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The challenges of rebuilding the centre of Port-au-Prince
Richener NOEL, August 2013

The Haitian Government had major ambitions for the centre of Port-au-Prince which was devastated by the earthquake of 12 January 2010. With the aim of preventing disorderly reconstruction, a Public Utility decree published on 2 September had given the state full powers for a global and modern project which would have represented the renewal of the city of Port-au-Prince. However, certain members of the private sector criticized the appropriation of this space by the state, arguing that it was illegal, due to the fact that no specific project had been decided. The protestors also claimed that it was a sterile move as it would block all efforts on the part of the private sector to implement projects. However, more than a year since another Presidential decree was announced, delaying the aforementioned decree and correcting its errors while minimizing the area declared of public utility, no construction or reconstruction project of any size has been launched other than projects by the state itself. In the meantime there has been a reconfiguration of economic hubs in the metropolitan region of Port-au-Prince which is giving new functions to certain neighbourhoods and taking them away from others. The different sectors involved in this reconstruction recognize that the abandonment of the town centre, which is often attributed to the earthquake, is part of a wider problem which concerns more structural factors of an environmental and demographic nature. This article summarises these factors and looks at certain challenges and issues related to the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince

 Port-au-Prince city centre: definition and boundary

Port-au-Prince “city centre” is not a clear and official area. Legislative texts are more likely to use the terms “centre-historique” (historical centre) and “centre-ancien” (old centre). In the decree of 5 September 2010, the historical centre represents a polygon delimited by rue des Césars to the north, rue St Honoré to the south, rue Capois to the east and by the coast to the west. The decrees of May and June 2012 on the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince describe three distinct entities: the ‘old centre’ area, which designates the colonial city of Port-au-Prince delimited by rue Monseigneur Guilloux in the east, rue Dehoux and rue Oswald Durand in the south, rue Rempart in the north and rue Quai in the west; the Reserved Zone on the coast situated opposite the Bicentenaire; and the historic garden designating the Champ de Mars area.

These do not stipulate whether these entities are part of the city centre or the city in general, the city centre being bigger than the historic centre. They refer to a historic entity, which is usually the oldest neighbourhood in the city, a functional entity, as it is the main commercial zone, the centre of political power, the administrative centre and the main private offices; and a geographic entity as it is the central point and heart of the agglomeration of the Haitian capital. The city centre should normally include the commercial centre and downtown, the administrative centre, including Champ de Mars, the Bicentenaire, and also part of the neighbourhood of Bel-Air (the original centre of the city also called the ‘old town’). In terms of history, spatial planning and urban planning, there is no reason to omit the neighbourhoods of Saline and the ports of central Port-au-Prince.

This part of the city was one of the most affected by the earthquake of 2010. Many public and administrative buildings, commercial establishments, religious edifices and schools were destroyed, representing the loss of a large part of the architectural heritage. Immediately after the disaster, apart from the informal sector, the majority of former occupants settled elsewhere. As the police were unable to secure the site, people who recuperate materials, known more commonly as the “dépeceurs”, had moved in and pillaged a large number of the buildings in the (historic) city centre. Many of them were burnt and vandalized and artefacts (historically valuable ornaments and materials) were stolen.