The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


It takes a village: building the Renaissance Project in Haiti

Edad Mercier talks to Haitian grassroots activist Gerthy Lahens about the challenges facing the implementation of the Renaissance Project, a proposal to build a self-sustainable village to the north of Port-au-Prince in one hundred days.

Edad Mercier

Cities: Port-au-Prince

Topics: Housing, Emergencies and reconstruction, Community organisation

An architectural model of the Renaissance Project proposed for Arcahaie, twenty miles north of Port-au-Prince.
Gerthy Lahens and Jan Wampler discuss sketch plans for the Renaissance project.
Computer visualisation of a duplex comprising four two-bedroom apartments proposed for the Renaissance Project.
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The Renaissance Project is a proposal for a self-sustainable village in Haiti outside Port-au-Prince, with homes and communal facilities with solar panels and made out of renewable building materials such as bamboo. A collaborative effort organised in 2008 by Gerthy Lahens, Haitian grassroots activist and Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and MIT Professor of Architecture Jan Wampler, it is an innovative initiative that addresses two of Haiti's most pressing needs: housing and community development.

While the Renaissance Project proposes a planning vision that is web-like in structure, and stirs development away from Haiti's congested urban centres, the readiness of the Haitian public to mobilise behind such a project, and the feasibility of 'self-sustainability' in a country facing mass infrastructural overhauls, may complicate the actual implementation. In the following interview, Gerthy Lahens and I explore these issues, and discuss the work that is underway to bring the project to fruition.

To get started, could you provide an overview of the project?

One of the objectives of the Renaissance Project is to build a sustainable farming village in Arcahaie, which is roughly twenty miles north of Port-au-Prince. The village will provide housing for a thousand people, job training, educational facilities, and health care centres. The settlement can be built in one hundred days.

One hundred days — how is this possible?

This is possible because we will be partnering with volunteer associations from the US, the public works director in Arcahaie, and students from the School of Engineering in Haiti to work on the site. WIth these partnerships, we will have enough people working on the site, around the clock, in order to have the project completed quickly and efficiently.

What are some of the present challenges facing the implementation of the Renaissance Project?

We are facing two problems — funding and mobilisation. Some donors see the slow pace of reconstruction in Haiti, and the continued instability in the country, and are deterred from pledging involvement. In terms of mobilisation, it has been challenging to organise people at the grassroots level.

You mentioned earlier some of the partnerships already in place that will help bring the Renaissance Project to completion in one hundred days. Doesn't that reflect a level of mobilisation already underway?

Yes, it does. On a more micro level though, it has been challenging to mobilise the individuals, who have been uprooted from their families and communities. Many of them are living in the tent cities. From my work in some of these tent cities, I've found that people are supportive of the Renaissance Project and believe that it will change lives, but they are in survival mode right now. They want to believe in tomorrow, but surviving through today is their most pressing concern.

So how are these challenges being addressed?

We are currently working with three hundred to four hundred Haitian youth with the help of the grassroots organisation Friends of Petit Anse. We later invited Art of Living to join our efforts. Our young members are trained on canvassing methods, and how to organise camp leaders in the tent cities, in order to boost awareness about the Renaissance Project, and maintain community dialogue. Additionally, Professor Jan Wampler is organising architecture classes for Haitian youth.

Our hope is that the young people that we are working with will be able to steer awareness campaigns about the Renaissance Project. We believe that potential donors will see the level of community investment in this project, and move from there as the starting point.

Let's develop this point on community investment further. What is the incentive for people to move to Arcahaie and live in a farming village community?

Port-au-Prince, where much of Haiti's commercial activity and educational facilities were located pre-earthquake, was overpopulated. The consequence of this before the earthquake was a severe strain on city infrastructure. Following the earthquake, this infrastructural support for the population, if not completely destroyed, is close to complete exhaustion. The appeal of the Renaissance Project for Haitian people is that it is an opportunity to resettle in a location that will have adequate resources.

Convincing people, who have lived in Port-au-Prince for years and understand city centres to be the site for socioeconomic advancement, to reestablish their lives in Arcahaie might still be difficult.

Arcahaie is fairly close to Port-au-Prince, so people would not necessarily feel entirely removed from Port-au-Prince. Instead, it would help spur greater traffic from Port-au-Prince to a city that serves as a midpoint to the Haitian countryside. And for people living in more remote regions of Haiti, the Renaissance Project in Arcahaie is ideal, because it will allow individuals to access resources closer to their homes without having to travel for days to Port-au-Prince. For many rural farmers, their produce oftentimes spoils en route to Port-au-Prince, because of the lengthy trek from Haiti's more mountainous regions to the capital city.

This leads me to my next question on the romanticised, self-sufficient village concept versus the notion of the dynamic, connected village. Do you think the Renaissance Project touches upon either of these ideas?

With the Renaissance Project we are aiming for self-sufficiency and integrated sustainability. The farming village community will be connected to the resources of the local population of Arcahaie, and we plan to work with local government officials on ensuring security in and around the settlement. When I say that our project is framed around self-sufficiency, I mean that in the sense of self-determination. We want people to have access to schools, jobs, food and shelter in order to start rebuilding their lives as fully engaged citizens.

So, participatory governance as a means of sustainable building?

Yes. Tied to that idea, we also specifically plan to work with women and youth as a strategy for sustainable building. Our education and jobs training programs will serve as a site for engaging this demographic.

On a related note, how will the settlement be governed? What about conflicting resident visions in the farming village communities?

We plan to have cooperatives and elected tenant boards that will discuss planning ideas and needs. We will also tap into existing civic associations in Arcahaie.

Overall, how resilient do you think this model of planning is ten, twenty years from now?

Our goal with the Renaissance Project is to have it serve as a testing ground for ideas on civic governance, green construction and city design. It must remain a very fluid model that allows for new ideas to be perpetually incorporated. For this reason, I believe it is resilient.


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