Is Haiti a Laboratory for New Urbanists? What the Country Really Needs Is Old Urbanism

Last Wednesday, Haitian president René Préval asked the international aid community for $3.8 billion to rebuild his shattered country after January’s devastating earthquake. In what amounted to a fund-raiser at the United Nations, he received pledges of $5.3 billion over the next eighteen months. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised $1.15 billion on behalf of the United States. Most of the money will be spent on rebuilding schools, hospitals, roads, and basic infrastructure—the question is where?

The earthquake destroyed much of the capital of Port-au-Prince, killing 300,000 residents and leaving 1.3 million homeless—nearly half of whom have become internal refugees. Haiti’s reconstruction plans include earmarking $500 million just to lease or purchase land for temporary settlements.

They may be more than temporary. As I noted back in February, a number of urban planners and economists within and outside Haiti have argued against the wholesale rebuilding Port-au-Prince and pushed for redistributing its displaced residents around the country instead. It appears the government has taken their proposals to heart and will spend some of its billions in aid on an ambitious plan to transform Haiti “from a country dominated by a single metropolis to what the planners call a network of smaller urban ‘growth poles,’” according to The New York Times’ architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who received a sneak peak of the plans.

Ouroussoff described a comprehensive series of plans for redesigning the urban fabric of Haiti from the capital (complete with light rail and new parks built atop landfill composed of earthquake rubble), down to rural villages, “with farms encircling a communal core containing a market, a school and health-care facilities.” Overall, he wrote, “more than a few of the renderings at this early stage suggest conventional planning formulas found in Southern California, suburban Boston or Beijing.”

There are many good reasons why Haiti should turn its back on Port-au-Prince: It’s destroyed; it straddles a major faultline; it is filled with slums offering few opportunities to residents, and they would only get bigger if left unchecked. But is depopulation the answer? And is a New Urbanist approach (as Ouroussoff dubs it) appropriate for Haiti? I doubt it.

For one thing, it is impossible to separate the future growth of Haiti’s cities from the future path of its economy. Right now, “our economic advantage is in agriculture and tourism, and these are by nature decentralized,” argued Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner and a special envoy for Haiti to the United Nations. New Urbanism is a reaction against suburban-driven sprawl—the landscape created during the peak of American industrialization. New Urbanism can be seen as an attempt to (re)create a denser urban form better suited to our post-industrial economy of ideas—one in which a laptop and Wi-Fi are the only factory you need.

The problem with rebuilding Haiti along New Urbanist lines is that Haiti’s is a pre-industrial economy, not a post-industrial one. It needs urban concentration for manufacturing and infrastructure aimed at supporting exports—not a fantasy of self-sufficient agriculture. The Bottom Billion author Paul Collier made the same case in The Guardian on Friday that he made to the UN more than a year ago: Haiti needs to leverage its poverty to break into the global garment trade. “In Bangladesh the sector provides more than 2 million jobs;” he wrote, “in Haiti, 100,000 jobs would be transformative.”

Collier is no fan of Port-au-Prince, either, but he stresses the need for industrial cities over post-industrial ones—his wish list calls for factories, export zones, ports, and roads rather than New Urbanist villages with an emphasis on farming. If history is any indication, Collier’s landscape has a better chance of lifting Haitians out of poverty than the one presented last week at the United Nations—and the latter’s backers seem to know it.

“This will only work if these poles become magnets of attraction—with agriculture, tourism, industry and especially jobs,” Voltaire told the Times. “Otherwise, these people are going to come back.”

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6 Comments

  • John Massengale

    Trying again, to see if I can include the links:

    As an original member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I have to agree with GZ: Ourousoff has a long history of being pro-Starchitect and anti-New Urban, so he's a strange source for a shorthand characterization of New Urbanism.

    The author of the short FastCompany piece goes on to say "New Urbanism is a reaction against suburban-driven sprawl--the landscape created during the peak of American industrialization. New Urbanism can be seen as an attempt to (re)create a denser urban form better suited to our post-industrial economy of ideas--one in which a laptop and Wi-Fi are the only factory you need." And that's like the famous blind man's description of an elephant. Complete as far as it goes, but missing the big picture.

    New Urbanism is defined by the New Urban Charter, which talks about cities as much as it talks about suburbs. New Urbanists have contributed to modern planning the idea of the Transect, i.e., that urbanism changes at every scale, from the rural to the most urban. That's the opposite of Modernist planning in the 20th century, which prescribed auto-based suburban ideals for almost everywhere.

    Yes, there is New Urbanism in the suburbs, because that's where most of America is built and where America often needs the most help. And there are New Urbanists who work with Richard Florida's creative class ideas and the like, because they are good ideas for many places. But no New Urbanist would think that NextGen villages are what Haiti needs.

