Rebuilding a Better Port-au-Prince

“Starchitects” and urban planners see the Haitian earthquake as a chance to “make it right.”

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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, and Earthspark, a company promoting solar power in developing countries, plans to send over 50,000 solar lamps, mobile chargers, and flashlights to help in the rescue effort and lay tracks for a renewable energy revolution in Haiti. 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.)