For Release Sunday, March13, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group
Popular attention remains riveted on a disputed presidential election and the struggle for existence of the thousands the poor subsisting in tent colonies.
But behind the turmoil, there’s a promising effort to rebuild Port-au-Prince’s center and support the middle class a country so much needs. And two significant players have come from the outside to help: Prince Charles’ Foundation for the Built Environment, and the famed Miami-based New Urbanist planning firm, Duany-Player-Zyberk (DPZ).
Late in January, with government approval, these visitors sponsored a ten day “charrette” — a democratic planning and ideas workshop, attended by officials, residents and other stakeholders. The goal: to review and respond to various scenarios for redeveloping a 461-acre area encompassing the earthquake-ravaged Presidential Palace and other major government buildings and several dozen surrounding blocks available for business and residential redevelopment.
No one has illusions about how tough the challenge will be. The street surfaces consist largely of potholes and rubble. Electric power is available just a few hours daily. An incomplete central water system was largely destroyed by the earthquake. Sewage flows, untreated, along with debris and solid waste, directly into the bay. Rainfall is frequent and intense, with streets and buildings often flooded.
And then there’s the seismic factor. The soil liquifies during tremors to become putty-like, so that buildings literally float in it — a special challenge for any structure over three stories high.
No one questions the priority of restoring some 40 government buildings. But what of the surrounding residential areas — so degraded in recent years that the remnants of Haiti’s middle class had largely abandoned them for outlying “secure” locations?
An intriguing possibility was raised by DPZ leader Andres Duany and embraced in the charrette: Why not encourage the individual center city blocks, typically quite large at 400 by 400 meters — to become semi-autonomous “urban villages”? These block-sized neighborhoods would have dual orientation: to the street, but also to secured central courtyards with spaces for small parks and parking areas.
Hank Dittmar, Prince’s Foundation CEO, saw an exciting civic potential: “Get landowners on the blocks to pool their interests into condominium-like arrangements,” as a step toward “drawing middle class people to the city center again.”
Dittmar had noted that Port-au-Prince residents who could afford it had chosen, like the hotels, to “go off the grid,” installing their own electricity and water filtration systems. So, he notes: “Our idea was to take that individual self-reliance, and turn it into a more collective form, and use that as a step-by-step building process toward creating a civil society.”
By good fortune, the technology for block-level utilities is now ready. Micro-turbines can capture heat from their electrical generation to produce hot water, without the heavy up-front investment for a full-scale power grid. Water filtration can also be created on-site at reasonable cost. “In Haiti we have a chance to start over on infrastructure”, says DPZ’s Scott Ball.
Duany asserts that the idea of creating the urban villages for middle-class Haitians — including many former or potential government employees — has drawn “incredible resistance” from the many non-government organizations working to help Haiti’s legions of dispossessed poor: “They think we’re nut cases.”
But, Duany insists, “In the present difficult circumstances, it is unreasonable to expect municipal services to function properly and that it is therefore prudent to supplement the level of security, maintenance, trash collection, and the provision of utilities with localized arrangements–as is done in many cities by means a Business Improvement Districts (BID).”
Building a middle class is vital, he adds. “The country can’t operate without it.” Nor the city, Dittmar suggests. The revived blocks’ “beneficial activity and energy and income” can be a boon to the Port-au-Prince’s center.
Another possible obstacle, says Duany: People saying Haitians are so famously individualistic that they’d never come together to form the block co-ops. To the contrary, he notes: “When we said we’d have initial funding for only six of these blocks, they immediately started calling each other and now the first block is coming together.”
He also offers high praise for “the high degree of elegance and civilization” of the Haitian civic leaders he met. “They’re very refined, educated, well mannered. They show dignity without a chip on the shoulder. Class — that’s what’s left.”
Plus energy, he notes: “After Katrina, people in Mississippi were moping. Maybe because life already so hard, the Haitians have physically been affected less. There’s a general nervous activity: Everybody is moving, trading, opening little shops. There’s none of the lassitude after a disaster, waiting to be helped.”
But what of long-term funding for significant numbers of urban villages? A big Haitian problem, even pre-earthquake, was how the turbulent local scene prompted anyone of means to invest their money overseas. That’s why the urban villages’ safe investment environment might be a vital catalyst — perhaps even reverse the money flow. Or as Duany puts it: “The forward steps need to be made with money now in mattresses in Miami, Jersey City or Toronto.”
But will the frequent rain torrents pouring down the hillsides into Port-au-Prince sweep the improvements away? No need, says Duany: “Right now big trucks are carting off the earthquake rubble and dumping it in ravines. We’re saying take the rubble, crush it, and raise the blocks 30 inches.” Then the blocks would absorb most rains, with high rains flowing down the streets without harming the raised homes and shops.
Beyond charity, it’s rare to see such creative ideas for recovery brought to a ravaged city.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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