By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
Published: March 30, 2010
Even as outsiders feel sympathy for Haiti’s suffering, they tend to look upon it as a country beyond saving.
Now there is a plan to do just that, and it is surprisingly convincing. The lucid, far-reaching reconstruction guidelines that the Haitian government is scheduled to unveil on Wednesday at a donors’ conference at the United Nations should give all who care about Haiti’s future cause for hope.
Prepared by a group of urban planners from the Haitian government agency responsible for the country’s development, the plan is built around a bold central idea: to redistribute large parts of the population of Port-au-Prince to smaller Haitian cities, many of them at a safe distance from areas most vulnerable to natural disaster. In the process the plan would completely transform Haiti from a country dominated by a single metropolis to what the planners call a network of smaller urban “growth poles.”
The guidelines are still in a nascent stage, and Haiti’s fate will ultimately have a lot to do with economic and political developments beyond the scope of planners. But the guidelines already surpass any of the early reconstruction plans for post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans or for the parts of Asia affected by the tsunami in 2004. The guidelines’ well-reasoned thinking about environmental threats and the history of urban development in Haiti suggests that they could become a reliable blueprint not just for reconstruction, but also for solving many of the urban ills that have plagued the country for decades.
The causes of those troubles can be traced back a century. Haiti was once primarily rural, with its major economic activity distributed among several ports along the northern, western and southern coasts. But after the United States invaded in 1915, the Americans began to concentrate most trade operations in Port-au-Prince, the site of their military headquarters. The port was dredged to make room for big new steamships; other major ports, to the north and west, began to lose their importance. By the middle of the 1960s, François Duvalier had shut down the other ports entirely as part of an effort to concentrate his power base in the capital.
The growth of Port-au-Prince accelerated in the political turmoil after Duvalier’s son and heir, Jean-Claude, fled the country in 1986. Over the next 20 years, the city’s population nearly doubled, to close to three million people, according to some estimates.
The effect of this shift was an urban disaster — one that has put more and more pressure on the capital while draining the provinces of economic opportunity.
“You need to restore a balance,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner and a special envoy to the United Nations, in an interview on Tuesday. “If we don’t do anything, Port-au-Prince is expected to grow to 6,000,000 in the next 15 years. It will become an incubator for further crime and violence. Our economic advantage is in agriculture and tourism, and these are by nature decentralized.”
The notion of shrinking the capital and reviving provincial cities dates back to 1987. It was enshrined as a goal in the post-Duvalier constitution by a government seeking to redistribute political power and has been brought up periodically by urban planners ever since, to little effect.
The environmental and geological concerns raised by the earthquake have made this approach seem all the more critical. Geologists point out that the dangers posed by the fault line running across Port-au-Prince are compounded by others, like landslides and flooding.
In essence, the guidelines treat the recent disaster as an opportunity. Thousands of public buildings in Port-au-Prince were destroyed by the earthquake, including schools, hospitals and markets. Around 600,000 survivors have since fled the capital for cities like Cap Haitien, in the north, and Hinche, in the central plateau. The population of Gonaïves, a port city on the west coast roughly midway between the country’s two major fault lines, has swollen to 300,000 from 200,000 in less than three months.
By relocating many schools and hospitals to smaller cities, planners hope to create an economic incentive to keep people from returning to Port-au-Prince once reconstruction begins. The new buildings could be organized around public squares and parks to provide civic centers to communities sorely lacking in them.
Planners have outlined a similar approach for rural villages, with farms encircling a communal core containing a market, a school and health-care facilities. The public structures would be built by the government; much of the housing could be put up privately by Haitians but under stricter building regulations. (Mr. Voltaire even imagines a prototype for basic shelter that could be transformed into a more permanent house over time.)
“This will only work if these poles become magnets of attraction — with agriculture, tourism, industry and especially jobs,” Mr. Voltaire said. “Otherwise, these people are going to come back.”
If they do return, it will be to a Port-au-Prince that was already stretched beyond capacity before the quake. International aid organizations invested heavily in the city’s infrastructure in the 1970s, building sewers and expanding the electrical network, but there has been almost no investment since. Sewage treatment facilities are more or less nonexistent. The city’s building code is barely two pages long.
The guidelines could lead to new zoning regulations that would at least begin to segregate residential from commercial activities in some of the densest downtown areas. A light rail system, running on a north-south axis through the city center, would help relieve traffic congestion. The millions of cubic tons of debris resulting from the earthquake would be used as landfill at the water’s edge, creating room for a waterfront park in a city in dire need of public space. Sites that were once occupied by schools and hospitals that have been moved out of town would be turned into other parks and public squares.
“The best thing that could happen is to insert public spaces — new parks, squares, exchange centers, markets — into these voids,” Mr. Voltaire said. “We should think in terms of the city’s urban evolution rather than large-scale development.”
More than a few of the renderings at this early stage suggest conventional planning formulas found in Southern California, suburban Boston or Beijing. But what matters is the underlying principles that inform the guidelines and that treat the reconstruction effort as an opportunity to build community.
What Haiti’s planners will need next is not just money, but also access to ideas. Mr. Voltaire and a group of Haitian planners spent several days last week refining their plan at the University of Miami, for example. The institution’s faculty and students provided much-needed logistical support, helping to produce maps and renderings. It was also an opportunity for the university, a stronghold of New Urbanism, to promote that movement’s small-town planning philosophy.
In New York the architect Steven Holl recently completed a proposal for urban reconstruction, though he has had no direct contact with the Haitian government. In contrast to the New Urbanist model, his proposal, though few have seen it, favors urban density over suburbanization.
I’ve had reservations about New Urbanist theory in the past. But the point is that those who are planning Haiti’s reconstruction should have access to the widest range of talent and ideas. International development authorities could set up such a framework. Haiti can then determine the best fit for itself.
This will not be an easy task. Americans may remember the good will that swirled around New Orleans in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Architects and planners, moved by what they saw, churned out plans for the city’s recovery. Some of these plans — environmentally sensitive, rooted in a knowledge of New Orleans and its racial and social tensions — could have formed the foundation for something of genuine value. But a connection between good urban planning ideas and political realities on the ground was never made. The best plans went nowhere. Let’s pray that doesn’t happen in Haiti.