Urban planning amid the rubble

Rebuilding Haiti means not only recovering from the earthquake but also building infrastructure for the future

Published January 26, 2010 6:27PM (EST)

In the latest issue of Newsweek, President Barack Obama explains "Why Haiti Matters," offering reasons -- from moral to pragmatic -- for Americans to care about that unlucky nation where there are presently an estimated 400,000 homeless people mourning another 150,000 or so dead. While much of the Haitian economy and infrastructure has been destroyed, even day-to-day survival requires great ingenuity and enterprise.

Indeed, were it possible to wave a wand and transform that hellish place into an upward-rising land of hope, health, education, enterprise and opportunity, while replanting its ravaged hillsides, who wouldn't?

Lacking magic wands, we have another tool, money, in limited amounts. That, combined with ingenuity and goodwill, can take care of some short-term things. Stop the dying. Provide food, shelter and basic sanitation. Help the Haitians to restore basic utilities and bury their dead. Repair the ports and roads enough to get commerce flowing again. So far, no arguments.

It's when we start talking about longer-term solutions that the discussion gets clouded by preconceptions, dogma and real-world practicalities. Sixty years after the Marshall Plan proved that foreign assistance can work, some of the time, we still find our best-meant schemes mired by bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and unintended consequences. Nor does any political side have a perfect recipe. If the American left has often shown itself to be treacly and naive, the right is already back to its old, cynical sneer, deriding "the failed and discredited utopian fantasy of so-called Nation Building" -- an actual neoconservative mantra, up till the very month that they plunged the U.S. into the most costly, inefficient, corruption-ridden and ill-conceived nation-building exercise ever undertaken. Now, the mantra that went dormant for a while is back.

In contrast to Iraq, Haiti has several traits that make it seem a rather good candidate for national makeover. It is small, nearby, desperate, and yet peaceful enough to be a possible test case. (Our misadventures in Somalia and elsewhere show how necessary the "peaceful" component is.)

On the downside, Haiti also suffers from crippling deficiencies of infrastructure, education and reliable civil law. Still, despite the challenges, suppose we wanted to really accomplish epochal and effective change in Haiti? Aside from humanitarian aid, what endeavors would be most helpful over the long run? Let's try a few suggestions that aren't on the regular lists.

1) Cooking. It sounds simple, even banal. But a major driver of Haiti's tragic deforestation is the chopping of wood to prepare meals. For years we've seen articles and news features about innovative solar cookers, meant to wean people in developing nations off firewood -- a worthy notion, in principle. Too bad it hasn't proved popular among the poor women who need to boil up the rice and beans now -- without spending hours worrying about clouds blocking the sun. (Better, more efficient wood-burning stoves have started making a difference in parts of Africa.)

A more prosaic palliative might be to establish communal kitchen facilities all over the island, where families could not only get food aid, but have access to shared, gas-fired cookers to prepare it. But whatever approach is found to be best, we need to be clear about one unintended consequence of food aid: Distributing uncooked rice, without taking into account the energy cost of preparation, is tantamount to killing trees.

2) Reward local self-organization. Infrastructure projects and jobs should flow toward those neighborhoods that manage to organize themselves to better benefit from the aid. Those that remove the trash, that set up kitchens, that have work crews ready for labor every day, and present a fait accompli structure that can be relied upon should get top priority.

It may sound callous to base help on something other than flat-out need. But word would soon spread, leveraging upon islands of enthusiasm and competence, without imposing any preconceptions upon how locals organize themselves. Moreover, if there is one thing that so many neighborhoods have, right now, it is underemployed hands. However they do it, via communes or co-ops or by working with local landowners, this would seem to be the simplest way to bypass corrupt officialdom, relying instead on simple metrics, right there on the ground. (See an article in the L.A. Times about such neighborhood committees, already in motion.)

3) Empower law and civil society. Much has been said about the micro-finance revolution that has been pioneered in the developing world by Grameen Bank and other institutions that lend very small amounts to many tiny businesses in a community, creating webs of credit and trust and invigorating local enterprise. Engaging the spirit of enterprise is now in vogue and it has been suggested that everybody in Haiti should be given $100 and a prepaid cellphone, and unleashed to develop their own self-interest.

At a somewhat more elevated level, go look up the work of Hernando de Soto (not the explorer, but the radical economist-reformer). The nation of Peru instituted his plan to simply give the people clear title to the land they already own, so they can then improve or borrow against it. The resulting surge in the market economy proved that left and right could work together, when not trapped by rigid-idiotic dogma, resulting in a boom in that Andean nation. To save time, might Peru's reform laws simply be instituted in Haiti across the board, with the one proviso that they be translated into Creole?

Unfortunately, right now is the very time when those with property rights in Port-au-Prince are most likely to be bought out, cents on the dollar, by Haiti's own oligarchs. (See a silver lining to this, below.)

4) Take advantage of the quake. Now, with the capital city in ruins, may be the ideal the time for urban planning in Port-au-Prince.

Sure, those words sound pathetically '60s-ish. But I am not talking about utopian nitpicking, meddlesome zoning regulations or overspecifying architecture (though there are modern alternatives to cinder-block construction that could be cheaper, faster and much more quake resistant ... and this would be a good time to start setting up firms over there, trained in these alternative methods. Also, imprisoning a few corrupt building inspectors, who share responsibility for recent deaths, might do a world of good.)

