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Humanitarian Aid on the move #8, special issue: Cities and crises

Post-earthquake Haiti: supporting the post-earthquake urban reconstruction process
Jean-Yves Barcelo

Chaotic urbanisation in a context where public authorities lacked the necessary planning and management capacity, poor people’s houses built in concrete in at-risk locations with inappropriate construction materials and serious defects – all these factors contributed to the terrible impact of the earthquake which took place on 12 January 2010. In order to help rebuild Haiti’s cities, it will be necessary to do away with certain dysfunctional aspects and inequalities which existed before. Building new cities would cost too much and so there is no alternative but to help communities and households to restructure neighbourhoods and rebuild safer houses: they are, and will continue to be, the main actors and funders of the reconstruction. This principle should be at the heart of a strategic and participatory planning process, coordinated at the levels of the neighbourhood, the Municipality and the metropolitan region of Port-au-Prince. This will be used to guide the reconstruction, prioritise projects and begin the necessary institutional reforms. Significant support from the international community will be needed to help the state and the municipalities to implement such a process.

 The context

The earthquake of 12 January 2010 was particularly devastating in poor neighbourhoods due to their great vulnerability. These very dense neighbourhoods – often near areas where there is employment - are built up informally on insufficiently prepared land due, notably, to the difficulty and cost of making the steep slopes or sites liable to flooding on which they are situated suitable for development. High urban growth over several decades, the very weak capacity of the local authorities to plan this urban development and urban planning norms based on western models which were too restrictive and therefore too expensive for the majority of those who came to the cities, produced this city of several million inhabitants, which is for the most part informal. Before the earthquake, 80% of the population of Port-au-Prince lived in overly dense neighbourhoods in enclaves between ravines and mountains on only 20% of the city’s area.

The informal character of the property and real estate markets in residential neighbourhoods, coupled with inappropriate construction methods used for poor and even middle class houses, increased their vulnerability. Work carried out by unskilled piece-workers, corruption which led to unfit construction materials and serious defects, the addition of stories over time without the appropriate foundations, dangerous projecting stories, widespread use of pillar-beam-slab structures filled in with breeze blocks for protection against tropical storms – all these points explain the scale of damage caused by the earthquake, which could happen exactly in the same way in every Haitian city, such as Cap Haïtien, a city of half a million inhabitants, or in any other at risk poor countries.

The weak capacity of the central state to control the urbanisation process and to coordinate the numerous players involved, including public bodies, and the weak level of effective decentralization which renders municipal authorities practically ineffective in the area of urban planning and development, has led to chaotic urbanization based on individual projects by people either trying to survive or to get rich quickly. Some of the effects of the almost complete absence of the state from urban planning and development before the earthquake were land grabbing and squatting, limited access to poor quality basic services, very difficult urban mobility, drainage systems blocked by refuse and the concentration of services in the centre of Port-au-Prince and Pétionville, the rich suburb which also contains numerous informal neighbourhoods where domestic workers live. In this context, poor communities could only count on the support of a multitude of NGOs whose number grew further after 12 January 2010. These organizations were often lacking in competence, except the big international development NGOs, and were essentially involved in supplying one or more basic services. They had neither the mandate nor the capacity to carry out integrated approaches to planning/re-organising neighbourhoods.

Only a few limited projects to restructure certain neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince had been in the pipeline at the World Bank and the French Development Agency after the urban restructuring programme for Cité Soleil funded by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2005. Also worth noting, in relation to the pre-earthquake period, was the success of the policy to provide access to potable water in Port-au-Prince by a coalition of public, non-governmental and community organisations.

The other cities damaged by the earthquake are much smaller, the biggest of these being Jacmel, with around 200 000 inhabitants. They had the same vulnerabilities as Port-au-Prince but with much fewer pre-existing urban problems.