roadways and suggest that such ideas are preferred by people who come from, as they say here, "away."
"More into the arts," are they? "Come from other areas," do they? Let me read between the lines for you: Yankee homos! Yankee homos! Real men gamble, you see, and they by God drive to get there.
So, as I see it, new urbanism faces two main challenges:
- Big box stores, big casinos … bigness. Bigness makes money. Bigness spends money. And bigness brings money, in the form of taxes. You may have noticed that the public interest has trouble duking it out with bigness.
- Big money is immeasurably assisted by the stereotype that new urbanism is an affectation of liberal elites. Advocates have not done the work connecting new urbanism to the concerns and values of traditional, conservative (by temperament, even if not politically) Americans.