How Haiti Could Change Design

Designers should focus less on crisis reaction and more on proactive intervention.

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Haitian national palace. [via U.N. Development Programme Flickr set. Photographer: Logan Abass/United Nations.]

January’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, although extreme in terms of the number of lives lost, remains one of many disasters that have been occurring with ever-greater frequency around the globe. The United Nations has tracked natural catastrophes back to 1900, with some startling findings. 1 Since the 1950s, for example, the number of weather-related disasters like droughts and floods has increased over nine-fold, geological disasters like earthquakes have quadrupled, and biological disasters like epidemics have, amazingly, multiplied by a factor of 200. And North America has had more than its share of these events. In 2005, the last date of these statistics, the United States ranked third among countries most often hit by natural disasters (Haiti was ninth) and it led the world in the cost of these events (Canada was 22nd). The U.S. and Canada together absorbed over $372 billion (U.S.) dollars in disaster-related damages between 1991 and 2005.

Disasters, in other words, have become more common and more costly and we will likely see more situations like the one in Haiti in the years ahead. While we can’t always predict when natural disasters will occur, we can predict where they will likely happen and what effect they will have. With urban slums, according to the U.N., growing at the rate of 25 million people a year, and with many slum dwellers living in inadequate shelter on marginal land, often in seismically active and drought- or flood-prone regions, we can predict where the largest disasters, in terms of loss of life, will next likely take place. And we have to look to our own shores to see where the costliest calamities will occur. Katrina remains the single most expensive catastrophe since 1900, says the U.N., and, with much of the densely populated North American coastline so hazard-prone, we can imagine where even more costly disasters may someday happen.

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Soldiers from the U.S. Military’s 82nd Airborne Division unload ShelterBoxes. [Image credit: ShelterBox. Photograph: Mark Pearson.]

Architects of Disaster

Architects have long benefited from disasters. A great deal of architectural work, for example, followed in the wake of the 1871 Chicago fire and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, although our discipline has not always responded in the most enlightened way to these catastrophes. As Gladys Hansen and Emmet Condon argue in their book Denial of Disaster, the rebuilding of post-earthquake San Francisco followed looser building codes than those in place before the quake in order to speed reconstruction. In that sense, architects have sometimes been overly eager and perhaps unwitting participants in what Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, calls the “disaster-capitalism complex, in which all conflict- and disaster-related functions . . . (including) rebuilding cities . . . can be performed by corporations at a profit.”

Acknowledging this past becomes particularly relevant as we face situations like that of Haiti. A sizable number of designers have done work relevant to the needs of people after natural disasters. At the University of Minnesota, we have developed the Clean Hub, which can provide clean water, composting toilets and solar power generation, all packed into a shipping container or panel truck and deliverable to disaster sites. And other groups, like Rotary International, have developed emergency response kits that meet the basic needs of families after a disaster until more permanent shelter comes. Still, given the magnitude of the problem globally and the number of lives and amount of money potentially saved by a more pro-active approach to disasters, the attention we have paid to the problem so far pales in comparison to its importance. This stems, in part, from the dominant approach to practice we pursue in both the design professions and the design schools.

New Orleans. Clean Hub at the 9th Ward Urban Farmer’s Market. [via Open Architecture Network.]

We largely educate our students according to a medical-model of practice, in which designers mostly work with individual clients, as doctors do with individual patients, to develop custom solutions to site-specific problems. As we have seen in the emergency medical response in Haiti, that approach works best when dealing with people in need of intensive and immediate care; but medical doctors have much less to offer the broader population, whose long-term needs involve sanitation, clean water, and safe and secure shelter.

Public Health Practice

For that, we need to turn to public health. Public health physicians work not on individual needs, but on finding appropriate, prototypical solutions simple and cost effective enough for widespread implementation over the long term by large numbers of people. Examples of that public-health approach sometimes occur in architecture schools, when a studio addresses low-cost housing, for instance, or when a class looks at appropriate technology or takes on a community project for people in need. But the dominance in both our schools and in the profession of the medical model, which greatly limits the number of people we can serve, makes it hard for us to intervene effectively in disasters like that of Haiti, where nowhere near enough time or money exists for a client-based approach to design.

Haiti may mark a watershed in our field, though, as much as it has represented a turning point in global disaster response. Coming at a time of high unemployment among designers, with few jobs for graduating students and with so many of our colleagues wanting to make meaningful change, the development of a public-health version of design seems more possible now than ever before. With billions of dollars pouring into Haiti’s reconstruction, and with the Haitian government hoping to develop 200 new communities away from Port-au-Prince, this disaster provides an opportunity for our discipline to join others in the development of procedures and prototypes of use to the Haitian people as they rebuild their economy and their communities.

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. U.N. Stabilization Mission. [via U.N. Development Programme. Photographer: Logan Abass/United Nations.]

