A good friend and colleague of mine, and a very talented architect, always insisted that with respect to social housing, ‘humanitarian design’, or whatever other term one cares to employ, we as designers should not experiment on people who have few alternatives.
From Ebenezer Howard’s ‘garden city’ movement to Plan Voisin, through early Modernist housing expos to Moshe Safie’s Habitat 67, and from New Gourna to Shigeru Ban’s work for UNHCR, architecture and planning history of is full of examples of experimentation at varying scales impacting that basic unit which was, for centuries, mostly ‘designed’ and built by those who live in it: the house.
In early April 2013, I visited 5 sites on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince which feature housing.
My intent in this entry is to present a few images and observations which may be readily observed ‘in the field’, followed by some conclusions.
Initially, this began as a desire to document housing projects, but it quickly became apparent that, to varying degrees, some of these ‘experiments’ have become places which call into question the nature of the roles architects and planners – as well as governments and the international aid community – play in post-disaster recovery and reconstruction.
Following the January 12, 2010 earthquake which struck Haiti, a variety of plans proposed by various combinations of governmental, NGO, private sector entities, and universities began to crop up. In the absence of a strong, cohesive national government to put its stamp of approval on one unified and actionable strategy for recovery and redevelopment, and as hundreds of thousands languished in temporary camps, complex issues boiled down to two interlocking central issues, the first best expressed in the form of a question worthy of Hamlet: ‘to relocate or not to relocate’?
One example from fall 2011, a Harvard/MIT joint study – “Opportunities for Long-Term Sustainable Urbanization in Post-Disaster Port-au-Prince, Haiti” – which grew out of a Deutsche Bank and Clinton Foundation-commissioned proposal for an “Exemplar community at the outskirts of Port-au-Prince” – proposed a new community outside the capital, in Zoranje, the site of previous government social housing interventions (see below). The ‘exemplar community’ was to have been an example of “one of four basic urban strategies for the reconstruction and future urbanization of Port-au-Prince”:
- repair and connect damaged core neighborhoods
- repair and infill low-density suburban neighborhoods
- create new communities on select greenfields in the periphery
- strengthen livelihood of rural communities to accept families from Port-au-Prince
Strategies must be combined and interconnected, the joint study stressed. The community proposed for Zoranje was never realized, but similar strategies and approaches are still very much alive.
The other central question of recovery and redevelopment post-earthquake is largely one of urbanity: the earthquake overwhelmingly affected cities, not rural areas.
Throughout 2010-2011, hundreds of housing prototypes, based on very different contexts – usually foreign sites with infrastructure or open, rural areas – cropped up again and again. Despite the desire of many donors, funders, and dreamers to focus on little pink houses each on their own plot for needy people, rural and urban are very different contexts.
Each of the 5 examples of housing below is not an urban context. None could exist within Port-au-Prince proper. However, the lessons learned from these five offer valuable lessons in how redevelopment is approached.
Overview: existing conditions
Four of this post’s five examples are, unequivocally, examples of greenfield developments with no physical or infrastructural connections whatsoever to the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area other than the occasional two-lane highway for access and linkage to electrical power lines. All are located in or bordering the commune of Croix de Bouquets (Kwadebouke). Local environmental conditions are characterized by sites being situated in a dry, dusty alluvial plain (valley of Plain Cul-de -Sac) with little vegetation, interlaced with occasional streams which are dry much of the year, and prone to flooding during the rainy season (March-June) and hurricane season (June-November). Elevation and terrain ranges from 5 meters above sea level and flat at Zoranje to hilly and moderately steep in Canaan.
Residents of communities affected by the January 12, 2010 earthquake were relocated 11 miles – or 45-90 minutes (depending on mode of transportation and traffic) – outside the center of Port-au-Prince. Initially established as a tent camp in April 2010, permanent 10 square meter (107 square feet) shelters of wood, fiberboard, and sheet metal roofing housing single families were erected by early 2011.
A wide access drive lined with gang latrines is flanked by 6 unequal clusters of homes – oriented in strict orthogonal order, each grouped around open activity spaces. Commercial activity appeared to be relegated initially to an area outside the main grouping of homes, but small businesses have been established since the relocation in and among homes.
2) Morne Cabrit
Still under construction, the brightly painted colors which might be seen in a subdivision in Miami belie that fact that brand-new homes rest on an arid plain in the Caribbean.
Constructora Hadom, a Dominican construction company, which designed and built sitecast reinforced-concrete construction prototypes at the 2011 ‘Building Back Better Communities’ Expo at Zoranje, received a contract from the Government of Haiti for a new -1,000-unit development and swiftly set up a neighboring concrete plant and imported all materials and labor.
The development is a mix of 1-story single-family homes to the south and 2-story 4-unit buildings to the north.
Part 2 in this series will take us to two examples of government-built housing, the informal settlement of Canaan, conclusions and questions… and a ‘bank of Coca Cola’.