Proposal for Gulf Coast

Neighborhood Renaissance Centers

A detailed proposal developed as part of the Mississippi Renewal Forum in 2005 and the Unified New Orleans Plan in 2006.  Now ready for funding, beta-test and large-scale roll-out.


Click to Download Program Specifications


Executive Summary


The Need


The Opportunity


This Plan


The Specifics



The Nature of the Challenge


Information is not yet available to homeowners where and when it is neededHomeowners and neighborhood representatives face a bewildering environment of obscure and often contradictory requirements:  technical demands for rebuilding based upon highly local conditions of elevation, soil and neighborhood context;  financial requirements of insurance companies, mortgage lenders and government agencies (often in conflict); and planning and permitting requirements that present multiple options and multiple potential problems.


This environment of uncertainty translates into an environment of risk;  risk translates into inaction;  and inaction translates into further uncertainty, fueling a downward spiral of confidence and action.


Information is not yet available to governments and financial institutions where and when it is needed.   In effect the distribution of resources faces a “last mile” problem.   Management at the point of distribution is posing an equally daunting challenge for information management and accountability.   Current processes are dwarfed by the sheer scale of the challenge, and slowed by bulk information-gathering processes that are largely “top-down” without significant exploitation of distributed network and local resources.


Residents too often wait for action from above, instead of using locally-available resources to act promptly and effectively for themselves.  Accounts of large sums of money coming soon from upper levels of government have encouraged a “limbo” atmosphere, as residents wait for a top-down process that is bogged down by problems of sheer scale.    But the neighborhoods that have been the most resilient and that have had the greatest success in the past are those neighborhoods that have sustained the active engagement of the residents, and where there have been institutions and local leadership capable of coordinating flows of both information and resources.  Among the most crucially important resources are those brought to the process by the residents themselves, in the form of self-organized community action.  Such local action is also crucial in aiding the flow of resources from outside.


The Nature of the Solution


Residents need access to local resource centers, or “neighborhood renaissance centers”, providing local information and organization resources.


These centers would develop their individual resources from standardized resources, but in response to the specific needs of the residents of each neighborhood.  They would also be prepared to answer (or to research) the specific questions that neighborhood residents need answered.  They would serve as clearing-houses for authoritative information about FEMA requirements, insurance claims, financing and funding programs, mortgage options, buyout or land swap programs, and other relevant issues.   They would contribute bottom-up knowledge into a growing pool of useful information.


The centers would provide access to expert guidance, and offer a library of resources relevant to implementation of the neighborhood plan as well as individual rebuilding or redevelopment projects.  Staff support would include architects, code officials and other building professionals, some perhaps rotating on a circuit between centers. The centers would also coordinate neighborhood-based planning, focused on implementation and compliance issues relevant at the neighborhood level, and they would be prepared to assist residents with such things as expedited permitting, pre-approved plans and inspections. 


The centers would also become important repositories of local knowledge.  Student interns from local universities as well as resident volunteers could be enlisted to produce neighborhood-specific resources such as maps, community asset inventories, databases of networks of people with common interests or skills to share, and data regarding local conditions. 


It is crucial that each center focus on mobilizing and coordinating the assets, energies and consistent engagement of the community in implementation of the plan.  In this way, the self-organizing potential of the neighborhood and the residents can be joined optimally to the resources offered by larger regional and national institutions. 




1.      Create an initial "beta-test" pilot project for a new kind of neighborhood-level facility called a “Neighborhood Renaissance Center”


2.      Use this pilot as a laboratory model for the reproduction of additional centers as resources permit.


3.      The centers should combine four elements:


a)      Answer Center: Authoritative information and advice delivered by staff and visiting consultants, and through a variety of materials developed with other agencies and sources.  A key element is the “Decision Tree” model that guides homeowners through the decision process, tailored to their own house and neighborhood.

b)     Detailed Financial Guidance and Resources.  A clearinghouse portal of coordinated two-way information about grants, loans, buy-outs, and associated requirements and options.  Agencies and businesses may also use this portal as an information-gathering and tracking resource.   

c)      Design and Building Guidance and Resources.  Assistance with design, renovation or construction options; and information resources including selected books, pamphlets, and regional pattern books. This assistance will be delivered by a qualified staff architect or building professional at no cost to residents, together with referrals to pre-qualified outside architects, builders and suppliers.   (These may be qualified through a local ratings system and other means such as Better Business Bureau reports.)

d)  Neighborhood Action Forum.  The centers would provide a coordinating support structure for ongoing neighborhood planning and other activities by neighborhood leaders and action committees.  They would include a set of sociological resources to mobilize the assets of the neighborhoods effectively, both in order to address problems as they arise, and to move effectively toward a desired future. 


