Haiti: Beyond the conventional redevelopment paradigm

By Alexander Vollebregt
March 31, 2010

Alexander Vollebregt-Alexander Vollebregt is Assistant Professor at Delft University of Technology and Head of the Urban Emergencies Programme. The opinions expressed are his own.-

At the request of President Rene Preval’s Strategic Advisory Group, several members of Delft University’s Urban Emergencies Centre are now working with the Haiti authorities to assess how post-disaster urban redevelopment can support the rebuilding process in Port au Prince.

We believe what is now urgently needed is a paradigm shift in current thinking and methods in order to facilitate sustainable reconstruction in the country and indeed similarly disaster effected areas.

Since the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010, international organisations, aid and money have flooded into Haiti; the government itself having little control over the reconstruction efforts.  This disjunction between the local, governmental and international organizations could hamper any significant long-term reconstruction and development, creating a post-disaster transitional environment that never transitions.

To achieve this goal, it is essential to better integrate grassroots (local) voices with international NGO and governmental voices.  This will create a mutual platform for contributing knowledge about what is best long term for this devastated landscape and peoples.

This perspective stems from a major study that Delft University undertook last year on Urban Emergencies.  This included a focus using action research in order to investigate various aspects of disaster relief management and reconstruction process such as hurricane proofing, risk assessment, spatial planning, socio-economical development, land administration and water, waist and energy management.

The  Delft research focused upon the interrelationship of the social, spatial, political and economical consequences of post-disaster urban responses.  We worked 3-months on-site studying six case studies :  Venezuela (landslide), El Salvador (earthquake), Ghana (floods), Indonesia (tsunami), Bangladesh (floods, landslide, cyclones), and Philippines (volcano eruption, earthquake, typhoons).

After 50 years experience in post-disaster redevelopment, there are unfortunately many more worst-case practices then best-case practices. This is predominantly due to a lack of an integrated redevelopment vision as the reconstruction process is divided into various phases with different relief agencies each responsible for separate tasks.

This conventional paradigm used by governments and NGOs after disasters is often not sustainable or appropriate in the long term.

To take one example of this paradigm, the three common stages for shelter response are:

1. Temporary housing (installing emergency relief  tents,
2. Transitional housing (easy/quick to construct shelter) and
3. Permanent housing (better quality constructed buildings).

The second stage, while described as ‘transitional’ appears to hinder any permanent reconstruction. For example, some residents have remained in their ‘stage 2′ accommodation for over 10 years. This is not designed to be disaster resilient so, if a natural disaster occurs again, it would devastate the inhabitants, bringing the area back to stage 1.

Furthermore, the constant relocation and displacement of the effected populace inhibits them to pickup their livelihoods (e.g. job opportunities, social relations) resulting in psychological traumas and frustrations. Often, even after receiving ‘permanent’ housing, due to their remote location, disconnection to the city and inability to find economic opportunities, inhabitants usually sell (or simply leave) these ‘permanent’ homes and move back to the vulnerable spaces inside the city.

Why do post-disaster communities get stuck in phase 2 for such long periods of time?

The answer is that a great deal of resources tend to be put into this phase because global pressure to see quick results mounts upon the aid agencies and governments operating within the post-disaster space.  This is coupled with the reality that very few local governments in the past have shown willingness to invest in long term disaster preparedness interventions.

This can be attributed to a lack of public funds or insufficient taxation systems in many vulnerable states, hence putting money into preparing for something that ‘may not happen’ has lacked justification on their part.

History shows, however that this view can end up proving much more expensive for these governments, who have to reinvest again should their infrastructure be insufficient to cope with natural disasters.

How do we move efficiently from temporary relief to sustainable permanent solutions (Phase 3)?

Firstly, we should introduce spatial thinkers (e.g. architects and urbanists) to the reconstruction efforts at an earlier stage; bringing not only expertise on resilient and pragmatic urban construction into the redevelopment process, but also including a deeper understanding of socio-spatial and spatial economic relationships for the long term. Though this may take more time, it is the best opportunity to include resilience strategies within the redevelopment proposals.

Furthermore, it is the only moment that vast resources are available to implement Disaster Preparedness Strategies.

Secondly, we need to bring together local knowledge and opinion that understands the community cultural needs and practices and incorporates it with the international and governmental opinion. An integrated, multi-stakeholder perspective is the only way to ensure that reconstruction and planning brings together expertise and cultural understanding. This approach facilitates local ‘ownership’ of the redevelopment and means that the inhabitants will engage in and drive it.

Thirdly, rather than applying textbook, standardised responses and procedures, we need to move more towards a collaborative, tailored response, coordinated by government and developed by multiple stakeholders; by and for the people.

Over the next few months, Delft graduates of the Urban Emergencies programme will immerse themselves in Port au Prince engaging with local inhabitants to support ‘acute’ architectural reconstruction in the rural areas; they will collaboratively construct semi-permanent housing with local inhabitants.

Simultaneously, academic staff will offer short capacity building workshops enhancing spatial and technical skills for participants in the current reconstruction phase.

Finally, when the rubble has finally been cleared away in the most devastated areas, an inter-university team of students and researchers will work for one year with UN Habitat and local stakeholders in an effort to understand what is needed by local people, the government and the international forces in order to collaboratively research and design sustainable develop strategies for neighbourhood, city and regional scale, transforming Haiti into a resilient and prosperous urban space.

If this can be achieved, this will go a long way to securing significant urban, economic and social recovery. To be sure, this will not be easy, but we are committed to doing all we can to avoid more degeneration for Haiti and its people.

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