It’s a little later than way too early on a Sunday. When I step off of the plane in Gulfport, Mississippi, I’m expecting the heat, the humidity, the types of trees and the faint smell of dust and tires from a nearby busy road. Given that my grandfather lives about 3 hours away, these factors are familiar. It’s what I can’t predict, however, that has me so excited. My nerves are alight, my curiosity is peaked – I’m waiting to see a city.
Okay, so perhaps, just perhaps, the nervous jarring in my stomach and the return of my quiet, shy demeanor is mostly due to sleep deprivation. But, I’m also passionate about observing and learning from a new urban ecology – in looking at how the social environment of individuals and groups relates to the design and function of the built environment – and I’m unable to separate this joy from my dedication to public health. For me, thinking about the urban ecology of an area is an integral piece in considering multi-level community issues and assets from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, I realize that in traveling to a place previously unknown to me, my very first reaction is to glance around for design cues.
During our week on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I am constantly mindful of the built environment. In interviewing participants, I’m not foolish enough to believe that a specific street layout or building form dictates health or behavior. That being said, I am cognizant that everything I see, hear, and smell relates to the use, and historical use, of the surrounding environment. I’m also aware that, as an outsider, my interpretations may be missing much of the context.
So I make notes about things that I’d like to have more context on, and one of them is this:
The image of a white sandy beach – sitting under a blue sky and looking at the surf with tropical fruit drink – might be the best visual representation of paradise. Please don’t get me wrong, it is nice, but I think that there are other things in this view to consider.
Almost every day, we drive along the Gulf of Mexico on Highway 90. The bordering beaches are cleaned and manicured for tourist use – I’m not sure that I’ve ever squished sand between my toes that felt so processed, so raked, so clean of dirt and imperfections.
But there’s something more about these beaches, too.. something clearly fabricated.
Arthur, my teammate, thought that Biloxi might import the white sand from Florida. When we interview people for Visions of Hope we learn that the beaches are seldom used by locals. In fact, it seems that the beaches are, at least in May, empty of life. Furthermore, when compared to every other local landmark, the beaches and the strip of built environment within a block of the beach have obviously had the most money poured into them post- Hurricane Katrina and post-BP Oil Spill.
How is it that this view is designed to attract me, an outsider (and, honestly, it is playing around with the stereotypical view that attracts me), but not to draw on its local residents? If the the reinnervation of the area only fuels a design meant for tourists, how does that impact community stewardship of the area? I can understand needing to bring revenue and jobs into the city, but it also feels like a temporary measure that does not necessarily give back to the community.
Later, we walk along a beach with dark sand in Ocean Springs. No casinos neighbor this beach. I wonder, I really do, if white sand and other design features are actually meant to give back to communities in the long-term, or just to conjour a shiny vision of luxury for a select few.