In a disaster-prone world, to say that crises present opportunities has become a morbid cliché. Yet, nonetheless, the impulse to help requires context, planning and understanding. In the past few weeks, we’ve heard how the low-density sprawl that encourages a high reliance on oil has led to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. And we’ve heard how the distinct organizational models of Oxfam and Architecture for Humanity might offer lessons for how we can improve disaster relief. One way we can certainly improve how we respond is not to allow ourselves, in our zeal to address the most recent catastrophe, to forget the ongoing needs of previous disasters. With the need for long-term planning efforts in mind, on Friday, June 4th, the Institute for Urban Design convened an impressive panel of experts to begin a conversation about the planning principles guiding reconstruction in Haiti in the aftermath of the January earthquake. What follows is a brief recap of that event. Stay tuned for the Institute for Urban Design’s notebook that will excerpt proceedings from and reflect on the symposium and for more discussion about the role of architecture, urban design and regional planning in the process of rebuilding a sustainable Haiti.
The framework for the afternoon of panel discussions and spirited audience involvement was the Action Plan for the National Recovery and Development of Haiti, which was presented at the March 28th, 2010 Donor’s conference at the United Nations. After journalist Gary Pierre-Pierre provided some social and political context for Haiti’s past 25 years, Leslie Voltaire, Haiti’s Special Envoy to the UN, presented the government’s action plan. The rest of the day consisted, in one way or another, of reflections on the prospects and premises of this plan in terms of parallel work currently underway in Haiti and in terms of precedents from such places as post-tsunami Sri Lanka and Indonesia, post-earthquake Pakistan, and post-hurricane New Orleans.
The participation of Ambassador Voltaire distinguished the symposium. This was not a discussion of how best to think about the disaster in Haiti; it was a discussion of how best to act. And the selection of speakers — particularly Ami Desai of the Clinton Foundation, Chris Williams of UN-Habitat and Haitian anthropologist Louis Herns Marcelin — revealed the Institute for Urban Design’s admirable belief that beneficial action must not ignore the dangerous inefficiencies and redundancies symptomatic of dependence on the aid work of 10,000 uncoordinated NGOs. Beneficial action must involve the Haitian government. Voltaire represents the government, but he does so in the capacity of a liaison between the administration of Rene Preval and a community of international donors. Trained as an architect in Mexico and an urban and regional planner in the United States, Ambassador Voltaire has held a variety of ministerial positions within the Haitian government over the past twenty years. The candor, gravitas and humor with which he shared his wide-ranging expertise made the Institute for Urban Design’s stated desire – to begin the long process of matching the skills of an international community of urban designers to Haiti’s redevelopment needs – seem actionable.
The disciplinary ethos of the day’s proceedings, however, rested much more comfortably in the domain of urban planning than in urban design. I can’t speak for the audience assembled in Rose Hall of Cooper Union (presumably comprised largely of architects and designers), but I found this focus on planning principles – the integration of environmental standards and workforce development initiatives, the emphasis on deconcentrating the population of Port-au-Prince, the urgent need to discover who controls which parcels of land (PDF), and, most of all, creating mechanisms for coordinating the efforts of donor countries and 10,000 NGOs – both refreshing and essential. The work of urban design, the symposium’s structure seemed to suggest, must not precede in-depth analysis of how the form of Haiti’s built environment might reflect the complex conditions of the ground in social, physical and political terms. Many people reiterated that what Haiti needs is not reconstruction; it needs construction. But this refrain, even in the context of so much devastation, did not seem pessimistic. On the contrary, it suggested that the crisis presents opportunities not only to replace what has been lost, but also to reimagine the ways the built environment might one day reflect Haitians’ broader aspirations for their country. It also might suggest a role for urban designers in which form follows not only function, but also supports a holistic approach to solving problems that include public health, land reform, political devolution and basic service delivery.
Photographs by Jake Price. Taken in April 2010 in the IDP camps of Corail-Cesselesse and Petionville, these photographs also appeared in the program for “Rebuilding a Sustainable Haiti.” Price shared his motivations for contributing his work for use in the symposium: “I see the photos as a bridge between the architects who want to build in Haiti and the people who live there. In order to build in a place one must have a little sense of how life is currently lived, how the culture moves and breathes and through these photos perhaps just a little bit of understanding achieved.” See more of his work at jakeprice.com.
Cassim Shepard is the project director of Urban Omnibus.