The Jewel of the Antilles: Rebuild Port-au-Prince into the Green City of the Future

In Port-au-Prince, we have an opportunity as a global community to put in place all the environmental practices that we have preaching.
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In the 1800s, Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as it was called, was known as the Jewel of the Antilles. One of the world's most prosperous colonies, its lush terrain provided 80% of the world's sugar, and an equally impressive portion of its coffee, rum, indigo, molasses, and timber. Built on the ingenuity, knowledge and sweat of African slaves -- and then later ruled by them -- Haiti was the envy of all the Caribbean societies (and their colonial masters).

Two hundred years of strife, corruption, outside military intervention, brutal rule, enforced debt, and what can only be characterized as overt and underlying global racism towards the small republic have turned it into the poverty-stricken and under-developed quagmire it is today. And now, for its lack of development and lack of infrastructure and its history of strife, Haiti is paying the ultimate, and ultimately heartbreaking, price. Port-Au-Prince, as it was, is over.

The immediate need in Haiti is obviously dire. Rescue operations are still in effect. At a certain point today, as survival is no longer possible for many of those trapped in the rubble, the emphasis on Rescue will shift entirely towards Relief -- moving and distributing massive amounts of aid for the displaced, who have no access to food, water, or shelter. Such an effort is already proving monumental, as the number of displaced and affected is upwards of 3 million and what little infrastructure there was prior to Tuesday has been totally destroyed.

While the Haitian crisis is still in this 'hot' mode, donations from around the world and offers of aid will keep pouring in. The Red Cross and Doctors without Borders will have -- from a financial standpoint anyway -- the means to carry out massive operations. Logistics experts and military personnel will work around the clock, until, of course the Relief phase of the operation ends.

Then, when the heavy operations crews move out, long after the telethon lines stop ringing, and after the Nightly News stops covering the tragedy, Haiti will begin the long, arduous process of Rebuilding.

How this process takes place, over what period of time, and by what model, is a question with far reaching implications, not just for Haiti, but for the entire world.

The expected and woefully inadequate answer to how Haiti will rebuild is simple -- more of the same. The forgotten residents of Cité Soleil - the Western Hemisphere's poorest slum -- will remain forgotten, left to scramble for scraps of tin and timber among the rubble to rebuild their squalid dwellings. Beggars will remain beggars, subsistence farmers will remain subsistence farmers. The unemployment rate - nearly 80% -- will not significantly change. Even with an 8 or 9-figure World Bank loan headed Haiti's way, the emphasis will mostly be on getting the country back to where it was the day before the quake, perhaps with a few nice improvements. Perhaps, for example, an earthquake-proof Presidential palace. Or some new shiny buses for the P-A-P bus system.

Economic Analyst Naomi Klein often speaks of disaster capitalism, in which catastrophes such as war and earthquakes leave a nation in such dire straits that it becomes forever indebted to its post-trauma developers and at the mercy of transnational corporations for years to come. Klein's view is a good laundry list of exactly what should NOT be done in post-earthquake Haiti. But I would also challenge her, and the rest of the green intelligentsia of the world, to imagine, elucidate, and work with the Haitian people to create a vision and plan for what Port-au-Prince could be.

For despite its less than favorable history, Port-Au-Prince -- set in a lush tropical harbor with rich earth and plentiful sunshine -- could be - as it was -- something quite remarkable, and this tragedy can be seen as a time for many of the groundbreaking ideas that are regularly batted about sustainable technologies seminars and urban planning conferences to be put in place in the real world.

Increasingly environmentalists and urban planners understand that the current model of most third world cities -- and many first world ones -- is unsustainable and is growing moreso every year, as population influx from rural areas taxes infrastructure and capacity, increases pollution and overcrowding, and leaves an egregious environmental footprint. As the coming impacts that climate change will have on the world's cities come clearer into view -- permanent flooding of low-lying urban centers, alternate periods of flood and drought, lack of access to fresh water, increased urbanization due to unlivable rural conditions, and indeed, increased frequency of natural disaster - the world needs to turn an imperative eye towards a truly long term view of development. And by imperative, I mean that there needs to be absolutely massive governmental and private sector investment, NOW.

