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3 Questions: Lawrence Vale on rebuilding Haiti

An MIT urban design expert explains why devastated cities are nearly always rebuilt — but why Haiti faces special challenges to reconstruction.
Damage to several buildings in Haiti after the earthquake on Jan. 12.
Damage to several buildings in Haiti after the earthquake on Jan. 12.
Photo: United Nations Development Programme
Lawrence Vale, MIT's Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning
Lawrence Vale, MIT's Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning
Photo: Judith M. Daniels

The human and economic toll of this month's earthquake in Haiti has yet to be fully measured, but it is clear that the country faces an enormous rebuilding task. Lawrence Vale, MIT's Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning, is an expert on the reconstruction of cities devastated by natural disasters or warfare; a 2005 book he co-edited on the subject, The Resilient City, explores how and why modern societies choose to rebuild ruined metropolises. MIT News asked Vale about Haiti's long-term prospects for renewal.

Q. In The Resilient City, you write that throughout history, devastated cities have almost always "risen again like the mythic phoenix" and "are among humankind's most durable artifacts." What are the crucial first steps that could allow Haiti, and the Port-au-Prince area, to rebuild?

Before 1800, it was more common for cities to be destroyed and abandoned, leaving the world with "lost cities" later to be recovered only as touristic ruins. In the last 200 years or so, however, it has been rare for governments to let their cities die, even after massive annihilation from war — think of Hiroshima or Warsaw in WW II. Similarly, cities tend to be rebuilt in the same location even after massive natural disasters — half a million people may well have died in Tangshan, China from an earthquake in 1976, yet that city regained its population numbers within a decade. More generally, the combination of nation-states, insurance industries and global philanthropy have all made "caring-at-a-distance" much more prevalent. Cities are no longer left on their own.

That said, the thing we loosely term "rebuilding" is at least a three-part challenge.  There is physical rebuilding, both in terms of the necessities of daily life such as basic shelter and in terms of more symbolic structures — civic institutions such as a destroyed cathedral or palace. Then there is socio-economic rebuilding, an especially difficult challenge in a place like Haiti where poverty was so broad and deep even before this particular disaster struck. Finally, there is the challenge of emotional rebuilding, the need to cope with great personal losses. Each of these entails a form of resilience. 

For Haitians, resilience may well be substantially undergirded by faith, and the restoration of the Cathedral and other houses of worship will surely be regarded as key symbolic milestones signaling recovery. The leaders of most societies have also chosen to use disasters as opportunities to "build back better," and I hope that it will become possible to enforce safer building practices in Haiti.

Q. And yet you note that an exception to the universality of rebuilding is from the Caribbean, as well: When St. Pierre, Martinique, was buried by a volcano in 1902, it was not reconstructed. Are there any comparable cases of equally small, poor countries like Haiti rebuilding major cities?

A. There is another, more recent, Caribbean example. Between 1995 and 1997, volcanic activity rendered Plymouth, the capital of Montserrat, completely uninhabitable, and forced construction of a new city on a less vulnerable part of the island. So, that's an example of rebuilding, even though it has entailed relocation. But Port-au-Prince is several hundred times larger than Plymouth, so there are limits to the comparison. Perhaps the near-continual rebuilding that occurs in Bangladesh after floods and storms is a better parallel, since this is a place that regularly endures large losses of life, and continues to rebuild at high densities. If so, the comparison is not an auspicious one, since vulnerabilities are still increasing.

Q. Rebuilding a devastated city often has a political dimension, and serves an expression of national identity — but Haiti has had political chaos for years, and weak governmental institutions. How do you think Haiti's past, and its lack of strong civic institutions, will affect the type of reconstruction that occurs in the future?

A. It is hard to imagine a place with more factors working against it than Haiti, especially given that its political landscape has been literally destroyed. A lot of the more storied recoveries from major disasters have been in places that were otherwise poised for significant economic growth when catastrophe struck — think of Chicago in 1871 or San Francisco in 1906. Other places have gained from an influx of aid from the non-devastated parts of the country, a luxury that Haitians do not have. Disasters — even those we call "natural disasters" — always reflect poorly on governments, and often increase the power of social movements in support of alternative political leadership. The politics of redevelopment in Haiti will reveal the priorities of the government (and also the priorities of global aid organizations), and this can easily spark enhanced unrest among citizens, leading to further destabilization. Ultimately, the physical rebuilding of Port-au-Prince and its environments may prove to be the least of Haiti's problems. At the same time, I can only hope that the remarkable emotional resilience of the Haitian people will once again prevail.

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