Rebuilding a Better Port-au-Prince

“Rebuilding a Better Port-au-Prince,” The Root, 19 January 2010.

After Haiti’s earthquake, “starchitects” and urban developers ask: What next?

Three days after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that sent Haiti from a developing nation to a flattened one, President Barack Obama addressed a statement directly to the people of Haiti: “You will not be forsaken, you will not be forgotten.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who cut short a trip to Southeast Asia and traveled to Haiti over the weekend, appeared with Haitian President René Préval to declare: “We will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead.” But one week after the earthquake that claimed up to 200,000 lives and destroyed the backbone of Haiti’s infrastructure, talk is turning from destruction and rescue to mourning and, inevitably, reconstruction.

Rebuilding Haiti will be a tough haul. Major institutions—the national cathedral, the presidential palace—lie toppled. Countless other homes, stores, office buildings and more churches have been reduced to rubble. Debris will need to be cleared before new structures can take their place. Those buildings still standing will need to be tested for safety. Making things worse, Haiti has a notoriously weak state—the sort that couldn’t enforce building codes, or prevent the deforestation that has left the soil unable to deflect routine flooding. Indeed, two-thirds of the buildings in Port-au-Prince were unsafe before the Jan. 12 earthquake. “The challenge for Haiti as compared to New York after 9/11, for example, is the institutional context,” says Diane Davis, a professor of urban planning at MIT who has worked on post-disaster reconstruction in several Latin American cities. “It’s very hard to project a timeline for rebuilding because the situation is so unstable.”

Yet many urban planners, architects and developers are seeing a silver lining in the near-total destruction of a major Haitian city. “It would be a small silver lining if in three years, we see a more sustainable Haiti, with energy efficient, healthy, disaster resistant buildings that makes the nation more resilient to future electricity shortages, public health crises and disasters,” says Matthew Peterson, CEO of Global Green, a sustainable development consulting firm with strong ties to the New Orleans recovery effort. Victoria Harris, CEO of Article 25, a nonprofit architectural consulting firm whose name derives from the United Nations charter naming the built environment as a human right, discussed the opportunity for Haiti to build a truly modern city on the ruins of what came before. “Buildings will affect what people need, want, do—and we want to ensure that they are technically serving their purpose,” she said. But “there is also a chance to build something that is valuable to the community.”

Haiti’s best chance lies in the lessons of history. After the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, recent mudslides in Columbia, earthquakes in Mexico, in rural China and in Nicaragua—not to mention the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of the United States—a template for rebuilding in poor countries has begun to take shape.

Near the fourth anniversary of Katrina, President Obama asked Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan to convene a Long-term Disaster Recovery Working Group. Their interagency mandate, says Fred Tamar, senior HUD adviser and lead staffer for the group, was “to look at disaster recovery and what the federal government could do, working with state and local governments, think tanks and faith-based organizations to help communities impacted by disaster recover more fully and recover faster.”

The group, which reports to domestic policy chief Melody Barnes, is slated to deliver a report to Obama’s desk by April 1—and it has not limited its discovery process to domestic disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In fact, the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan—which, like Haiti, sits on a geological fault line—has been one of the major templates for determining “how to help communities wherever they are recovering from disaster,” says Tamar. “We are learning that … there is an opportunity in the building that Haiti is going to do to be resilient to those climate factors, to the hazards that are natural to that area.” Vice President Joe Biden, visiting New Orleans last week, promoted an innovative loan forgiveness program for Gulf Coast municipalities that were badly affected by the 2005 disaster.

These best practices could be critical to supporting Haiti’s redevelopment. But the bureaucratic silos that plagued the immediate efforts to save lives in New Orleans appear to be present in the Haitian relief effort as well. While the U.S. Department of State, particularly USAID, has been providing ‘round the clock food and water and rescue resources, and the Department of Defense has sent 10,000 American troops to help with logistics and security in Haiti, HUD must wait until it is explicitly asked to participate in that effort. (The State Department has yet to reach out). White House national security adviser Denis McDonough, who has been a point person in Port-au-Prince, says “that’s just not an issue that we’ve been working with at the moment.”

Given the short-term chaos on the ground in Haiti, such dismissal might be understandable. But experts in the field of urban planning are already thinking about ways to build a better Port-au-Prince. Architecture for Humanity has begun fundraising for long-term rebuilding efforts centered on their “Rebuilding 101” plan for New Orleans. Habitat for Humanity will soon be on the ground. Peterson, of Global Green, would like to see an effort at reforestation accompany the new city blueprint. Davis believes urban planners must focus on social factors as well. “It’s an opportunity to rethink the city as a whole, how all the pieces go together,” she says. “The important thing is not just to focus on the physicality of the built environment but [on] Haiti’s poverty as well.”

The money problem may well be the largest obstacle to long-term sustainable redevelopment. While the Jolie-Pitt Foundation and celebrities from Wyclef Jean to Sandra Bullock have earmarked large sums of money for immediate relief efforts, state-of-the-art architecture and the “smart growth” blueprints embraced by visionary urban developers may be out of reach in aid-dependent Haiti. “I expect on an emotional level most people to just want back what they had before,” says Harris. “What’s key is that they don’t build it to the same quality.”

Yélé, Jean’s charitable and community development nonprofit, which has come under fire since the earthquake for its past accounting practices, had sought to invest in the type of 21st-century infrastructure discussed by urban planners before the Jan. 12 disaster. In partnership with the Royal Institute for British Architecture, Yélé was soliciting designs for a music studio and community center to be located in Cité Soleil, the poorest part of Port-au-Prince. John McAslan, a partner for the architecture firm sponsoring the competition, said: “My ambition is that young architects from around the world will be inspired to create some fantastic designs for the music studio and by doing so, help build a better future for the young people of Cité Soleil.” (The competition has not yet been put on hold.)

Similarly, the “Make it Right” program is building hypermodern, disaster-resistant affordable homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Despite enjoying celebrity architects and A-list backing from the Jolie-Pitts, the “Brad Pitt houses,” as residents call them, have been criticized as overly ambitious and unevenly distributed. Pitt defends his model as exportable—able to “work in any climate, any condition, any culture around the world.”

Haiti’s government will have to toe this line between public and private collaboration, and balance the growing desire to build the lasting, disaster-proof infrastructure of the future with the urgent humanitarian needs of today. “This is an opportunity to rethink major urban development problems and national development problems,” says Davis. “I don’t mean to say the physical is not important, but it’s not everything.”


One thought on “Rebuilding a Better Port-au-Prince

  1. A large part of “rethinking” the rebuilding of Haiti must answer the question: with what materials? Answering this question should precede any discussion of big “D” designs by starchitects. Permit me to suggest a bolt-together modular steel framing system that can be erected by relatively unskilled folks (using wrenches – no power tools necessary). Assemble the framework and roof first — and let the infill follow based on local materials and skills: brick, concrete block, even woven bamboo panels come to mind. We at HabiTek have been working on this problem for over 10 years. The enormity of the destruction will require a bold systematic approach — and could eventually lead to a viable steel fabrication industry in Haiti. We invite Dayo Olopade and her readers to take a look . Let us know if we can help out. Thanks.
    Greg Higgins, Architect

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