Friday, March 5, 2010

Haiti: Beyond Building Housing

Seven weeks after the disaster, a number of recent news pieces have highlighted how now is the time to begin shifting people out of the tent camps and into different kinds of housing. This has many merits but inevitably raises lots of questions. One approach that has been advocated by some is trying to get people back into their communities/homesites as soon as possible. It can begin to ween people from the dependency of the foreign aid system. As we have already seen, such camps are not set up to deal with the onset of rains, etc. Additionally, by integrating people back into their communities, they can begin to re-establish social support structures that would likely provide greater resiliency. Of course, this can only happen once the rubble is removed, or the sites are deemed safe, which is a huge challenge. A number of groups are working on this very task, providing many Haitians with some much needed cash.

Sorting out the land issues, not just in urban areas, but rural areas as well will be incredibly important, as mentioned. While it will be straightforward for some, many people have not been living on land they own. Some may have been living on it illegally or have been renting. How this gets sorted out will be incredibly difficult and important. Based on what little I have heard about it, the land issue may end up hurting those who need it the most, reinforcing distortions in class and power.

Another challenge is to figure out the most effective type of housing. Once again, the incremental approach seems to make a lot of sense and a number of groups, like the International Organization for Migration and CHF International are pushing such ideas, getting people immediate basic shelter, while also allowing it to grow and be added onto. The basic simplicity of this core approach can offer both shelter and structure, and could initially be erected very quickly. Some simple basic materials(cut up shipping container, wire for gabions, paper tubes, etc.) could provide structural support for a minimal roof and security, but then they could double as formwork for more permanent structure later on. Integrated into this is the idea that natural building materials such as the Alternative Masonry Unit (AMU) and sandbags (ground-up rubble) could be infilled as well. Materials could serve multiple functions. Maybe even tweaking the idea of the shipping container... The point is, it wouldn’t take much.

Another approach is providing the shelter and housing itself. Andres Duany and InnoVida are pushing forward thousands of homes made of a new composite material. InnoVida is proposing to build a factory in Haiti. That is a great idea, give people some work and produce much needed housing. I totally applaud the effort, it is much better than just shipping in a bunch of housing from the US and being done with it. Yet on a deeper level, it highlights the challenge and history that Haiti has faced. It has become a country focused on exports and manufacturing industries such as apparel. The only real benefit most Haitian people have is meager wages, at best. Yet, many are drawn to Port Au Prince for this very reason. And with new composites materials, such a factory will likely have to import much of the materials, limiting the impact.

So, while I mentioned above that resettling people on their previous homesites is critical, it is also imperative (as many have mentioned) to focus on the rural development of the country. This would reduce the strain on the city, as well as limit the future ‘pull’ of the urban areas. While Haiti is predominantly rural and close to two-thirds of Haiti’s citizens are farmers, it still imports more than half of all the food is consumes. Even most of the concrete used in Haiti is imported. There are many reasons for this, but the point is that there is great opportunity for this sector to serve the country and the rebuilding in a much greater capacity. For the housing factory, why couldn’t some investment be made to develop more natural materials such as bamboo, sugar cane, jute, etc. that could then be developed into new materials for use in new housing? Easier said than done, but with a little tweaking of all the energy being put into developing new composite materials in the US, a more focused and just approach could be taking place in Haiti.

As mentioned in the excellent Al Jazeera clip, it has the opportunity to shift some of the power balance back to Haiti. The clip mentioned self-organization, which is not a term we hear much of in discussing the aid/rebuilding process. There is an image of the big international aid groups and outside experts doing the heavy lifting…Yet, I would argue that the Haitians have already done most of the heavy lifting. There is capacity and this is an opportune time for much of the rebuilding to come from the bottom up. Effective groups such as Partners in Health are helping support such a model.

And at the end of the day, the results could be even greater than just rebuilding the economy. As Greg Bankoff writes in a great essay, communities such as those in Port Au Prince are continually facing some sort of disaster and challenge. These “normal, everyday events” very often strengthen individuals as well as communities. Many developing countries lack the expertise and infrastructure to address even small disasters, so they depend on an expertise that is more flexible, affordable, locally adapted, and a grassroots approach to prevent and manage disasters. And this is not at all a bad thing. It is similar to the community-based public health approach, working to strengthen and support existing social, cultural and community structures, not replace them. Such an approach offers many lessons for designers. It also enabled India to deliver an effective relief strategy after the tsunami, effectively refusing foreign aid and even helping neighboring countries. Yet, a more balanced, less technocratic effort can sometimes be very difficult for those of us in more developed countries to see. Working with, but moving beyond physical planning and technological solutions, especially being generated from the outside, could activate and support a much more resilient Haiti. Maybe then, when the inevitable future disasters do occur,Haiti could say, "No Thanks, we've got it covered."


alyssa said...

I have been reading your blog for a while and am an MArch grad myself...just came back to it as I'm doing research for a project. Your thoughts and insights are great and spot on. I really appreciate everything you say and your diagrams.

The incremental house makes so much sense...after all, it is the way many of us would build if left to our own devices--as you develop the skills to build more or get the financing, or add to your family, you add more to your house.. .And your diagram with sites and services and explanation of variety in a neighborhood lays it out for anyone to understand.

Keep writing!

luke w perry said...

hi alyssa. thank you so very much for your comments. i really appreciate it and you give me motivation to keep posting stuff (i actually have a ton of stuff to add, including my current trip to africa...) hopefully i can do it sometime soon. what kind of work/resarch are you involved in?

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