polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

New Urbanism in Haiti

by Hector Fernando Burga

A New Urbanist vision for a new Haiti portrayed by the model of a rural village bound together by a common courtyard. How can land tenure, basic needs infrastructure and improved governance be included in the ideal representation of the architect?

By some accounts, the iconic porches of Seaside Florida may provide the necessary inspiration (or polemic) to shelter tens of thousands of homeless citizens still living under precarious conditions in Port-au-Prince and the Haitian countryside.

Back in January, Andres Duany - founding member and leading spokesperson of the Congress of the New Urbanism - joined retired general Wesley Clark and retired Miami Heat center Alonso “Zo” Mourning for a celebrity reconnaissance mission over PAP. Their goal was to bring assistance to an emergency clinic under purview of project Medishare, a humanitarian program sponsored by the University of Miami School of Medicine and the University of Miami Global Institute.

Duany’s, role consisted on partnering with Medishare to envision a model prefab community for displaced Haitian citizens before the arrival of the summer rains. In Miami, the office of Duany-Plater Zyberk (DPZ) has partnered with Innovida - a construction technology company - to deploy 1000 “Haitian Cabins” within the clinic's compound.

In another promotional video filmed at DPZ’s main office in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, Duany explains the design of the Haiti Cabin. In a moment of candor, he explains that architects lack the “sociology” of Haiti and goes into detail about the challenges of designing for in Haiti.

Duany’s trip to Port-au-Prince produced another effort held in March at the University of Miami of School of Architecture, where his partner and wife, Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk serves as Dean. I participated in the Haiti Charrette and can attest to the unique character of this effort. Preliminary information was limited, the scope of work remained unknown and face-to-face interaction with the “client” did not occur until mere moments before its start. While the charrette aimed at bringing forth a public process, it mostly dealt with a delegation of haitian planners and did not include a large participation of Haitian Americans in Miami.

Indeed, the original goal of the Haiti Charrette was to produce a document for an official visiting delegation of Haitian planners. This document provided the reconstruction vision, which later ensured billions of funding dollars in the March 30th UN summit. While this goal was reached, another simultaneous outcome also took place. Leaders and professionals from Miami’s Haitian Diaspora came in close contact with Haitian government official in Miami.

Within the US, it can be argued that the New Urbanism has been the most transformative architectural movement since CIAM. Its practice brings together designers, public officials and policy makers under a common phalanx propelled by an almost messianic crusade against sprawl and suburbia. For almost three decades New Urbanism has been derided and extolled. For many this practice is nostalgic, repressive for design creativity and just another way to reproduce suburbia. For others, however, it represents a design movement at the forefront of providing possible antidotes for public health woes, our dependency on the car and the absence of community, civic space and place in our sprawling cities.

For sure, Duany’s intervention and other subsequent efforts in Miami demonstrate the value of expediency in a time of emergency, but an expediency tied to interests supporting a global network of philanthropists, NGO’s, politicians, aid agencies, institutions, celebrities and everyday urban residents (yours truly, included). All participating in the management of benevolence and a politics of altruism with local effects and international repercussions.

And yet, what does it mean for the New Urbanism to be deployed in an international context, particularly in an emergency situation? What are the implications for the practices of international development, urban upgrading and reconstruction planning?

Credits: Image of Haiti Cabin Community from DPZ. Video of Haiti Cabin from the Miami Herald. Video of President Clinton from YouTube.