A View of Haiti from Liberty City

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Impromptu tent city. [via United Nations Development Programme]

 We can usually rely on the lines we draw. I pick up my pen and with determination put marks upon the paper. This is often the starting point of an extended creative process that balances delicately between intellectual rigor and aesthetic pleasure. With the sketch, in studio, we are in a zone we can control, a place of direction, maybe even refuge. And with the unfolding work there is always tomorrow.

But like so many of us, in the past weeks I haven’t been able to take the pen and draw with purpose. I’ve become one of millions of spectators to the unfolding catastrophe in Haiti, and I am driven to write about a place whose struggles can’t really be drawn or envisioned in plans, whose suffering reveals the comparative inadequacy of design before the immediacy of death and destruction.

This is not a comfortable place to be at or to speak from. It doesn’t provoke quick solutions or prescriptions. So with humility, and unable to just draw, I want to ask: what can I do? Where do I start?

Pedestrian Activity

The images of destruction that fill the screen evoke memories of New York after September 11, of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina, of Banda Aceh after the tsunami and countless other scenes of devastation. We know each situation is unique. Yet past tragedies are inevitably recalled in the nonstop news loop, and as old footage is replayed — as much to fill screen time as to impart meaning — the series of calamities merge into what can seem a cycle of visual bombardment. Thus Haiti becomes the latest point in the world map of calamity.

The de-sensitizing media onslaught transports me to the streets of Port-au-Prince. I imagine walking through the devastation. The cameras show us multitudes in agony; we hear Creole spoken and see limbs reaching out from piles of demolished concrete. I have to grapple with the complications of my own imagination. This act of teleportation might be the first moment in a design process: a place has been un-made. What can we make now?

Port-au-Prince 2

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Provisional tents set up near the National Palace. [Photograph: Marco Domino/United Nations]

I am aware that I write from a position of privilege. I am an onlooker with access to knowledge, power and comfort. But there is more; as a designer, I have been taught and trained to find solutions. My professional creed professes positive transformation and possibility. Design professionals operate at once from a place of entitlement and from a sense of duty and responsibility. We want to help.

No doubt, there are important contributions that we can make as design professionals. Temporary housing, community reconstruction, improved building standards, etc. But I cannot help but recognize that these actions are now abstractions — they will happen in the future. They are trumped by the need for survival, by the rescue efforts of others, from medical and relief organizations, that are happening today.

Eyes on the Street

Port-au-Prince is 2½ hours by plane from Miami, a city I attempt to decipher with pen and paper, a place I endlessly observe. This is the city I call home, where I conduct fieldwork for my dissertation research and where I became a professional architect and urban designer. Following the recent catastrophe, Miami has acquired yet another important dimension for me. It has become a threshold to Haiti.

Here Spanish and Creole combine with English to become features of everyday life. Liberty City, north of downtown, is home to the largest Haitian diaspora in the world (it’s estimated that more than 200,000 Haitians and Haitian Americans live in the metropolitan region). For decades this community has contributed to the city’s social life and urban economy. Miami’s recent urban history has been defined by climate and politics — by hurricanes and the arrival of immigrants. These facts connect the city to the Caribbean and to this event in particular.

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. [Photograph: Marco Domino/United Nations]

The catastrophe in Haiti feels like a local experience in Miami. Soon after the news and the first images of devastation in Port-au-Prince, I visited Liberty City to meet with friends and colleagues from the field. This time, however, I didn’t come as a researcher, an ally or partner asking questions. Rather I was an ordinary Miami resident struggling to comprehend the depths of calamity. I attended meetings in churches, community centers and schools, and became aware that a conversation about the prospects of reconstruction is taking shape. Community leaders are asking essential questions: Who will be the leading actors of reconstruction? Where will the funding come from? How to avoid past mistakes? How to ensure transparency, an equitable platform for reconstruction and the fair distribution of resources? 

The Haitian community in Miami is in deep mourning — but it is also taking action. Haitians and Haitian Americans are framing these questions based upon their first-hand knowledge of Port-au-Prince. A part of me hopes to hear the voices of architects, urban designers and planners in these conversations. Yet so far these voices are silent, perhaps absent, in public. The reality of the catastrophe and the ties that bind Miami to Haiti force me to think beyond my role as a designer. Given the mobility of a cross-border community, how can we contribute? Maybe right now we need to focus on the needs of people first and the design of physical places second. 

