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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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