Designing Process: Creating long-term replicable community building solutions in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The earthquake of January 12, 2010 turned the already critical shortage of housing in Haiti into a brutal crisis. A year and a half later, 80% of the rubble has yet to be cleared, and an estimated 680,000 residents still live in tent camps. Because of this precarious situation, political leaders are pushing hard for housing solutions, which has created three potentially drastic situations: first, building houses first without consideration for ecological forces of soil and water systems on a site puts any new community in danger; second, without understanding long-term infrastructural requirements, new communities will find themselves without basic provisions; and third, without building livelihoods, job opportunities, and job training, new communities will foster social unrest.

It is clear that sustainable long-term urbanization of the Port-au-Prince region cannot be created through the construction of houses alone.

In January 2011, a multidisciplinary team of designers and planners led by Christian Werthmann, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Phil Thompson, Professor of Urban Politics and Planning at MIT School of Architecture and Planning, were charged by Deutsche Bank and the Clinton Foundation with the development of a small 125 unit Exemplar community at the outskirts of Port au Prince, in the small suburb of Zoranje. The goal: to create a replicable model and process for resettling earthquake refugees. In the face of 680,000 homes needed for earthquake refugees across the region, the research team substantially increased their scope and scale of study, successfully proposing to their funders that, in order to achieve successful, sustainable, community development, a series of core principles must be enacted before the construction of houses:

First and foremost, to yield long-term sustainable urbanization, the process of reconstruction must be designed for replicability within Haitian capabilities. In order to achieve that, sites in the periphery such as Zorange must be connected to the larger formal and informal urbanization processes and material flows of Port-au-Prince. At the same time, such communities should foster and sustainably harness the natural systems of their sites for food, water, and energy to maintain a level of autonomy from centralized infrastructures. Additionally, by weaving social engineering and job creation with physical design, these sites will build community. By pursuing these principles, new communities will thrive with significantly increased resilience to future disasters.

Based on these principles, it became clear that performing design research only on a scale of 125 units was inadequate. The research team therefore identified four scales for its strategic framework: the scale of Port-au-Prince, the scale of 70 hectares around Zoranje, the scale of the town Zoranje, and the scale of a neighborhood in Zoranje. Then a phasing process was designed that mediated between scales through both physical design and social planning. In particular, the team identified principles of sustainable water management, reforestation, and regenerative building materials, construction training and incremental housing as immediately achievable goals within the process.

In June 2011, a core team consisting of GSD Professor Christian Werthmann, MIT Professors’ Phil Thompson and Lawrence Sass, GSD MDesS Candidate Dan Weissman, and MIT MCP graduate Anya Brickman Raredon traveled to Port-au-Prince to present this holistic vision to both Haitian President Michel Martelly and former President Bill Clinton. The team also met with stakeholders, government officials from both Haiti and the US, and the Exemplar Executive Committee to discuss next steps.

Clearly, many Haitians are in dire need of adequate shelter in short order. However, long term sustainable community building requires careful design, planning and ongoing engagement. The GSD+MIT proposal seeks to facilitate the balance between these two seemingly conflicting necessities, fostering the creation of jobs, infrastructures, and social services in concert with home building in a process that may ultimately be employed across the Port-au-Prince region, and all of Haiti.

Download a full version of the report. This report is the research teams’ ongoing attempt at structuring thoughts on the extremely complex topic of rebuilding livelihoods around Port-au-Prince. It may also serve as a case study for other similar conditions across the world. For more information or to provide feedback on the report, please contact [email protected].

Lead Faculty: Christian Werthmann, Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design Phil Thompson, Associate Professor in Urban Politics, MIT School of Architecture + Planning
Consulting Faculty: Joyce Rosenthal, Assistant Professor in Urban Planning, Harvard Graduate School of Design Larry Sass, Associate Professor, Computation, MIT School of Architecture + Planning Hashim Sarkis, Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism in Muslim Societies, Harvard Graduate School of Design Reinhard Goethert, Principal Research Associate in Architecture, MIT School of Architecture + Planning Adele Maude Santos, Dean, MIT School of Architecture + Planning
Student Project Management: Dan Weissman (MDes ’12); Anya Brickman Raredon, Master of City Planning, MIT School of Architecture + Planning
Research Assistants: GSD: Tomas Folch, Anna Clarke Baker, Nathan King MIT: Emily Lo, David Quinn , Miriam Solis
External Consultants: Andy Meira (Clinton Foundation) Herbert Dreiseitl (GSD Loeb Fellow)
Exemplar Community Foundation: Leslie Voltaire, Honorary Chairman Maryse Kedar, Chairman, 2nd Vice President and COO Greg Mevs, Land Owner and Secretary Charles Clermont, Treasurer
Funding and Oversight: Deutsche Bank: Gary Hattem Clinton Foundation: Greg Milne