No, what I mean by "urban planning" is the very basics. Core essentials that are utterly pragmatic and that would best be done now, at the very moment that Port-au-Prince lies shattered.

As soon as people are being fed and all the children are safe, even next month, corridors and rights of way should be laid down and razed -- wide swaths stretching from the port to downtown, to the airport, and to the factory zone.

Yes, superficially it sounds horrible -- plowing aside the tottering shops that still stand after the quake, simply in order to create broad paths of urban renewal. But the benefits -- to all Haitians -- would be overwhelming, for a reason that seems to have escaped the attention of every aid organization or NGO that I know.

If done well, such corridors would allow very cheap installation of the organic elements needed by a modern city, the circulatory, pulmonary, lymphatic, nervous and other systems of a future, healthy metropolis. I'm talking about mass transit, sewer, water, fiber-optics, gas, electricity, sewers ... and so on.

All of these services are fantastically expensive -- in nations like the U.S. -- primarily due to right-of-way costs and having to insert or maintain them through already-existing streets. The actual conduits themselves (e.g., rails, sewer pipe, water pipe, optical fiber) are fairly cheap, if laid down in a linear fashion. (Commuter trolley lines can be established aboveground at first. But if the land siting is done right, a trenched subway can go in later, alongside, at trivial added expense and without even interrupting service.)

Combine this with the laying down of several grand boulevards, parks and public spaces, and you could have the makings of a great and impressive city, rising from the ashes, drawing commerce and (even more important) proud confidence among its citizens.

Opportunities to wrest long-term good, by redesigning after disaster, go back a long way. Periclean Athens, with its magnificent Parthenon, rose from the ashes of Persian occupation and destruction. San Francisco's current street grid was enhanced after the Great Quake of 1906. Baron Haussman rebuilt Paris, with its grand boulevards, without a propelling catastrophe (unless you call Emperor Napolean III a calamity). A more recent example is the way MCI and Sprint got their start -- pioneering the new era of cheap long-distance calling -- simply by following existing rail and gas rights-of-way into big cities. Clearly, there are billions in real value, to a nation and to investors, in establishing rights of way and then exploiting them as efficiently as possible.

On the other hand, Christopher Wren proposed great boulevards for London after the Great Fire in 1666, and others suggested modernization after the 1940 Blitz. But, except for the deeply delved Underground, these opportunities were successfully evaded and today's London streets are a medieval mess. In my hometown, Los Angeles, legend asserts that GM, Firestone and Standard Oil not only made sure that the Red Car inter-urban transit system was shut down (that seemed likely anyway, given Californians' car infatuation) but that all the rights of way got sold off, so that any future mass transit system could only come at grotesque cost.

In comparison, Port-au-Prince today has a surprisingly promising basis to work from. The city already has a few four-lane boulevards. Route de Delmas heads southeastward, pretty straight, from an area near the port into the suburbs. Route National No. 1 passes Parliament, the port, and then the airport before heading to Cite Soleil's infamous slum. But these existing paths are already constricted. Moreover, they are ironically unuseful for the ambitious endeavor I'm describing here, for the very reason that they are vital for current national life. To rip them up would be both expensive and counterproductive, doing more harm than good.

(Worth noting is that the narrow, inadequate and obsolete airport at Port-au-Prince, which had lacked even a parallel taxi-way, is now being expanded, ad hoc, in a manner similar to the process described here.)

Port-au-Prince needs to be a city with a set of clear rights of way, if it is to establish inexpensive, capacious and flexible utility and transport corridors. One that lacks such rights of way will not.

Note that all of this needn't be done rapaciously, e.g., imagine if the poor and displaced got shares in the soon-to-be-valuable plots that would front upon the new boulevards, and first options at the resulting apartments. In the short term, such pieces of paper would hardly make up for being asked to get their shacks out of the way of bulldozers. But the shares would grow much more valuable, in time.

Is such fairness really likely, especially in Haiti? Of course not. Already the country's few dozen elite, oligarchic families are swooping in -- partly to perform beneficent acts of noblesse oblige, and partly to seek opportunities within the chaos. If my suggestion were undertaken entirely on the oligarchs' terms, with elites owning all the utilities and boulevard frontages, excluding even the people who used to live there, it would be a travesty.

But travesties are normal for Haiti. In this case, at least there'd be boulevards, parks, utilities, sanitation, trolleys, fiber-broadband, Wi-Fi and commerce. The people, participating in that new economy, could then engage in politics -- the torts and courts and rights and wrongs -- later, and good luck to them.

Anyway, what if foreign influences leaped onto this project first, with strong intent to make fairness a top priority? Note that a single billionaire could, right now, offer to do this in Port-au-Prince. His share, downstream, could be worth billions, without incurring bad karma because, with just a little care at the start, noting who lived where, the chief beneficiaries would still be the poorest citizens of Haiti.

This prospect -- making money by increasing the value of a city that then becomes a wonder and source of pride for all -- would seem at least worth pondering.

By David Brin

David Brin is an astrophysicist whose international best-selling novels include "Earth," and recently "Existence." " The Postman" was filmed in 1997. His nonfiction book about the information age - The Transparent Society - won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.  (http://www.davidbrin.com)

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