Learn From Postwar Tokyo
The standard approach to residential redevelopment projects is to take ground zero as a starting point — even if it means creating it. This often translates into shifting people from substandard but incrementally developing environments into apartment blocks that cut them off from their social networks and livelihoods. These projects often become housing-centric and blind to the relationship between neighborhoods and economic development. They end up benefiting the construction industry much more than the population they are supposed to serve.
Haiti’s shattered urban landscapes were about communities, street life, resourcefulness, aspirations and dynamic local exchanges. As we have seen in the Dharavi area of Mumbai (the setting of “Slumdog Millionaire”), poverty often generates creative responses and initiatives. Local actors tend to produce piecemeal development that directly supports neighborhood-level activity.
As we consider how to rebuild Port-au-Prince, we can find an alternative to the usual top-down redevelopment model in postwar Tokyo. The Japanese government didn’t have the money to rebuild housing and so focused instead on roads, sewage and rail transportation. It also encouraged lenders to give families money to build homes. A decentralized and highly participatory urban redevelopment process produced areas of low-rise, high-density structures built with local skills and material. This not only strengthened communities but also stimulated the local economies. Tokyo today has a landscape that is futuristic and yet retains many traditional Asian urban features including street markets, small-scale businesses and family enterprises. The incremental redevelopment of Tokyo was thus intricately connected to the rise of its middle class.
If aid in Haiti aims specifically at regenerating local economies, if it promotes existing skills and collective initiatives, if it consults with grassroots groups and residents directly, it may well bring about a real transformation.