Many Voices, One Village

Six students and one professor from the University of Minnesota Architecture School head to Haiti to help design and create an urban infrastructure for a town.

We are three among six students and one professor from the University of Minnesota Architecture School working in Haiti on the Santo Community Development Project, under the auspices of Architecture for Humanity. Our assignment is to aid in the design and creation of an urban infrastructure that will support a settlement at Santo, near Léogâne, comprised of a village, schools, health facilities, recreation and community spaces as well as opportunities for commercial development.  This project is a collaborative effort between Architecture for Humanity (AFH), Habitat for Humanity (HFH), and the local community currently living on or near the Santo site.  AFH’s relief efforts in Haiti have a broad range of influence, including support for reconstruction efforts, building capacity in the Haitian construction industry, and working closely with local community leaders to develop a better built environment in Haiti.

The team: (from left) TJ Olson (AFH), Brent Suski, Amanda Pederson and Emerson Stepp (UMN).

Léogâne is a coastal town in the Ouest  Department  of Haiti, about 18 miles from Port-au-Prince, and at the epicenter of the January 12, 2010 earthquake.  According to the United Nations’ assessment of the area, nearly every concrete structure was destroyed, and some 30,000 people died. One year later, a large portion of the population is still living in ad hoc structures, ranging from tents to temporary-shelters (T-shelters in NGO speak).

At the request of Municipality of Léogâne, HFH and AFH came in to address the mounting housing and infrastructural needs of the community.  In addition to the displaced citizens of Léogâne and surrounding community, many families from Port-au-Prince have relocated to the areas surrounding Léogâne, including the Santo site, as rumors of foreign aid in Léogâne spread, and camps run by NGOs sprung up. In order to address these needs AFH and HFH have been meeting with community leaders, conducting focus groups to engage some 30 community members each time. The culmination of these meetings was the Santo Community Charrette that we helped organize and facilitate on April 13th.

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The day began before sunrise. The communal AFH house we live in was abnormally quiet, absent of the usual bustling of 15-20 people preparing for the day.  Six people, one AFH staffer, one volunteer, three UMN students with our professor Jim Lutz, were groggily eager for this much- anticipated day.  The air was crisp and cool as we climbed into our Haitian driver Jimmy’s Isuzu Trooper.  Mornings in Port-au-Prince, especially after an evening thunderstorm, are pleasantly and surprisingly cool.  The perpetual haze that surrounds the city, while still present, was highlighted and tinted by the rising sun.  Our drive through the hills, down to HFH’s Petionville office was remarkable in its lack of traffic.  A trip that would take 10 minutes back home, easily take 40 minutes in Haiti.

The ride to Léogâne, sunrise over Port-au-Prince.

Our eagerness to arrive on time led to our being early at the HFH office, located only blocks away from AFH headquarters. While we waited for the other contributors to arrive, the streets of Petionville came alive slowly as pedestrians and vendors began to trickle into our line of vision. Haitian time is different than American time. Very little actually begins at the time it’s scheduled; though we were meant to leave by 6 a.m., we sat waiting a half an hour.  Our group expanded to include a Haitian-born AFH staffer, two HFH representatives, and a SOIL expert. The final and most crucial contributors of the day were the planners and architects from SODADE, a Haitian design and planning firm that helped facilitate the day’s activities. (To get a sense of the work that SODADE is engaged in you can see a video of a similar charette that took place in Delmas 32, one of the most dense areas of Port-au-Prince that suffered significant damage in the earthquake. To view this video on Youtube:

We set off in a caravan of trucks and SUVs for Léogâne’s university and the site of our community charrette.The drive through Port-au-Prince is an eye-opening experience, both architecturally and culturally. There is a misconception back home that nearly all of Port-au-Prince was destroyed in the January earthquake. The reality is more of a patchwork quilt, ranging from lots that are simply a pile of rubble, with no discernible building elements, or the eerily empty skeletal structures of buildings mostly destroyed, but still standing, to buildings that look perfectly pristine and untouched.

haiti04The destruction in Léogâne.

In the two weeks since our arrival, the community design charette at Santo was our single-minded goal that we diligently prepared for. Our tasks were both the mundane and the exciting. AFH and HFH had held five focus group meetings with community leaders from Santo, to lay the groundwork for the changes to come and to understand the most pressing issues for the development of a new village in the area.

The charette is the culmination of these initial meetings. It’s an opportunity for up to 80 potential beneficiaries to sit down and map out their vision for their community. Our tools to gather this information were as simple as maps on trace paper with markers and pencils, a set of sticker icons representing community, culture and commerce, infrastructure, and green spaces, and the enthusiasm of the participants. The level of commitment and excitement was immediately apparent when the community arrived. There were some heated exchanges between different leaders concerning the disproportionate representation of some interested parties. When tempers cooled, guided by the expert hands of the charrette facilitators, SODADE, the day finally began, nearly three hours later than scheduled.

haiti05The charrette facilitated by SODADE.

