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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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