Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Port-Au-Prince to Be Rebuilt, in Part, Elsewhere, Or the Dangers of From-Scratch Urban Planning

They've begun cleaning out the camps in Port au Prince, partly to remove people from areas prone to flooding, and partly as a greater plan to change the urban-rural balance in Haiti. On the weekend, Le Devoir reports, 7,300 people camping in the stadium were relocated, and more will follow.

The idea is to rebuild schools and other infrastructure away from the capital city, with the aim of providing reasons for people to leave the devastated metropolis.

“You need to restore a balance,” said Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner and a special envoy to the United Nations, told The New York Times last month. “If we don’t do anything, Port-au-Prince is expected to grow to 6,000,000 in the next 15 years. It will become an incubator for further crime and violence. Our economic advantage is in agriculture and tourism, and these are by nature decentralized.”

I must admit I'm a little skeptical about this. If the new urban magnets require daily travel by means other than foot, this is going to be just another disaster. When Lisbon was flattened in 1755 by a major earthquake, serious thought was given to moving its center to what was then the country. The Marquês de Pombal, however, decided that rejigging the center was the better plan, and generations have profited ever since.

The danger is that you can't just decree that an outlying town will become important. With few exceptions, that just doesn't work and the people who are supposed to live there suffer. Careful, please. The Haitian people have gone through a lot and what they don't need is from-scratch urbanism. To be continued...

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