    The New Urbanists who have worked the most with Haiti are Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the husband and wife team who were two of the six founding board members of the CNU. Duany has designed emergency housing for a company that has offered to donate 1,000 houses to Haiti. He's also designed a number of site plans for different conditions, and toured Haiti scouting possible sites. A Miami Herald story is here: http://www.miamiherald.com/201....

    Plater-Zyberk, Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, has worked with Haitian organizations to educate planners. There's a short item about that here: http://arc.miami.edu/news/help....

  • John Massengale

    As an original member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, I have to agree with GZ: Ourousoff has a long history of being pro-Starchitect and anti-New Urban, so he's a strange source for a shorthand characterization of New Urbanism.

    The author of the short FastCompany piece goes on to say "New Urbanism is a reaction against suburban-driven sprawl--the landscape created during the peak of American industrialization. New Urbanism can be seen as an attempt to (re)create a denser urban form better suited to our post-industrial economy of ideas--one in which a laptop and Wi-Fi are the only factory you need." And that's like the famous blind man's description of an elephant. Complete as far as it goes, but missing the big picture.

    New Urbanism is defined by the New Urban Charter, which talks about cities as much as it talks about suburbs. New Urbanists have contributed to modern planning the idea of the Transect, i.e., that urbanism changes at every scale, from the rural to the most urban. That's the opposite of Modernist planning in the 20th century, which prescribed auto-based suburban ideals for almost everywhere.

    Yes, there is New Urbanism in the suburbs, because that's where most of America is built and where America often needs the most help. And there are New Urbanists who work with Richard Florida's creative class ideas and the like, because they are good ideas for many places. But no New Urbanist would think that NextGen villages are what Haiti needs.

    The New Urbanist who have worked the most with Haiti are Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the husband and wife team who were two of the six founding board members of the CNU. Duany has designed emergency housing for a company that has offered to donate 1,000 houses to Haiti. He's also designed a number of site plans for different conditions, and toured Haiti scouting possible sites. A Miami Herald story is here: <http: 02="" 1498903="" 2010="" 24="" low-cost-cabins-offered-for-post.html="" www.miamiherald.com="">.

    Plater-Zyberk, Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami, has worked with Haitian organizations to educate planners. There's a short item about that here <http: arc.miami.edu="" helping-haiti-haitian-delegation-visits="" news="">.</http:></http:>

  • G Z

    Letting Ourousoff define "New Urbanism" is like letting Rush Limbaugh define "liberal." The question of what the ideal population level of Port-au-Prince is is really somewhat divorced from what planning principles are considered sound these days. You define New Urbanism against "Old Urbanism" without making a meaningful distinction between the two, and I'm not convinced their is one.

    The important point in terms of planning principles is that Haiti not be subject to the kind of brutal modernist planning--superblocks, no streets, etc--that is totally discredited with everyone who is not Ourousoff or Steven Holl.

  • G Z

    Letting Ourousoff define "New Urbanism" is like letting Rush Limbaugh define "liberal." The question of what the ideal population level of Port-au-Prince is is really somewhat divorced from what planning principles are considered sound these days. You define New Urbanism against "Old Urbanism" without making a meaningful distinction between the two, and I'm not convinced their is one.

    The important point in terms of planning principles is that Haiti not be subject to the kind of brutal modernist planning--superblocks, no streets, etc--that is totally discredited with everyone who is not Ourousoff or Steven Holl.

  • G Z

    Letting Ourousoff define "New Urbanism" is like letting Rush Limbaugh define "liberal." The question of what the ideal population level of Port-au-Prince is is really somewhat divorced from what planning principles are considered sound these days. You define New Urbanism against "Old Urbanism" without making a meaningful distinction between the two, and I'm not convinced their is one.

    The important point in terms of planning principles is that Haiti not be subject to the kind of brutal modernist planning--superblocks, no streets, etc--that is totally discredited with everyone who is not Ourousoff or Steven Holl.

  • Patrick Beseda

    Great article, I think we should all be more aware of where our aid dollars are going and what they are doing. And I'm glad to see our country and the world offering aid for a country in crisis.

    However, I'm not convinced what Haiti needs is Old Urbanism either. We are agreed that it would not be wise to restructure Haiti, a so called pre-industrial economy, into a New Urbanism experiment. But I disagree that history indicates a need for urban concentration. I think what history shows us is that we don't know what works, and that what worked in Bangladesh probably will not work in Haiti. If they want high urbanism, then yes, lets move them all back into Port-au-Prince. If they want small urban poles, then lets help them do that. Otherwise, let's accept that we don't really know how to help them.

    Haiti is no ones laboratory. Not for the Urbanists, old or new. I don't know what they need, or what would help. But I can guess that they need someone playing games with their countries structural organization like they need another earthquake.