The Nerdy Nomad

Villa Rosa Community Planning

This week we started a new project together with the Dutch NGO Cordaid to take on the planning component of a process they are piloting in the neighborhood of Villa Rosa, which they are calling an “Integrated Approach” to neighborhood reconstruction. Villa Rosa is an informal settlement that has developed over the course of the past 30 years on a steep hillside near the town of Pétion-ville (where I live).

Villa Rosa

This project is an experiment in bringing together best practice across several different sectors. We want to take the lessons learned from post-disaster reconstruction in places like Gujarat, Indonesia, and Pakistan, in the form of owner-driven housing reconstruction (ODH). But for a dense urban neighborhood, particularly one that has developed informally, it is not enough to just focus on the housing. This type of neighborhood brings up a whole host of other issues, such as:

  • Lack of sanitation infrastructure
  • Poor drainage infrastructure
  • No local source of clean water
  • Steep and narrow access routes, no car access
  • Risk of flooding and landslides
  • Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the camps need to be relocated into this neighborhood
  • Many areas are too precarious to rebuild on – necessary to relocate people
  • Housing must be rebuilt to resist future quakes, landslides, floods, hurricanes…
  • Multiple housing types, including multi-unit housing (multiple owners or owners and tenants)
  • Unclear property titles – barriers to using home as asset to obtain loans
All of these issues add complexity to the project, and need to be addressed in order to redevelop the neighborhood effectively. Because of this challenge, Cordaid has taken two very useful steps. Firstly they have brought together experts in the various fields to deal with each aspect of the development. There is a partner designing and building housing, as well as one to do the planning (that would be us, Architecture for Humanity), another dealing with WASH (WAter, Sanitation, Hygiene), and one taking on land titling. There will also be a partner to built the infrastructure. Secondly, they have decided to start with an Initial Phase of 100 houses, in order to work out the kinks in the partnership, and then to move on to larger areas of the neighborhood in further phases.

Another view of the neighborhood

You go up these steps to access the community

A small shop

The First Charrette

In order to come up with the comprehensive plan for redeveloping the area, Architecture for Humanity will be running a series of participatory design workshops with members of the community. We call these Charrettes and Cordaid calls them Focus Groups – every NGO has their jargon! This week we held our first Charrette at a church in the neighborhood, in the hopes of getting a clearer picture of the existing situation in the Initial Phase, as well as the community’s priorities in terms of needs. We worked closely with Cordaid’s excellent team of Community Development Facilitators (CDFs), who have been working in the community since right after the earthquake building temporary shelters and getting rubble cleared, among other things.

The Charrette

Two of us led the Charrette: myself, and Gubert, the head of the CDFs at Cordaid and a very bright and thoughtful guy. He led and moderated the Charrette and I stood up at the front of the room next to him drawing people’s ideas on the map. His style was like a preacher. He spoke in a very engaging manner, getting the audience to hang on his every word, and every so often he led a kind of group question and response. For example, when we were discussing existing environmental risks and infrastructure:

Gubert: When it rains, what happens?
Group: Flooding.
Gubert: And when it floods, what does the water pick up?
Group: Trash.
Gubert: And what does trash do?
Group: It makes you sick!

Representative of the local youth group shares his insight

Getting people in the community to engage in planning is central to our approach as an organization, and now I know why. It’s not just about us getting the answers from the community. We may not know exactly where it occurs, but we already know that the area is prone to flooding and has a trash problem, which creates health risks. But in order for people in the community to care about this project, and be able to carry it forward after we are done with our piece, they need to be able to think through the connections between infrastructure, environment, and risks. Watching Gubert interact with the group was really inspiring and set the bar very high for all future Charrettes that I will be involved in.

All morning, we encouraged people to stand up and show me where things were on a map so I could record them. Later we have a volunteer architect who will copy all of my scribbles into a computer program, which will enable us to separate out the different mapped information into layers (e.g. residential buildings, shops, paths, flood zones…) and use it as the basis for designing new infrastructure.

“Is this where it floods? Ok. How about here, does it flood there too?”


At the end of this information gathering session, we broke the room up into groups so that they could discuss the priorities under three themes: Infrastructure, Socio-economic, Housing. At the end of that activity, each group chose a representative to present their findings.

Presentation of priorities

The group that I facilitated focused on infrastructure. In my group, I asked them to tell me what were the main things that needed to be fixed. At first they told me again about the problems in the area, so I steered them towards coming up with the various solutions. As they came up with more and more concrete projects that could respond to the problems, I jotted down everything they said onto a piece of paper.

Then I asked them to tell me what were the most urgent. A heated debate ensued, in which they also identified links between the different problems and solutions. For instance, if drainage channels are repaired, then that will resolve the flooding and also the problem of trash washing into the area. Another topic that they discussed was public lighting and access to internet (and for people to charge their cell phones, which is the main mode of communication here). They realized that they could both be addressed through hooking up the area to the electrical grid.

Priorities for Infrastructure and Environment

The top priorities listed in this photo, as translated from Creole, are:

  • Water points (for drinking and washing)
  • Fixing drainage channels (to resolve flooding)
  • Electricity (for personal use and public lighting, also for access to internet to increase communication and access to information)
  • Sanitation (toilets)
  • Widening access paths
  • Trash collection

By the end of the session, around 2pm, everyone was exhausted and starving, but very positive at the amount of critical thinking and mapping that had been done. We ended the day with a big meal of chicken and goat, rice and beans, beat salad, and acra (a fried dumpling made of yucca and onions).


Right now, we are writing up the report from the Charrette, drawing up the maps, and trying to figure out which theme to focus on in our next Charrette. One of the great things to have come out of the Charrette was that we have a really good working relationhsip with the Community Development Facilitators, and want to rely on their expertise and closeness with the community to a much greater degree from now on.

This entry was published on August 28, 2011 at 8:49 pm. It’s filed under Haiti and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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