An Architecture Prof Weighs in on Haiti

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By Sarah Rich / Published by Dwell
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There are thousands of architects and designers in the Dwell audience and beyond who are contemplating how they can help with the massive rebuilding effort that will soon get underway in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While the immediate needs in the city demand more of the medical field than the architectural community, planning and rebuilding are tied to the recovery of the people, and it won't be long before reconstruction begins. In order to get a better sense of how the recovery process may go (and how it has gone so far) from an architectural standpoint, we spoke with Mary Comerio, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley.

Professor Comerio is an expert on post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, and has spent time onsite in numerous locations studying the aftermath of severe hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. She has also worked on research for the federal government and the university related to engineering for earthquake preparedness. Her 1998 book, Disaster Hits Home: New Policy for Urban Housing Recovery, explores structural, economic, and political issues that hinder successful recovery in cities and proposes new ways to improve the process.

Haitians set up impromtu tent cities thorough the capital after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince, Haiti, just before 5 pm on January 12, 2009.

Haitians set up impromtu tent cities thorough the capital after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince, Haiti, just before 5 pm on January 12, 2009.

More than a decade after writing her book, some of the issues Comerio brought up have been addressed, but disasters hit with no less frequency (and possibly with more severity in some cases due to climate change). Comerio wrote a blog post last week on the Berkeley blog about the need for aid workers to attend to social and community issues—not just infrastructural ones—and the connections between those challenges. She advocates for finding opportunity within the chaos for job creation and the adoption of efficient technologies in reconstruction.

We asked Professor Comerio for her opinion and insights about the response to the Haitian earthquake so far, and what architects and designers in the Dwell audience can do for a city that must rebuild from the ground up.

You have a long history looking at post-disaster reconstruction. Your 1998 book, Disaster Hits Home, predated organizations like Architecture for Humanity, which have helped to raise awareness of the long-term needs of local communities after a catastrophe. From what you know of the response thus far to the Haiti quake, would you say emergency teams and international organizations have made improvements in their approach compared to how they might have responded to this same event 12 years ago? What have we learned?I have been very encouraged by the early response to this earthquake. First, there are many NGOs already working in Haiti and they have deep connections in their communities. They are an important channel for direct local community assistance. In addition, there are many more non-profit organizations that provide small-scale medical clinics, low-tech infrastructure for water purification and sanitation, as well as self-help housing assistance. These organizations typically share the idea that local people can build better and more sustainable buildings and services for themselves. That said, these small service NGOs can't take on the full job of recovery in a disaster of the scale that currently exists in Haiti. Removing debris, restoring the functionality of airports and ports, rebuilding roads and power transmission lines is also needed. When it comes to housing recovery however, it is important to note that the international aid organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Bank have begun to think strategically about what works in development. A new World Bank publication, "Safer Homes, Stronger Communities" articulates the many of the same local-involvement principals espoused by the NGOs. I hope that Haiti's recovery will include a blend of large scale assistance on the basic infrastructure and a plethora of smaller scaled community built housing. I have heard some predictions from scientists in recent days that a portion of the fault line in Port-au-Prince may not have given way during the initial quake, and that it may be reasonable to expect another massive temblor in the very near future (potentially just a few months). How should that type of information influence planning and reconstruction? Is there a way to rebuild quickly and efficiently while factoring in a very real possibility of another big quake?It will be important for scientists to work with government planners to identify particularly vulnerable areas. These may need to be held for open space and landowners in those areas be given alternate places to rebuild. A model you may be familiar with is the US government buy-outs of towns that have experienced repeated flooding. The townspeople sell their lots for open space in exchange for an alternate town site on higher ground. In the Haiti situation, there may be some highly vulnerable hillside areas or places prone to liquefaction where rebuilding would not be advisable. However, scientists do not have the capacity to predict earthquakes. There is ongoing exposure in every active fault zone, so planners need to think more about rebuilding safer--with a basic building code, as well as lowering density in some areas, and restricting development in others. In your opinion, is there an identifiable stage after the initial rescue at which point it makes sense to turn from triage to training and start preparing/empowering local people to take on some of the burden of long-term reconstruction themselves? How do those outside teams know when it's ok to redirect some of their energy to the less reactive work?Of course, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, the major focus is on medical assistance for the injured, burying the dead, and providing food, water and shelter for those who have lost their homes. In Haiti, the emergency period could last for months, given the numbers of people who have been affected. Relief agencies have "deep-pockets" of human resources, so that while some groups are focused on the emergency services, others can help to plan for recovery. Thinking about recovery decisions needs to happen right away, because many of the decisions that are made in the emergency period affect recovery. You mentioned in your article on the UC Berkeley blog that "rebuilding infrastructure can involve alternative systems for power and water supplies." Do you see this event as an opportunity to "leapfrog" certain technologies and adopt more efficient and sustainable systems? What would be the primary "alternatives" you would advise for Haiti?Yes, it would be great to see low-tech solar power, water filtration systems and local sewage treatment systems that are being developed and used in other developing countries. These three--power, water, sewers--are the core services and should take top priority.For Dwell readers who are in the design and architecture fields, what would you recommend if they are interested in contributing to Haiti's reconstruction? How can they best apply their training and skills, or should they just donate money?For emergency aid, donating money is the the best thing they can do. For the long term, I would recommend contributing money and expertise and time to the many housing NGOs that are already working in disaster recovery. These organizations know how help local communities build and they need money and volunteers.