Neighborhood Renaissance Centers Advisory Group

Environmental Structure Research Group:  Christopher Alexander, Arundel, UK * Bill Hillier, UCL, London UK * Jan Gehl, Copenhagen, DE * Andres Duany, Miami FL * Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, UM, Miami FL * David Brain, NCF, Sarasota, FL *  Stuart Cowan, Portland, OR * Ward Cunningham, Portland, OR. * Howard Davis, UO, Eugene, OR * Brian Goodwin, Devon, UK *  Besim Hakim, Albuquerque NM * Brian Hanson, UL, London, UK * Herbert Girardet, London UK * Richard J. Jackson, UC Berkeley, CA * Roderick J. Lawrence, UG, Geneva, CH * Bernard Lietaer, UC Berkeley, CA * Stephen Marshall, UCL, London UK *  * Hajo Neis, UO, Portland, OR * Paul Murrain, London, UK * Ernesto Philibert, ITESM, Queretaro, MX * Yodan Rofe, BGU, Be'er Sheva, IL * Nikos Salingaros, UTSA, San Antonio, TX * Bankoku Sasagawa, Tokyo, JP * Lucien Steil, Luxembourg, LU * Emily Talen, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign * Roger Ulrich, TAMU, College Station, TX * Marcel Vellinga, Oxford Brookes, UK * John Worthington, DEGW, London UK  * * Michael Mehaffy, Coordinator   

Gentilly Charrette Team:  John Anderson * Ann Daigle * Diane Dorney * Laura Hall * Steve Mouzon * Sandy Sorlien


New Orleans Partners and Allies (Tentative):

District 6 Community Congress * Gentilly Civic Improvement Association *  Neighborhoods’ Planning Network * Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans * University of New Orleans * Dillard University * Concordia LLC * Liberty Bank * House Raisers * Global Green * Louisiana State University Hurricane Center


And Others To Be Announced



About the Pilot Management Committee


Michael Mehaffy (Coordinator), is president of Structura Naturalis Inc., and a seasoned project manager of large-scale, high-profile projects.   Most recently he created a highly-regarded professional training program in planning and architecture in the UK, successfully negotiating complex partnerships with the UK government, leading professional associations, NGOs and academic partners.   He did graduate work in architecture and planning at the University of California, Berkeley, and in business management and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.  He has served on three different Hurricane Katrina planning teams in Mississippi and Louisiana.  He was born and raised on the Gulf Coast.  He is the coordinator of the Environmental Structure Research Group, an international research consortium of planners, architects, sociologists, psychologists, physicians, ecologists, economists, physicists and others.


Andres Duany is principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk, an internationally distinguished planning firm that has completed designs for over 250 new and existing communities.  This work has exerted a major influence on the practice and direction of urban planning in the United States.   Andres has led planning teams for major portions of Hurricane Katrina rebuilding, including five parishes in Louisiana.   His team’s work in the New Orleans district of Gentilly in April 2006 featured a central proposal for a “neighborhood rebuilding center”.


David Brain, Ph.D.  is a sociologist and associate professor at New College Florida.  He has done extensive work on the relation between urban design and social capital, and is a proponent of asset-based community development.  Most recently he served on the UNOP planning team for Districts 1 and 6.


Steve Mouzon is an architect and co-founder of the New Urban Guild, a coalition of architects and builders developing regionally appropriate and affordable plans and services.   He was one of the creators of the “Katrina Cottage,” and affordable and expandable form of emergency housing.


Emily Talen, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Planning at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign.  She has worked extensively on the issue of social diversity and processes that promote or deplete it.   Most recently she worked on the Mississippi Renewal Forum to re-plan 11 hurricane-ravaged towns in that state.