Plotting Haiti’s New Population Center

By Maya Bell

Plotting Haiti’s New Population Center

By Maya Bell
The School of Architecture hosts a charrette to transform Haiti’s north coast into a less earthquake-prone population center.

Turn an old, abandoned railroad track into an eco-trail. Distribute pictorial pamphlets that demonstrate, step-by-step, how to build sturdier concrete-block homes. Control erosion and flashfloods by erecting small, simple check dams with sand bags. Partner with a non-profit to build a vocational training center. 

Less than a year after the School of Architecture’s Center for Urban and Community Design (CUCD) was awarded two foundation grants to promote locally led development and civic engagement in Haiti’s Arcahaie region, the blueprint for turning the fertile, coastal commune north of the earthquake-ravaged capital of Port-au-Prince into a new population center less vulnerable to earthquakes began to take its final form this week. 

For four intense days, a team of architecture professors, alumni, students and consultants gathered in a design studio at the School of Architecture to plan, create, discuss and critique the drawings that will illustrate their final short-, mid- and long-term recommendations for connecting Arcahaie’s highland and lowland communities, sowing the seeds of civic life, fortifying flimsy construction, improving and expanding infrastructure, tourism and the economy, and protecting against hurricanes, flash floods, and, yes, earthquakes. 

Though the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is investing in Archahaie as a potential new sustainable population center because of its distance from major fault lines, it is not invulnerable to earthquakes or other natural disasters.

“It is the lesser of evils,” said CUCD Director Sonia R. Cháo, the principal investigator on the Kellogg grant and a complementary grant awarded by the Barr Foundation. “But this area is really beautiful and very fertile—it’s known as Haiti’s bread basket—so there is great potential.”

For Cháo, the real potential lies in Arcahaie’s people, and their eager participation in envisioning their future community. For the past year, they have trudged hours and miles to give their input at numerous mini-charrettes and other planning meetings that Cháo and other members of three grant teams held in different locales across the region. 

“They have a resiliency to come out of hardship, and they demonstrate it with a smile, with hope and with a willingness to move forward to create a better day,” Cháo said. “I find that inspiring.”

Among her colleagues’ inspired recommendations: fortifying construction with discards or trash that abounds, like plastics and bamboo fibers, and distributing “easy-build” booklets with step-by-step drawings of the components of well-built homes and how to assemble them correctly.

“In Haiti, a lot of the construction is self-built so while people use the right materials—concrete block and rebar—the structures are not put together the right way, which affects their solidity and quality,” said Miami architect and UM alumnus Derrick Smith, who with UM Professor John Onyango make up the building team and are exploring short-term solutions. “This is something people can use themselves to change that.”

The seeds for this week’s culminating Haiti Initiative: In-House Technical Charrette, were planted by another intensive design and planning powwow that took place within a few months of the devastating January 2010 earthquake that killed thousands of people and left the capital of Port-au-Prince in ruins. 

Weeks after the temblor, Haiti’s Ministry of Reconstruction turned to the School of Architecture to develop a blueprint for Haiti’s reconstruction. Three years later, when the Kellogg Foundation came calling with a grant to transform Arcahaie into a new, sustainable population center, Cháo assembled some of the same UM architecture professors, graduates and consultants who worked on the original reconstruction plan. She knew they had the interest and expertise. 

In addition to Smith, they include CUCD research affiliate Gustavo Sanchez-Hugalde and UM alumnus Max Zabala, who with Cháo are on the regional team looking at long-term solutions; Professor Jaime Correa and part-time faculty Steven Fett and Armando Montero, who are on the town team looking at mid-scale solutions; Haitian-American architects Jackie Génard, a UM alumna and building systems expert who is assisting the building team, and Boukman Mangones, a typology expert, who is working on the town team; civil engineer Joseph DeLuca, of the Crabtree Group, Inc.; and Laurie Bennett and David Burch, of YouthBuild International, a non-profit that, to date, has served more than 8,000 students, and with a local partner, constructed seven vocational training centers across Haiti. 

“The community is interested in education, and with UM as our partner, there is a wonderful opportunity to align vocational training with the regional plan,” Bennett said.