Rising from the Storm

Panama City is taking pages from the New Urbanism playbook
Photo by Steve Bornhoft

A retired two-star general, Mark McQueen started work as the city manager in Panama City less than three weeks before Hurricane Michael stormed ashore, destroying trees, homes, businesses and public and private infrastructure.

In the storm’s aftermath, he convened meetings populated by department directors whose names he hadn’t yet learned.

On Monday, as part of a Seaside Institute symposium, “Transforming Communities Through New Urbanism After a Natural Disaster,” McQueen described the scope of the mess created by Michael and Panama City’s plans to build back “better, bigger and stronger” in response to it. Then, he entertained a few questions.

“What can we do to help people like you?” came a question from the back row, asked by a woman who identified herself as an Air Force veteran.

“Pray,” McQueen said, and then he paused, visibly emotional, before resuming.

“People in Panama City are hurting,” he said. “They need a new hope.”

To invest the city’s estimated 26,000 residents — Panama City’s pre-storm population was 36,000 — with that hope, McQueen plans to employ “policy, programs, processes and procedures in ways that will enable the city to realize its potential.”

If that sounds like military-speak, it is. McQueen, seen standing in the photo, above, brought no municipal background to his job as city manager, but he almost surely has had more experience rebuilding cities than any of the other 80 individuals who applied for the position he now holds.

For example, as the commanding general of the 108th Training Command headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, McQueen directed approximately 7,000 soldiers whose assignments included rebuilding Baghdad.

About post-storm Panama City, McQueen remarked, “It was Baghdad with trees. I’ve learned a lot about trees lately.” 

He noted that countless pine trees in and around Panama City were snapped at a height about 20 feet above the ground. That, he has learned, was the level to which sap in the trees had fallen as they began to prepare for winter dormancy. Today, standing trees are dying in big numbers because their systems for distributing water and nutrients were irreparably damaged.

Panama City’s “long-term planning project,” McQueen said, comprises four fundamental components and includes concepts embraced by new urbanists:

  • Clearly defined “lines of effort,” including providing for safety and security, shoring up vital infrastructure, restoring and growing the city’s economy and enhancing quality of life.
  • A team approach, driven by citizen input.
  • A commitment to 10 cornerstone ideas: waterfront access, downtown activity, downtown living, safety and security, sustainable building, resilient infrastructure, connections, placemaking, gathering spaces, updated standards.
  • Uptown land development and transportation improvements including the reconfiguring of “Malfunction Junction,” the confluence of U.S. 231, U.S. 98 and Harrison Avenue.

Victor Dover, an urban designer and the principal lead with the Miami planning firm of Dover, Kohl & Partners, is leading a team of teams all working on the Panama City project and representing specialties ranging from transportation to debris removal. He spoke at the symposium on Saturday.

In response to disruptions including natural disasters, Dover said, “designers put lines on paper. We try to lend order to the chaos. Someone has an idea and we draw a picture and ask them if it is what they had in mind.”

That is, they lead by design.

Dover said he has learned to respect the reality that people don’t like to be told what to do. And, he said, “everything does not have to be figured out in advance.”

Disasters need not precede transformative work, he said, but they help by bringing people together and making it easier to achieve consensus, or at least consent.

McQueen said that surveys have established that 78–90 percent of Panama City residents approve of the approach to the recovery project.

Businessman, consultant and visionary Quint Studer quoted Harvard Business School professor John Kotter in telling Monday’s audience that “70 percent of failure results from a lack of urgency” or what Studer called a “burning platform.”

In Pensacola, where Studer has led downtown revitalization efforts, that platform was the realization that the city was becoming increasingly unable to retain talent.

“Young people,” he said, “want three things: affordability, opportunity and a vibrant downtown.”

In Panama City, where some 5,000 children are homeless, the wish is more elemental, for now.

But, for McQueen, the Great Disrupter of Oct. 10, 2018, was many things, including an invitation to move forward by doing things differently.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got,” he said.

Categories: Panama City