Call to "Build Back Better" in Haiti echoes post-Katrina message in Gulf States

Relief camp for 3000 in Haiti: tents are crucial now but need will grow for more permanent structures

Today, crews made up of both international relief workers and self-organized Haitians are struggling mightily to restore even a semblance of water service to people in and around Port-au-Prince, counsel victims and keep damaged hospitals functioning.

Scanning ahead to the time when the focus of relief efforts will shift to meeting shelter needs — both short-term and long-term — and rebuilding communities that are more livable and less vulnerable to disaster, planners, architects, builders and transportation engineers are mobilizing to be ready the moment they get their cue.

Before the quake, Partners in Health had a strong foothold in Haiti working with the Clinton Foundation to improve health care. And post quake, it has moved quickly on crucial tasks such as expanding the number of operating rooms that are up and running. The organization's co-founder is Paul Farmer, the subject of an inspiring book by Tracy Kidder, and his Sunday op-ed in the Miami Herald offered expert advice on what's needed now, what will be needed next and the lessons recovery leaders need to to learn in order to overcome the staggering challenges ahead.

Rescuing survivors will take heavy equipment and experts. These are being brought in now from around the world. But this enormous outpouring of concern and support will be hard to receive. The airport in Port-au-Prince is clogged with aircraft. Some are turned away...

Second, in-kind donations are not really what is needed now. I attended a meeting at the U.N. in which this was underlined to assembled ambassadors and donors. Send money, not in-kind donations. To my surprise, the only exception noted that day was Meals Ready to Eat, as there is no way to cook safely in Port-au-Prince at present.

After laying out the next rounds of next steps — such as matching trauma specialists, anesthesiologists, orthopedists with the critical supplies such as fuel, water and bagged blood that they need to do their work — Farmer says it's appropriate to start planning to meet longer-term needs, such as shoring up the Haitian ability to respond (he's encouraged by signs such as Haitian doctors and nurses opening their own facilities) and rebuilding Haiti physically. "Some of this emergency response can be done with longer-range views in mind," he writes. "Schools must be rebuilt, but in the interim, children must be back in school soon, and rebuilding the city's housing stock will require a different kind of urban planning and a long-term commitment to respect for the Haitian people's wishes." He and President Clinton share a long-term goal of leading Haiti to "build back better."

Inviting new urbanists into Mississippi to help plan the recovery and rebuilding of coastal towns six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Missisippi Governor Haley Barbour used almost identical language. The work started with a 120-planner, 8-day mega-charrette led by Andres Duany inside the shuttered Isle of Capri Casino and later included similar-but-smaller gatherings in New Orleans and other Louisiana cities. The response incubated the idea of the Katrina Cottage (as FEMA cottage replacement) and led to many return trips, new master plans, bold new zoning codes and other reforms, plus plenty of setbacks and frustrations. In the midst of this effort, Matt Dellinger wrote a moving piece in the Oxford American about how the horribly destructive hurricanes emerged as a "terrible opportunity" not only to recover but to address long-standing issues. In effect, to build back better.

As new urbanists connect through CNU or independently with housing providers, foundations and others who will be active in the rebuilding phase in Haiti, forums such as the Pro-Urb listserv have been lit up with fervent discussions about such ambitious post-disaster goals, what it takes to meet them and lessons to be learned about what urbanists and our partners could have done differently to yield better results. In many cases, answers are similar to those offered by Farmer and peers such as Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, including having on-the-ground representatives providing support and engagement for years to interested local citizens, builders, planners and government staff. We'll seek to bring as many good ideas forward, and help make constructive connections, to support the effort to help Haitians recover and rebuild on a stronger foundation.

Photo of Haitian relief camp from IFRC via Flickr.



CNU is seeking information about pathways to help with the rebuilding of Haiti. Right now the priority is properly on rescue and survival. As the situation improves the focus will shift to how Haiti can improve and escape the grip of chronic poverty and environmental degradation. Conditions there are dangerous and unhealthy so efforts to help require careful preparation. We are communicating with potential allies and partners to seek ways to assist in Haiti's reconstruction. Please share any ideas or questions you have on this blog or contact me directly at


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