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Can New Urbanists Save Port-au-Prince?

Can New Urbanists Save Port-au-Prince?

This week, writer Emily Badger made the case for loosening height restrictions in many cities. "Density is supposed to be the answer to a whole range of urban challenges, to how cities can become more prosperous, more environmentally sustainable, more livable and more productive," she wrote. "But how do you grow denser if you can’t grow up?"

In American cities, this is an all-too-common problem. Restrictions limit office space and apartments downtown, leading to sprawl and public transportation headaches.

But in some developing world cities, density isn't the only consideration.

Haiti's Port au Prince, devastated by an earthquake in 2010, is an interesting case study. There has never been much of a building code in the city, one of the reasons the earthquake's devastation was so widespread.

In the aftermath, planners saw an opportunity - not only to rebuild, but to create a comprehensive zoning plan. Much of the thinking for that has fallen to architect and planner Andres Duany. Duany's firm has teamed up with the Prince's Foundation for Building Community to recreate a bustling, populated downtown.

The proposal includes:

On ground raised above flood levels by the use of demolition rubble, the plan calls for self-contained blocks mixing one- and two-story residential and commercial buildings to be constructed in small, incremental phases. While street fronts would be public, courtyard interiors would be secure and private and include parking. Small corner parks would dot most blocks.

In his 25-block plan, there is nary a sky-scraper in sight.

Duany argues that Port-au-Prince has never had a culture of tall buildings - even before they earthquake, few buildings stretched taller than a couple of stories. "There is no reason to think that after the earthquake it [buildings] will be four stories," he said at a talk last year.

Duany also believes that low buildings will create a street-level culture and a sense of eyes on the street. He wants to lure Port-au-Prince's wealthy and middle class back into the city, and argues that they'll only come if they feel safe.

And, he said, low level buildings allow planners to create coherent neighborhoods. He explains:

If the government were to adopt no plan, some tall buildings would be constructed, but the rest of the land would have no value for redevelopment. "It does have vitality - it has the vitality of Haiti - but you will not have urbanism, which, by the way, people love."

Not everyone is so keen on the plan. Critics argue that it fails to provide Haiti what it needs most - a space for industry. As Fast Company writes:

The problem with rebuilding Haiti along New Urbanist lines is that Haiti’s is a pre-industrial economy, not a post-industrial one. It needs urban concentration for manufacturing and infrastructure aimed at supporting exports--not a fantasy of self-sufficient agriculture.

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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