This isn't about bailing out an auto-industry so it has enough cash to make next year's model (which is basically the same as this years). Its about scrapping the plans altogether and going back to the drawing board, for the sake of our long term economic and ecological survival. For example, as urban centers coalesce tighter over the coming years due to environmental necessity, should we even HAVE cars? This is the type of thinking necessary.

The consequence of continually patching holes - and I hate to use such a term to describe the valiant aid effort that is going on Haiti -- as they arise and rebuilding what is essentially an unsustainable model time and time again will eventually be completely untenable costs. Unless a massive infrastructure overhaul towards sustainable urban planning happens now, we are two or three climate-induced disasters away from a place where none of us can afford to be. And I say, why not let this transformation begin in Haiti.

In Port-au-Prince, we have an opportunity as a global community to put in place all the environmental practices that we have preaching. Massive solar energy infrastructure, wind generation, communal and vertical farming, green public transportation, a reduction in automobile use, and, most importantly, a full geo-structural re-imagining of the entire cityscape that reduces sprawl, maximizes resources, saves energy, and allows for energy independence. This is what the cities of the future will look like.

I posit that the real future of urban planning is not the glitzy mall-in-the-desert model that is Dubai, whose palm-shaped floating suburbs and multi-billion dollar aquariums and sinuous amphitheaters and Guggenheims are impressive, but are more a virtuoso spectacle for the oil wealthy than a solution for the human population. I posit that that the city of the future could very well be shaped and molded in a place like Port-au-Prince, built from the ground up by environmental visionaries, if we have the will and resources to make it so. And finally, I posit, that what we do now with the shacks and shantytowns of Cité Soleil is of far more reaching global importance than the construction of the Burj Khalifa or of another global Disney theme park.

As the global resource pool flattens out, we can develop and plan according to two models. The Bladerunner model, in which the Burj Khalifas of the world are populated by fewer and fewer glitterati - with more and more expensive toys - who look out from their plexiglass-enclosed oxygen-fed apartments over a truly global - and truly miserable -- Haitian slum. Or we can embrace the model of visionaries like Paolo Soleri, who would relish the challenge of re-envisioning a once-proud city that now must generate its own power and its own food supply, that must limit its dependence on automobiles, and still be earthquake and hurricane proof. These are the types of minds we need re-imagining Port-Au-Prince.

All of this takes extremely long-term vision. Five-year or ten-year plans are not adequate. And another walkout, like we just saw in Copenhagen, is not tolerable. We nee the brightest minds in environmental science, urban planning, and sustainable technology creating HUNDRED-year plans. Automakers may -- this year -- be thrilled at the prospects of the emerging Chinese market. But there will soon come a day when most cities may need to be built to be completely auto-less. At this stage of the game, we need to have our minds that open to the trajectories of ecology and economy.

Of course to do all this will take money, massive amounts of money, both public and private. Some might call what I'm suggesting socialism - though to them I would say: "Call me in 50 years". The economic-environmental trajectory of the planet will soon make this type of infrastructure adjustment inevitable. Eventually, massive changes will be made, whether we all find it palatable or not.

Others may say what I suggest is not even feasible. This may very well be true. I'm no urban planner, or environmental expert, or even economist. But I will say this - if we have the means to get ourselves here, we have the means to get ourselves out. While Richard Branson is spending billions and billions of dollars blasting millionaires into space, we could use a little of his thought leadership -- and his $ -- right here on earth. I've met the man, and I think he's smarter than planes with Internet access and pay-as-you-go cell phones. I even think he's smarter than spaceships. Bill Gates' efforts to inoculate children around the world have been admirable and very effective. Both of these men are big thinkers. I would hope both of them would understand that we don't need another theme park in Dubai. We need to be tackling the issue of long term sustainable urban planning NOW, or the cost, to future generations, will be totally insurmountable.

So here's a challenge to the environmental and urban planning visionaries of the world. What would it take to get twenty or thirty of the brightest minds in the field to sit down with the people of Haiti and come up with a vision, a dream? The Haitian people, far from cursed, know quite a bit about visions and dreams. Defeaters of the armies of Napoleon and founders of the first free black republic in the Western Hemisphere, they know even more about making the impossible possible.

Let's build a new Cité Soleil, a new Port au Prince... a new city of dreams.

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