In Part 1 of this series, we explored the context that made greenfield or exurban sites attractive for post-earthquake recovery in Haiti, as well as two examples of this strategy. Part 2 takes us to two examples of government-built housing, the informal settlement of Canaan, and draws some conclusions.
3 and 4) Zoranje
Zoranje, just off Route Nationale #9, incorporates – at this writing – at least 8 residential development clusters or phases of development. The centerpiece is a ‘development’ of dubious distinction: the 2011 ‘Building Back Better Communities’ Expo, which I will not cover here.
[For a more in-depth read on the BBBC expo, see Jane Regan’s “Haiti: Housing Exposition Exposes Waste, Cynicism” at Huffington Post. By its title, can you guess what angle this article might take?]
The BBBC expo site is flanked at the north by Village du Renaissance (Village du Aristide), and to the south by the René Preval-era housing (formal name unknown).
3. Village du Renaissance
Two-story commercial spaces line a one-way vehicular access drive with single- and multi-family houses located in clusters behind the commercial fronts, accessed by driveways/walkways off the central access drive. Commercial spaces are joined by a colonnaded gallery at ground level, and appear to take some cues from traditional buildings in port cities such as Cap Haitien, Jacmel, Les Cayes, etc. The 9, 10, 12 and sometimes up to 14-foot ceiling heights of street-level buildings in those older downtowns make great places for restaurants and other shops with decent natural ventilation. Covered galleries outside keep the rain and sun away, and are suitable places for less formal commerce – handbags, shoes, Cokes, soap, celphone SIM cards may be found here, typically.
Not at Village du Renaissance, however: the width of the galleries is too narrow, less than a meter ( less than 3 feet), for shade or shelter from rain for pedestrians, clients, or vendors. Also, there is no ‘street’ in the traditional sense: where a double-loaded street in Les Cayes would be buzzing with activity, here the ‘street’life appears listless (our visit took place on a Sunday, admittedly). However, the interior ground floor commercial spaces are generously scaled. What happens on the upper floor of the commercial buildings was unclear.
It would have been valuable to see the housing clusters. From the aerial images, they are grouped in a modest density with open spaces. Viewed from between the commercial buildings, the housing behind seemed to have benefited from the passage of time in the sense that edges were softened by mature trees, plants, and gardens.
4. Preval-era social housing
2-story, 4-unit residential buildings in rows with porches flank planted areas, and might not be out of place in low- to middle-income neighborhoods of Miami, New Orleans, or even Southside Chicago.
While not stellar buildings, they have endured.
The proportions are generous considering most housing proposed (and built) since the earthquake. Spaces between buildings also seem successful with plantings, widths appearing almost ideal after the narrowness of that at Corail and Morne Cabrit: one could imagine someone grilling out in these spaces while impossible to visualize in the other locations.
Before the January 12, 2010 earthquake, this area was an environmental protection zone, a few unpaved roads among dirt and cacti. Now an informal settlement complete with roads, schools, churches, businesses, and homes for about 20,000 families, Canaan has, in three short years, come to eclipse the planned communities of Corail and Cesselesse, which it now surrounds.
Whether one sees it as a land grab or an example of a government’s inability to find a workable housing strategy for its people, what drives Canaan, as what drove its Biblical counterpart, is a logical manifestation of the human desire for a place to call one’s own.
Small to medium-sized businesses thrive here, from the ‘bank of Coca Cola’ to fritay (fried goods) stands to materials suppliers. Schools, churches, and clinics are also integrated in the community. In the absence of formal infrastructure to provide services such as potable water, commerce has stepped in.
Built almost entirely without the support of government or the international community, the materials and the methods of construction used are on par with construction by the middle class throughout Port-au-Prince. Inferior quality concrete blocks produced locally in handmade molds were erected with inadequate detailing and without technical support until very recent efforts by UN-Habitat, which has been studying the development of Canaan since before its inception.
In Canaan, roads follow the contours of existing topography, and plots are laid out more or less regularly. The difference between this and the strict grids of Corail and Morne Cabrit is easily noticed. The homes may be as poorly built as many other places, and civil infrastructure (streets, drainage, sanitation) equally informal, but somehow, the organic, improvised nature of development makes for a more comfortable feel, and one somewhat familiar elsewhere in the Americas (I personally recall settlements built on the western slopes of the Andes in Northern Peru near coastal towns like Chiclayo and Trujillo seen during a recent trip to South America).
As one enters or departs Canaan from Route Nationale #8, it is common to see large dump trucks lined along Route Nationale #3 bringing a steady stream of materials from nearby quarries on the mountainsides just north of Canaan. The presence of these trucks helps deflate both the notion that Haitians have no money to invest in their own homes, and that construction at Canaan – and other communities in the near future – will stop anytime soon.
Conclusions and questions
After so many plans and proposals emerged which included housing, the opportunity exists now in early 2013 to learn lessons from places that actually got built.
Not following best internationally-accepted development practices has happened time and time again in Haiti, and continues to happen.
Not learning from already built examples in-country, however, is truly short-sighted and stupid.
As common in areas both rural and urban, lower-income Haitians walk, take motos, or ‘tap-taps’ – converted pickup trucks run by independent operators. Moto and tap-tap ‘terminals’ have arisen at intersections of access roads to developments. At Canaan, at the intersection of Routes Nationale #8 and #3 (which leads to Mirebalais and points north), this terminal is quite robust, likely due to additional traffic from the nearby and heavily populated Croix de Bouquets.
