Gulf Coast Building Blocks

The Mayors' Institute on City Design and Your Town


Four men talking with the Mississippi River in the background

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Tom Cochran, President of the American Architectural Foundation Ron Bogle, and NEA Design Director Jeff Speck inspecting the damage to the Ninth Ward atop the breached levee as part of the Mayors' Institute on City Design meeting on November 15, 2005. Photo by Aaron Koch.

Because skillful civic design helps communities better address their environment, the NEA provided a forum for communities devastated by the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes to discuss design issues as part of their recovery efforts. The NEA designated $200,000 of its hurricane-relief grants to support two special sessions of the Mayors' Institute on City Design (MICD) and four Your Town: The Citizens' Institute on Rural Design workshops.

Since 1986, the NEA has sponsored MICD in partnership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Architectural Foundation. The goal of MICD is to educate mayors about community design issues and empower them to be more effective city planners. As Jeff Speck, the NEA's Director of Design explains, "We want these mayors to go home as design mayors, to have city design become an issue that they want to make part of their platform."

The NEA convened an MICD session on November 14, 2005, for six Mississippi mayors from Biloxi, D'Iberville, Gulfport, Gautier, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. The Mississippi mayors did not bring case studies for specific design problems, as would be the case at a traditional session. The faculty presentations and discussions instead focused on four topics of more immediate concern: the role of the mayor in community design, waterfront design challenges, the physical design of community, and the process of design implementation. Participating faculty included Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, an MICD founder, and architects and former mayors Maurice Cox and Harvey Gantt. The eight-member team also included experts in planning, urban design, landscape architecture, civil engineering, and historic preservation.

"The mayors expressed gratitude for the opportunity to step back from the grinding details of recovery and focus instead on big-picture ideas for their cities' futures," says Speck. "We knew they were getting a lot of ideas thrown at them, and we just wanted to give them a framework within which to consider those ideas."

Officals with Mayor Riley who's speaking at a podium outside the municipal building

Mayor Joseph Riley with participating Mississippi mayors and members of the resource team at a press conference for the Mayors' Institute on City Design meeting on November 14, 2005. Photo by Aaron Koch.

A second MICD session, held November 15 in New Orleans, Louisiana, was attended by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitchell Landrieu, and New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas. The workshop opened with a two-hour bus tour through the worst-hit parts of the city to familiarize the design faculty with the scope of the city's rebuilding needs. Next, over three hours, each expert counseled the mayor on a specific design or governance issue, in effect giving the mayor one-on-one tutorials on city design. The design faculty also shared their insights with members of the mayor's Bring Back New Orleans commission.

In addition to these initial MICD sessions, the NEA also has set aside $50,000, to be matched by the American Architectural Foundation, for future consultations by design faculty as the communities rebuild.

The NEA also planned four Your Town workshops, another of the agency's community design programs. Developed by the Rural Heritage Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the faculty of Landscape Architecture at the State University of New York, Syracuse, the program provides a forum for communities in rural areas, small towns, and small cities to develop design strategies aimed at protecting or revitalizing a natural or manmade resource, such as a main street, a landscape, or a farming culture. The NEA has supported the program since 1991, sponsoring four Your Town workshops each year.

Each session lasts two to three days, comprising lectures, presentations, and hands-on exercises. One of the most significant elements of Your Town is a problemsolving exercise in which participants address design problems based on a hypothetical "Your Town" modeled after towns in the region. The Arts Endowment believed that the workshops would be especially useful for the recovering Gulf Coast communities as the program already had a proven methodology for helping communities recover from natural disasters. In July 1994, the town of Montezuma, Georgia, revitalized its downtown after a series of devastating floods with help from a Your Town workshop produced with the School of Environmental Design at the University of Georgia.

The first of the four events was part of the cycle already scheduled for FY 2006. The agency actively solicited applications from hurricane-damaged communities for this workshop. Organized by the Louisiana and Mississippi Main Street Associations, the workshop took place April 23–25 for residents of Bogalusa, Louisiana, and surrounding areas. More than 31 individuals attended the session, including Bogalusa Mayor James M. McGehee.

Working in small groups, the participants developed design solutions for three specific issues: prioritizing a list of improvements for the city; developing an action plan for building family-friendly housing to accommodate the region's post-hurricane population shift; and improving the physical design of the city's main entrances to make them more touristfriendly.

Ryan Seal, Executive Director of the Washington Parish Economic Development Foundation, was grateful for the workshop opportunity. He explains, "You realize that a lot of the problems you're facing are the same as what other communities are facing. You're not out there alone."

The NEA also planned three additional Gulf Coast Your Town workshops, which took place in October 2006 in Picayune, Biloxi, and Laurel, Mississippi. These workshops addressed different aspects of post-hurricane recovery, including design issues caused by the dramatic increase in population size of those towns that absorbed residents relocating from devastated areas, the environmental impact associated with building new neighborhoods in the wake of the hurricanes, and the design issues facing those towns in the PineyWoods area that were devastated by 140 hurricane-generated tornadoes.

"Even more important than providing tried and true solutions to burgeoning design issues," says Speck, "these workshops are intended to give inspiration, help these communities step back, and to let them know we're here to help."