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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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.”