As demand increases, supply will respond, and with it the attendant traffic problems.
Connectivity and infrastructure:
Again, other than a two-lane highway for access and origination of electrical power lines (informally at Canaan), connectivity in terms of infrastructure is scant. Zoranje still awaits piped water lines. Solar-powered street lights are common, the occasional ‘hard’ canal around a site exists for bulk stormwater management (Corail, Zoranje), and rooftop rainwater collection is common on single-family homes, but traditional robust infrastructure – water supply, basic sanitation – is rare, and innovative green infrastructure – intelligent water harvesting, grey- and blackwater treatment, recycling and composting, planned agriculture, or parks – is nonexistent.
While some communities have planned commercial space (Village du Renaissance) and examples of residents introducing businesses (Corail, Canaan). However, livelihoods in a deep, sustainable sense – stable employment sources for multiple members of families of different ages offering goods and services to customers outside an immediate community – is absent.
One wonders how many people travel far into the city to work ‘real’ jobs.
Planned developments tend to border on single-use, or are tightly zoned, with activities intended for planned spaces. Corail appears most segregated, and Village du Renaissance notably mixes commercial and residential, but lacked the presence of street vendors.
It is unusual to find an open space in the city of Port-au-Prince without a restaurant, church, school, or some other type of business, and Canaan most closely reflects this, having arguably the best mix of uses.
Vegetation and agriculture:
While many places in Haiti are blessed with fruit, nut, or edible leaf- or root-bearing plants and trees, the Valley of Cul de Sac is an exception. At all but Morne Cabrit (still under construction), trees and plants have been added – mostly houseplants and saplings at the younger developments and more mature shrubs and trees at the older (Zoranje), which help relieve (at least visually) the monotony of the hot, dry, dusty environment. Surprisingly little family or community agriculture was observed anywhere, however.
Density and scale:
Village du Renaissance attempts a modest density and admirable scale of shops which one would hope to see replicated (with a few tweaks) in urban redevelopment. The Preval-era housing units – 28 in number – is not overwhelming: double or triple the number would have been too dense in terms of physical space and security. Time will tell in Morne Cabrit, but 2-story units are very close together, the rear spaces usable for little more than drainage. Canaan, the exurb with its nearly suburban spacing of homes – most closely resembling a North American subdivision – is not very dense, but has the most notably leisurely scale of the five communities.
In which community will second or third floors – given good construction practices – most likely appear first?
In terms of planning, three of the five developments are characterized by a strict orthogonal gridded order.
The results are often overwhelmingly stultifying, especially housing grouped in large numbers with small proportions of open space. Is the occasional curve, angle, or focal point really too much to ask? Informal settlements, again, may work less well on paper in terms of distribution of amenities, but there are lessons to be learned about vistas, surprises, and organic geometries which create for uniquely vibrant places (see my future post “The ravines of Port-au-Prince, part 3”, featuring the Ravine Pintade community).
Tenancy, ownership, and operation:
Who owns these homes?
Land tenure aside, in Canaan people own their homes and take pride in this fact.
Village du Renaissance and the Preval-era housing are both examples of government-owned housing. In Morne Cabrit, it is unclear what the ownership/tenancy arrangement might be for the 2-story buildings: will each have an owner who rents to tenants? Could they be condominiums, which are nearly unheard of in Haiti? Who will maintain them?
Who builds for whom?
It has been demonstrated in rural areas – from Peru to Tamil Nadu, India to Kashmir, Pakistan – that when technical training and assistance are available to a community, people are more likely to invest in safe homes. At Morne Cabrit, quality materials and technical oversight are standard, but design, labor, and materials were imported (though concrete was manufactured locally) from abroad. At Corail, housing was designed and erected by NGOs. At Canaan, people built and continue to build for themselves, but only recently with technical assistance from a woefully underfunded UN-Habitat.
According to the Government of Haiti National housing policy, greater than 80% of all housing repairs, constructions, and additions completed or in progress in Haiti since the earthquake have been built (or rebuilt) by community residents – an estimated 90,000 houses.
Additionally, the population of Port-au-Prince is predicted to double from 3 to 6 million in 17 years.
Therefore, ignoring local people’s capacity to build for themselves – and build quickly, is misguided.
Again, with built projects (and communities) most of the international community either isn’t aware of or chooses to forget, mistakes are destined to be repeated, and successes ignored.
They deserve further study.
Canaan, in my view the most fascinating example of the five – and an example of the largest number of homes built – deserves particular emphasis.
Since my visit, I am aware of interest from a number of international NGOs and development organizations in Canaan. My challenge to those organizations would be:
- learn from example: understand first how and what works (and what doesn’t) about a bona-fide, in-progress informal exurban settlement in Haiti
- avoid trying to ‘fix’ by decree or masterplan what is perceived to be wrong or substandard
- resist the desire to build, especially using outside contractors
- support capacity-building organizations such as UN-Habitat to help guide local homebuilders which technical assistance in safe construction
- support community organizations and committees already on the ground
In places such as Canaan, using their own money and without financial and technical assistance, ‘experimentation’ has been by the people, for the people.
Let’s set aside our spreadsheets, timetables, and agendas for a moment and learn from examples like these.
[If you missed “Promised Lands: 5 Examples of Housing Developments in Haiti (part 1 of 2)“, click the link to read it.]