SODADE set things in motion with a brief introduction by AFH design fellow Darren Gill, and the help of his colleague Jean-Rene as Kreyol translator. Darren emphasized the importance of the input we would receive today to the future of the project and the decisions that will need to be made. The theme of the day became unity, memorably framed by Darren, “it’s not about ME, it’s not about YOU, it’s about all of US coming together to begin thinking about what Santo can be.”

The first exercise was mental mapping, for which the participants were asked to make a visual map of their daily experiences and how these connected through time, adjacencies, and importance. The exercise was designed to help the community think about the most important aspects of their daily lives in a visual way. The hope is that from this information we, as designers, can better understand how to zone and create a master plan for the Santo site that best reflects the needs of the users. The process led to directed focus groups addressing the five key issues on site: infrastructure, social, housing, environment, and economy. After each team discussed their topic, they presented the opportunities and challenges related to each topic to the group at large.  Not being able to speak Kreyol we couldn’t understand the nuances of the discussion. But what rang clear was the passion behind each presenter’s words. Their approach to the day was inspiring and the difficult conditions in which of many of them are living added a certain gravitas to the proceedings and helped us understand the moments of tension and flared tempers.

haiti07The mental mapping exercise.

haiti08Samples of mental mapping.

After the first exercise was finished, SODADE made another expert move by reorganizing the participants into five focus groups and paying careful attention to those who did not know one other or those who represented the same group. This helped diffuse tensions, allowing all participants to be actively engaged in the process.

haiti09Brent, Amanda and Addly from SODADE prepping for voting.

haiti10Emerson, Amanda and TJ from AHF reviewing the mental maps.

In the aftermath of the earthquake Léogâne was the recipient of a large amount of aid from various NGOs.The Santo site alone has four separate NGOs running camps, housing as many as 800 families, a portion of whom will be selected as beneficiaries of the development there. The local population now includes those who have migrated from the countryside, the city, and surrounding areas; some coming with strong leaders, others not. A kind of ranking system has developed in this ad hoc community: the people from Montpelier and Modsol, for instance, distinguish themselves based on the length of time each has been part of the Léogâne community. The cultural differences between the two are dramatic: the Modsol are natives to the area, while most of the Montpeliers are from Port-au-Prince.

haiti11A focus group presentation.

Recognizing this reality, HFH and AFH have been careful to foster a sense of unity between communities that have, up to this point, had very little interaction. Even so the process was not without tension. One tense moment, understandably, came during the charrette, a result of too many people needing help, and not enough space for them. While the new village will house 500 families, radically changing the lives of many people in the area, some 300 families on the site cannot be accommodated in the Santo development.

haiti12The community mapping exercise.

The final activity was what we’d all been waiting for, the actual community vision mapping of the site. This exercise reignited the tension from the early morning as the perceived reality settled over the crowd. There was a feeling that if a community element was placed on the map, it would become final and unchangeable. In the face of this perception, communication shut down again in some groups. Haitians are famous for their sense of drama; it is this characteristic that makes the culture so vibrant and interesting to experience. Shortly after the outburst, once again the tension dissipated and the mapping continued without any further disputes.

haiti13A community vision presentation.

When the final products of the maps were presented it was clear that they all cared deeply about the visions that they set forth. Presenters emphatically stated their plans for the Santo Community. Five unique visions were set forward, and yet there were common threads that helped allay any fears about cultural differences between groups. And it was with a sense of common purpose and camaraderie that the day finished.

SODADE’s Marc Roger brilliantly heightened the feeling of unity by thanking the community for their hard work and comparing what they had accomplished in one day against his colleague, Sabine Malebranche’s, 23 years of planning experience. The giant smiles and flattered laughter of the crowd was balm for any wounds that the small fights had caused. The end of the day brought a series of individual Thank Yous from youth to elders and leaders. Inspiringly, two community leaders stood together for their contributions and finished with “We are not Modsol and Montpelier. We are SANTO.”

Being a part of this complex and inspirational day was an amazing opportunity and we feel incredibly lucky to have participated in such a significant community-led design charrette. The positive results are a testament to the amazing work being done here by our colleagues at AFH. It has been clear to us, from the first day we arrived, that the design work done in this office is community focused and community based. This approach is crucial for any successful reconstruction and re-invigoration of Haiti.  As Sabine Malebranche from SODADE later told us, this community approach is the reason her organization is willing and happy to work with AFH.

At the end of the day we were able to overlay the community visions and find the common threads in order to develop a zoning plan from which AFH will continue to work with the community to develop a master plan. We are confident that this master plan will be a reflection of strong and well thought out design ideals as well as of the actual community who will live on the site.

If you are interested in monitoring the development of the project you can visit the Open Architecture Network

Previously, we heard from University of Minnesota students working with AFH on the Collège Mixte LaConcorde Orphanage project.

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