Thursday, December 08, 2005

New Urbanist Land Grab Begins in Mississippi

It seems as if the land grab is in full swing on Mississippi's hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast as the "Mississippi Renewal" project is starting to survey land and implement the plans concocted by a group of New Urbanists last October.

In response to a post I made criticizing the process as being elite-driven and lacking significant public input, John Massengale, an architect and town planner involved in the project, suggested otherwise, indicating that public meetings were undertaken and that they were well-attended.

While Massengale contends that "our first instruction from [Mississippi Governor Haley] Barbour was, 'No one will be told to leave their property,'" now that the New Urbanist brigades have left Mississippi, we are seeing familiar patterns of dispossession ensue. The New York Times reports that many residents in Biloxi's neighborhoods--having returned to the city after months of displacement--are finding that their plans to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods are being resisted by the city and developers.

The New Urbanist vision sees the Gulf Coast "competing with Myrtle Beach," making an extension of tourist amenities inevitable. For residents such as those profiled in the Times piece, that means space for casino expansion and golf course development--not the rebuilding of their lost homes.

I expect that we will hear further stories of longtime resident displacement as the rebuilding effort continues. It still seems clear, however, that plans such as those developed by Barbour's renewal commission were made without significant mechanisms for participation by the everyday people affected by the disaster. This is not meant to discount the New Urbanism. As Massengale points out on his own blog, residents of affected areas see considerable promise in New Urbanist planning frameworks.

I am more concerned with processes of democratic decisionmaking and accountability that should be leveraged as communities deal with the aftermath of the destruction. It is quite easy for private interests with access to huge amounts of resources to influence extensive (and government-subsidized) rebuilding in such a way that lines their own pocketbooks at the expense of the public interest. It would be unfortunate to see the New Urbanism hijacked in such a way.