Date: 2008
Owner: Jan Sochor
Source Type: Images


Who designs a city? The metropolises of Latin America have all undergone several phases of planned building at various stages of their development. Mexico City, to cite an extreme example, began as a lake, was transformed into a city of pyramids that were razed to make room for the distinctive central plaza found in nearly all Spanish American cities before several different generations of leaders--each with their own agendas--added to this core. By the dawn of the twentieth century, it was generally considered the government's responsibility to dictate the shape of development, provide sanitation services, and monitor criminal elements in Latin American cities. Although the leaders of Latin American cities met with mixed success, the various manifestations of science in a city--engineering, public health, criminology, etc.--were the domain of professionals who were usually employed by the state or some other authoritative institution.

Not so in Port-au-Prince, the long-beleaguered capital of Haiti. Since at least the 1980s, the city's ostensible leaders have abandoned Port-au-Prince, making little to no effort to maintain the city's existing infrastructures (sewers, electricity, police) and doing even less to extend them into the rapidly overflowing suburbs. In effect, the role of urban planner has been taken over by the masses, the migrants who flock to the capital and reshape the city on their own. The city's interior has simply been overwhelmed by a kind of development from below that has made Port-au-Prince one massive slum. On the outskirts, Haitians erect entire new neighborhoods in a matter of weeks that are without even the most basic services. Some entrepreneurs practice only the most elementary kinds of engineering (like welding and plumbing) to help build this city.

This kind of informal development, though taking place in a shared environment, is strictly personal, an effort to create a space for one's own survival. Large scale urban improvement just does not happen under such fractured circumstances. Indeed, according to Haitian scholar Sabine Manigat, development in Port-au-Prince has become so chaotic that it is unlikely that any comprehensive plan can remedy it.

So is this kind of development from below "scientific"? It does require rudimentary technological skills, but Port-au-Prince is being shaped far more by necessity than science, especially if that term is used in its elite sense. Although almost all Latin American metropolises have this informal developmental element (very pronounced in the favelas of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro), few other New World cities are created in the same ad-hoc way as Port-au-Prince. This impoverished city is an important reminder of just how dependent all cities are on the sciences that design, protect, build, clean, heal, and, in a word, civilize them.

Reference: Manigat, Sabine. "Haiti: The Popular Sectors and the Crisis in Port-au-Prince." In The Urban Caribbean: Transition to the New Global Economy. Alejandro Portes, Carlos Dore-Cabral, and Patricia Landoldt, editors. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

CITATION: Jan Sochor. Women of the La Saline Market, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. July, 2008.