On Friday, at Rebuilding a Sustainable Haiti—a public symposium on planning strategies for the country’s future hosted by New York’s Institute for Urban Design—a common sentiment united nearly all of the panelists onstage, as well as those seated in Cooper Union’s packed Rose Auditorium: the scale of destruction from the January earthquake demands a transformation, and not merely a replication, of Haiti’s built environment. “Perhaps a better title for the symposium is ‘Building a Sustainable Haiti,’” Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor and founder of The Haitian Times, said in his opening remarks, which provided a background of Haitian politics from 1986 to the present and stressed the corrupt nature of the state.
But this shared recognition of the task at hand quickly gave way to a debate over the competing roles of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the local Haitian community. The first group of panelists, which presented the Action Plan for Reconstruction—the framework within which designers and planners must now build an economically and environmentally sustainable Haiti in the years ahead—emphasized the empowerment of Haitians to take the lead in carving out the future of their country. Ami Desai, who works with the Clinton Foundation in New York, mentioned that giving Haitian farmers tools they need to realize their day-to-day goals is one example of a government action that would simultaneously empower and respect the local population.
But during question-and-answer sessions, several audience members challenged what they perceived as the hypocrisy of a plan that would defer to the local Haitian government. Louis Herns Marcelin—a speaker and the Director of the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development in Port-au-Prince—echoed that sentiment. To a round of applause from the audience, Marcelin called the Haitian state “corrupt,” “violent,” and “sick,” emphasizing the potential pitfalls of leaving Haitians in charge of rebuilding efforts.
Deborah Gans, an architect who worked in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, added that the presence of diverse neighborhood groups complicates the rebuilding process. Challenging the notion of a single “local level” as too simplistic a way to frame the discussion, she pointed to the extended family networks and various community organizations that formed during her time in New Orleans.
Despite the symposium’s divergent threads of discussion, the day ended with near-consensus. As speakers gathered onstage for a plenary panel, representatives of NGOs, Haitian governmental institutions, and the northeast’s increasingly active community of designers and planners expressed the need to bridge grand plans for Haiti with an inclusive local vision.