Public Interest Design

Public-health professionals do more than respond to disasters. In contrast to medicine, which, like design, tends to react to the problems that others present, public health puts much more emphasis on prevention, on changing the conditions that lead to problems in the first place. A public health version of architecture could do the same, identifying those places most in need of immediate attention, where intervention now would prevent the greatest expense and largest loss of life in the future. Disaster-prone areas offer the best place to start. A prevention-oriented model of design practice would involve a more entrepreneurial way of operating, in which architects would not wait for commissions to come to them, but would instead proactively approaches communities or even entire countries with appropriate and affordable ideas of how to avoid the next likely disaster. Design fees would become less a cost and more a form of insurance, a current investment to protect against future losses. 2

If the U.N.’s statistics are any indication, we have much work to do. In the face of waning demand for traditional design services and with the growing frequency of natural disasters directly affecting the built environment and its inhabitants, a prevention-oriented, public-health version of our field may soon become one of the fastest growing areas of demand for design knowledge and one of the greatest opportunities for design research and creative practice. There is much that needs to change in places like Haiti, but also much about places like Haiti that may eventually change us.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from Thomas Fisher’s upcoming column (From the President) in the March ACSA News.

  1. See United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.
  2. If this idea holds any interest for you, come to the ACSA’s Teacher’s Seminar this June 3 to 6 in Detroit. The conference will bring together some of the pioneers of “public interest design” to discuss this approach to practice and what it might mean for design education in the future. See the ACSA’s website for more information.
Thomas Fisher, “How Haiti Could Change Design,” Places Journal, February 2010. Accessed 27 Sep 2021.

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Past Discussions View

    02.23.2010 at 13:40

    I could not agree more. Currently, we have a team that can mobilize to retrofit shipping containers (empty, stacked and undamaged) in Port au Prince. There have been a number of inquiries from Haiti for this approach. I believe that for all Port cities prone to crisis, this is a mid to long term approach that is easily replicable, local and cost effective.

  • Julietta Cheung

    02.23.2010 at 16:06

    I also agree with you totally. Please see this article (via Crisis Mappers) from today's Washington Post which elaborates on the pending disasters you mentioned:

    I've been participating at Haiti ReWired and Architecture for Humanity, both on construction literature for Haiti's rebuilding. There's definitely an opportunity for designers to be proactive about disaster response exactly in the way you described. Preparing designers so that majority of our colleagues in disciplines beyond architecture would know enough how to respond—grasp the issues around recurring emergency needs, develop instincts to collaborate well on the fly, and work on material that might be adaptable to a host of scenarios. Naturally, these efforts can be integrated with the preventative approach you described.

    In short, I have been changed by Haiti.

  • Leni Schwendinger

    02.23.2010 at 20:54

    What an inspiring article.

    I applaud the emergency responses that this article points to...

    The contrast of private medical vs. public health models is clear. There is a kind-of ambulance-chasing mentality around disaster-based work that makes me very uncomfortable and thus we don't pursue it.

    However the preventative approach is a welcome challenge. Light Projects is involved in several flood-plain sites in Texas. When flooding is assumed, it becomes a major criteria for all design solutions. We feel excited to be part of future solutions rather than reactive heroism.

  • Ben

    02.24.2010 at 16:36

    A "public health" version of architects already exists: we're called planners.

  • Ian Baldwin

    02.26.2010 at 09:32

    Ben is correct, although most planners are trained in policy, not design. The architect/planner distinction is echoed in medicine by MD vs. MPH (Master's in Public Health) degrees, the latter degree being focused on administration and epidemiology. One needs people with both backgrounds to practice public health, and many people in the field have both degrees.

    Tom Fisher has written eloquently before about the need for a public-health model practice, a call with which I agree strongly. So I was a bit disappointed to see the U of M shipping container project shoehorned into an otherwise fine essay. If it is anything Haiti and other disasters teach us, it is logistics, not design, that presents the greatest challenges in immediate response.

    There are countless shipping-container prototypes that have been designed by students and architects; unless it somehow becomes economically feasible to mass-produce such objects, stockpile them at hundreds of ports around the world, and put in place a protocol to disrupt global trade by commandeering container ships to deliver them, we are stuck with late-arriving "undesigned" alternatives like FEMA trailers.

    A public-health model for architecture should and can be implemented, but that does not mean we cannot use existing client-based practice models to intervene when possible in places prone to disaster well before that disaster strikes.

  • faslanyc

    02.26.2010 at 11:45

    A prevention-oriented model of design practice would involve a more entrepreneurial way of operating, in which architects would not wait for commissions to come to them, but would instead proactively approache communities or even entire countries with appropriate and affordable ideas of how to avoid the next likely disaster.

    this quote was great and I would have liked him to expound more specifically on this without leaning so heavily on metaphor. The public health model metaphor was useful for making a point, but it was too weak to make the whole essay.

    Anyways, a very cool approach to significant problems. Hopefully he'll write more about how the above passage might happen.


    02.27.2010 at 18:15

    Finally I start seeing that my collegues understand the basic problem of our profession: EDUCATION! We are not thougt to understand and deliver to a broader audience. That is why barely 10% of humanity inhabits buildings designed by architects. It is about time to change that.
    Great article!

  • Cameron Sinclair

    03.23.2010 at 16:02

    Nice article Tom. Let us know how we can help. We are working with MBI on a few container conversion programs in country - and yes clean hub was on our mind.

    See you next month.
    Architecture for Humanity

  • Oyunlar

    06.19.2010 at 15:56

    A "public health" version of architects already exists: we're called planners.