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Port-au-Prince 2.0: A City of Urban Villages?

Can Port-au-Prince be saved? More than a year after a catastrophic earthquake devastated Haiti, much of the capital is still rubble, with basic infrastructure (water, power, sewage) nonexistent. Reclaiming the core of the old city could require block-by-block redevelopment, at least according to the plans presented last night in Haiti by the architect Andrés Duany and his firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

What to do with Haiti's capital, which is home to two million people and a fifth of the country's population, is the source of much debate. There is a good argument for relocating the capital entirely. A number of urban planners and economists within and outside of Haiti have argued against the wholesale rebuilding Port-au-Prince and pushed for redistributing its displaced residents around the country instead. But DPZ, a firm best known for creating SmartCode zoning and the town of Seaside, Florida, was recruited by Britain’s Prince Charles to develop a master plan and strategy for the rebuilding Port au Prince's historic core.

The area in question includes the cruise ship port, palace, and government buildings, along with businesses and residential blocks. The plans presented Tuesday night were the product of a weeklong charrette, or planning exercise, preceded by visits this fall and a workshop in December. Duany offered three scenarios — "Urban Core," "Urban Corridor," and "Urban Village" — without formally recommending any (the final report is due in mid-February).

But of the three, he clearly favored Urban Village. That plans calls for rebuilding much of the core as standalone super-blocks, each with its own public-private infrastructure, parking and management. The biggest advantage of this arrangement is its incremental cost. The Urban Core scenario, by contrast, would require $175 million to restore electricity, running water and sewage throughout the old city in a one-shot deal — but it's unclear whether there is enough money and will to do something of that magnitude. "Every street must be broken to effect this," Duany said in a web conference. By contrast, each super-block in the Urban Village scenario would cost only $3.7 million to build, with "potable water, electricity, and sewage self-contained in the block. No pipes out," he said. "You’re on your own."

The trade-off is a higher total cost, since these Urban Villages would be built over time. "You have judge economy versus feasibility," he said. "There are no dreams here. This can be done. It’s expensive, but it can be done."

The plans envision partial demolition of existing blocks to create parking and open space in the middle of each one. Strict codes and zoning rules would carefully regulate what gets built. Over time, one- and two-story building would be built out to four stories, with buildings on the perimeter opening onto the streets.

Answering his own question of why the plans privileged so much parking, Duany — a founding father of the New Urbanist movement — was characteristically blunt. "If Port-au-Prince is to be rebuilt, it can only be amortized by the middle class and above. The question is: how do we bring them back? Because you cannot reconstruct the city without them."

To that end, he also presented plans for new corridors and clusters of government buildings and public institutions, a new road and a "green network" of tree-lined arteries. There's even an esplanade along the waterfront for tourists arriving on cruise ships, which still seems like a distant fantasy next to the massive tent camps in the city.

It remains to be seen whether these plans will be adopted — DPZ performed a similar charrette in 2005 for the Gulf Coast communities affected by Hurricane Katrina, only to see its recommendations go unused. But Duany stressed someone had better do something. "Deals are happening," he said, showing a slide of a block that had been completely demolished, useful structures included. "There is no time. Because the people themselves are moving."

Related: Can Port-au-Prince Be Saved, or Should Haiti Move the Capital?
Is Haiti a Laboratory for New Urbanists? What the Country Really Needs Is Old Urbanism

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  • Emma

    The author, Kevin Rozario, an associate professor of American studies at Smith College, explains how rearguard the great fires of Lisbon (1755), London (1666), Boston (1676), Chicago (1871), plus San Francisco (1906) “the enormous reconstruction projects called for … put capital into circulation, produced enormous profits on the road to manifold as well as enabled economic innovations that further productivity.”  He goes on to argue, citing the Journal, that the Northridge earthquake of 1994 “generated intermediate- plus long-term economic revenue that more than offset initial losses.dissertation

  • Karja Hansen

    As a member of the team in Port-au-Prince who worked on this plan I'd like to submit the following response from Hank Dittmar, CEO of the Prince's Foundation and Andrés Duany, Founding Principal at DPZ.

    Mr. Lindsay and Fast Company Readers:

    The Port-au-Prince project is important for the future of Haiti and it should be well explained:

    1. The area under planning is the historic core of downtown Port-au-Prince which is a relatively small proportion of the city but it does include the majority of the cultural and governmental institutions for the Republic of Haiti. Together with scenarios of population decentralization, the viability of the civic core of Port-au-Prince is essential to the recovery of Haiti as a whole. Without strong civil society and a functioning government the country will not recover.

    2. There are several reasons that the project is designed primarily for the middle class. The first is that, like American cities, the middle class has left downtown for the distant suburbs. Second, virtually all of the hundreds of non-profit organizations in Haiti are dedicated to rehousing and otherwise helping the poor and as we know a country can not move ahead without a middle class, which in Haiti has had a historical propensity to emigrate to the United States and Canada. This must be stemmed. Third, the definition of middle class in Haiti starts, by American standards, low - essentially persons with a steady job. Fourth, in order to rebuild multi-story buildings that are seismically resistant, the cost is such that it can only be amortized with middle class rents. Fifth, 60% of the population is middle class, and of those approximately 70% work for the government. The overwhelming majority of those government jobs are in the planning area. There is a compelling logic to a jobs/housing balance.

    3. For the streets and public areas: there is a plan to retain and repair the designed street grid, create a green infrastructure and a system of more formalized markets, and a system of management for the streets and informal markets.

    4. Regarding the cruise ships: that is a long-term prospect explicitly requested by participants in the public process. There is no reason to deny a people as skillful and hardworking as the Haitians prospects of a return to beauty, security and prosperity.

    5. While no one can guarantee the implementation of a plan, the Prince’s Foundation as an institution is dedicated to the idea of planning for community capital and intends to commit itself to playing a constructive role in a partnership with Haitian institutions, architects and urbanists. The reconstruction of the government sector provides the opportunity to build a procurement supply chain that utilizes Haitian materials and products as well as provides for training and apprenticeship for Haitian workers, technicians and professionals. Furthermore, the identification of Urban Block, Urban Corridor and Urban Core allows for public-private partnering at appropriate scales to restore services, maintain civility in the streets and parks and create a mixed-income, mixed-use centre for the city. It is a very bold vision but it is implementable because of its discrete, practical increments.

    Hank Dittmar, CEO, The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment
    Andrés Duany, Founding Principal, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company

  • Bette Boomer

    After the earthquake last year, a HabiHut shelter was erected as a camp management office at the JP/HRO Camp in Pétionville. HabiHut is an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective shelter - a village in a box - a shelter alternative for developing countries. Where valuable natural resources are limited and the need for quick, durable and sustainable housing is required, Habihut is a novel solution. Multiple HabiHuts can be attached to one another to create expanded living space and task-oriented rooms such as sleeping quarters or food preparation and storage. This expandable footprint capability also can create clusters or communities – instant schools, hospitals, medical clinics, churches and libraries. This entire village fits in one shipping container and can be erected in a week! Habihut is currently providing pilot programs for water kiosks in Kenya. We’re thinking whoever is in charge in Haiti needs to utilize this resource. To learn more, check out their website and while there, watch the time-lapse assembly/demo video on YouTube. It’s pretty amazing! Also read the August 11, 2010 New York Times article by Jim Robbins about Habihut. You can read our review of Habihut at in the Boomer-Meaningful Employment section of our website. In the wake of natural disasters or in underdeveloped countries, for results, think HabiHut.Think out of the box and find the solution in the box!