After the deluge, creativity in the Gulf

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Still cleaning up tons of debris, the hurricane- battered Gulf Coast can hardly be called a clean slate. Yet it is just that in terms of innovative ideas taking shape - from the tiny "Katrina cottage" to a big-think reinvention of government.

Last week's news shocker about tripling New Orleans levee costs, as well as absentee voting issues in the April 22 mayoral election, certainly illustrate the demand for creative thinking. And still, the seven months since Katrina show the region is open to new and different solutions.

Let's start with the cottage - a brilliant alternative to the FEMA trailer. Built in a southern style with a sloping metal roof and a front porch, this one-bedroom modular home is less likely to blow away in another hurricane because it's built on a concrete foundation. It can also be added on to. Yet it costs about the same as a trailer and can be quickly produced. Most important, people like the cottages, while they're not wild about trailer "FEMAvilles."

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From a bird's-eye view, urban planning is also proving innovative. This area hasn't paid much attention to planning, nor had much experience with zoning. From the neighborhoods of New Orleans to the state capitals of Baton Rouge and Jackson, the massive planning being undertaken is itself a new and necessary - if bumpy and slow - process.

Since Katrina, residents of 11 coastal Mississippi towns have taken part in charettes - intensive planning sessions. They were set up by the Congress for New Urbanism, a national group committed to building walkable, green (in both senses of the word), mixed-income neighborhoods that include commercial space.

Architecturally, "new urbanism" is criticized as a nostalgic throwback to main-street America. Admittedly, these projects have an artificial, cookie-cutter look to them. But one can change the architecture and still keep the mixed-use principles, and both the Louisiana and Mississippi governors have embraced the community-centric movement.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is putting some of these principles (if not specific plans) to work. His redevelopment ideas, unveiled last month, envision a city more friendly to mass transit, including a new light rail link to the airport and expanded free bus service to Baton Rouge - now a bedroom community due to the New Orleans housing shortage.

Tight finances and the new situation on the ground have pushed the mayor to reinvent city government. Like a Wall Street merger manager, he's consolidating city offices, including the "three-headed monster" of the school system, which is part state, part city, and part charter-school controlled. Pre-Katrina, New Orleans had one of the worst public school systems in the country. Now most of its schools are charters - an improvement.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has similar consolidation ideas about levee control, state higher education, and transport. It's a healthy shift toward accountability and cost savings in a state known for corruption.

Back to the Katrina cottages. Their funding needs an innovation impulse. FEMA won't pay for them because, unlike the trailers on wheels, the cottages are permanent. The solution seems easy enough, though: Change the rules, or the funding source.

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