Design for Emergency

For Haitians the earthquake marks the “before” and “after” of their lives, their country. Amid decomposing bodies and mass burial sites, life continues. The Haitian people are beginning to rebuild their destroyed cities with their own hands and by their own means. Amid hunger, homelessness and despair, and despite the aftershocks and the inevitably waning attention of the world, Port-au-Prince is becoming the largest self-help re-construction site on the globe, its buildings demolished but its people persevering.

Far from the island, design professionals are alert to the challenge. We know how it played out in past disasters: teams of architects mobilize for the redesign of a city and a country. Parachute architects gear up. Construction technologists and building industry specialists catch the whiff of opportunity. Architects and planners plot the deployment of big visions as precisely planned as military operations. Some come to the rescue with predetermined templates of renewal. Reconstruction is framed within a familiar toolkit: urban form, building structure, standard codes, construction details and housing typologies. …

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Haitians wait in line for water distributed by the firefighters, near the National Palace. [Photograph: Marco Domino/United Nations.]

But Haiti and its people —already struggling before the earthquake — may prove to be at once the endgame of design-for-disaster as usual and the recognition that we need to retool our reconstruction approach. In the sheer scope of its catastrophe, Port-au-Prince may provide a before and after moment in architecture and urban planning. As designers we work to make built form meet human needs. Here we have a chance to move past what we already know, and to educate ourselves about what is actually needed.

For my part Haiti makes me understand the value of an interdisciplinarity I have yet to learn — it spurs me to reconsider my professional scope in provisional terms. To be of use I’ll have to partner-up with non-designers to translate the language of design from disciplinary abstractions to on-the-ground necessities. I’ll have to shift from envisioning large physical transformations to enabling surgical deconstruction and improvisation. On the streets of Port-au-Prince the challenge today is — and will be for many months to come — to deal with demolition, debris removal and basic infrastructure, with preparing land for pre-construction and salvaging and distributing building materials. And to really make a difference I’ll have to make a commitment: for instance, to focus less on designing shelter than on building the skills and capacities of Haitian citizens to create their own shelter.

This role will require the recalibration of my ethics as a practitioner. I will have to face my position of privilege in the field and engage its complications productively, and to adapt my skills as a professional whose training assumes a high degree of stability and linearity. I will have to challenge the usual assumptions of duration — even sustainability — and flip the issues from long-term application to quick intervention.

Outside the comfort of the drawing, the zone of the studio, lies another place for design, where immediate experience drives the agenda for action and pushes us to come up with new strategies, new ways to be of real use. This is the place where I want to be.

Hector Fernando Burga, “A View of Haiti from Liberty City,” Places Journal, January 2010. Accessed 25 Apr 2015. <>

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • Thaisa Way

    02.01.2010 at 01:02

    Well put- I will share with my students as this is what we all need to be thinking about as we re-imagine design in the next century- as building for knowledge, not as mere shelters.

  • Erin Miller

    02.03.2010 at 11:50

    Thank you so much. I feel hopeful for my profession reading your humble, thoughtful and heartfelt reminder of why so many of us were compelled to become designers and planners in the first place. I hope we all will take this message with us as we move forward, not only in Haiti, but in our work as city builders wherever it takes us.

  • cooper

    02.03.2010 at 12:51

    speaking for myself and many of my friends who work in the design community, we don't give a damn about haiti- it's yesterday's "tragedy"

  • Caleb

    02.03.2010 at 16:59

    As always, love the writing. A suggestion to DO on the whole though - for being so good at presenting so much information on a page, I wish you were more interactive in your photo attributions. After I few minutes of searching I was able to locate all of the above images in the UNDP Flickr pool, but it would have been useful for you to link directly to them in your 'via' citations. 525px may look great inline with the content, but for images as visceral and complementary as these, going up to their larger sizes, even if it's off site, really adds to the experience.

  • Nancy Levinson

    02.03.2010 at 18:14

    A response to Caleb — that's a good suggestion. We can definitely add hyperlinks to image attributions. As you saw after finding the site, the series of images sponsored by the United Nations was powerful.

  • ViaMeceia

    02.05.2010 at 10:36

    Another disaster, another opportunity for designers to generate tons of worthless drawings, and long-winded statements to sick in their portfolios and pretend like they give a d*mn.

    I bet it makes them feel oh so good, that they "thought" really hard about the people there. Well, enough to make pretend shelters and imaginary cities for them to live in.

    And just like New Orleans, once they've exhausted every opportunity to generate renderings, hold "conferences", complete with catered lunch, to opine about crap like "sustainability" and "empowerment", and every design student has gotten every last drop they can for their end of the semester thesis project, They will all forget about this place and go back to their MacBooks, Facebook, and overpriced coffee, looking for the next "cool" thing to care about.

  • swiatekt

    02.05.2010 at 17:14

    I too am very distracted by the whole thing. Not so much by what can the design community do for them, but what in the world can possibly be done to help the entire humanitarian crisis. I feel very useless and it makes one question whether your even in a worthwhile career.

    It troubles me beyond end to hear of children be carted away to be sold as slaves lured by promises of food and safety. Of kidnapping. Of parents desperately giving away their own children. That there is and has been such monstourous marketplaces and what is being done? very little, certainly now where's near enough. These are problems not just of Haiti but of the world although the need in Haiti is front and center. See http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2010/02/04/itn.china.chained.boy.cnn

    Governments and society as a whole have failed and it is magnified in the event of tragedy.

  • Michael McDaniel

    02.12.2010 at 02:40


    You are right that there are a lot of "designers" out there that do nothing more than academic exercises and create conceptual portfolio pieces. However, there are also designers out there like myself who have been working nonstop for years to get their projects off the ground and in place for those in desperate need of help.

    For 5 years now I have been trying every avenue and knocking on every door I can find to get my system off the ground. All the while, I have to sit heart broken and watch event after horrific event unfold that I know my work could make a difference with.

    The problem comes down to this from my perspective – money. The greater good has no bank account and can not pay for what it needs. That leaves designers like myself in an awful position of designing a solid solution (not for profit or personal gain) and then having to find someone to foot the bill to get it actually produced. That means you are looking for someone with a big heart, big wallet, or you trying to make a solid business model so a corporation will be interested in order to actually get the solution produced and into the hands of those you originally intended to help.

    For me personally, I don't feel good, I have not forgotten, and I have not retreated to a coffee house to surf facebook. I am still fighting the fight and running the race. Anyone want to help?

  • x24

    03.08.2010 at 17:25

    IMHO, the polity/entity that achieves hegemonic power in Century XXI will be that which most respectably uses (not necessarily invests) its capital to produce humanitarian aide -- a decision that will be arrived at as slowly as the U.S.'s decision to take action in WWII. I believe that to garner respect (the antithesis of inciting terrorist sentiments), the process of development aide should continue to evolve, with the understanding that the greatest good comes from a solution generated from within and not without. They aren't imposed on a people but developed by them with help accepted by informed consent. The process thus should not only result in the simplicity of a readily palpable document, or set thereof; rather it should be as complex as our collective understanding of the world is exponentially becoming, with its success tested by experts from all fields of the sciences and then perfected as possible. If this seems idealistic, it's because (I realize) it is. Nonetheless, in response to your closing question: I do!

  • asaintjean

    03.10.2010 at 15:43

    New York City has the largest Haitian Diaspora in the world, Brooklyn alone has around 200,000. The neighborhood north of Downtown Miami is Little Haiti not Liberty City which is predominantley African American.

    Nevertheless, if things go well in Haiti hopefully it will lead to changes throughout the 3rd world. As a Haitian American one thing I do not want is for Haiti to remain a country dependent on foreign aid and IMF Loans. In fact, I don't wish this for any country in the 3rd world. Though the situation saddens me I am optimistic about the future.

  • Hector Fernando Burga

    03.17.2010 at 18:32

    Mr. Saintjean

    Indeed you are correct in pointing these observations. I am grateful for critical readers like you to point them out to young writers like me. Through my research I am finding out that Liberty City and Little Haiti not only share common location but also subtle differences and shared experiences. In time, I plan to fine tune my knowledge in this regard.

    I also would like to expand upon the importance of the Haitian and Hatian American voice in these debates. Whether these conversations are about planning and/or reconstruction. The questions that are raised by individuals like you surely contribute to an ongoing prolific discussion.

    Hector Fernando Burga