Intense Collaboration: Community Planning and Urban Acupuncture in Villa Rosa, Port-au-Prince

(Architecture for Humanity)

For her Mundus Urbano masters program in Barcelona, Nazanin Mehregan spent three months studying and working on Architecture for Humanity’s urban design projects in Port-au-Prince. Specifically Nazanin worked with the Villa Rosa community engagement team on an ambitious community-led urban redevelopment program. Now back in Spain with some free time on her hands, Nazanin shares with Headquarters the impressive scale of collaborative work now helping this informal urban neighborhood of 10,000 recover public space and sustainable housing.

Headquarters: Give us a quick overview of the Villa Rosa project.

Nazanin Mehregan: The project is slum upgrading for the informal settlement of Villa Rosa. I’d say it’s an aggregation of two complex conditions – it’s a poverty reduction and slum upgrading program, as well as post-disaster reconstruction. It has a community-led approach, where community participation is very important, and it has a multi-stakeholder process where all the different partners come together. The urban planning following a community action plan (CAP), something that was initiated from the 50’s and then continued in the 80’s where the population of the people engage in the process and say what their problems are, identify the priorities and then make decisions and plans for their own neighborhood.

Existing conditions in Villa Rosa include trashed ravines. Image by Nazanin Mehregan

Villa Rosa is one of the “16-6” neighborhoods. There are 6 camps in Port-au-Prince whose inhabitants originate from 16 neighborhoods, including Villa Rosa. There are around 30K people still in these 6 camps. The Government of Haiti wants to provide a strategy for these people to return to their houses by upgrading their original neighborhoods.

The Client is basically the community, so all the plans would go to the community committee, and then they could use it afterwards as guidelines, strategies and plans.

HQ: What were the specifics of each phase?

NM: The first phase is an area of 100 houses, representing a pilot project. AFH is developing an urban plan for the neighborhood. Cordaid in partnership with Build Change is providing housing. Currently in the initial pilot phase Cordaid in partnership with AFH is implementing the infrastructure with the approach of Owner-Driven Infrastructure. So the community living in the same pathway, will intensively participate in the implementation of the pathway. Based on AFH’s plans and it’s supervision. So it’s a very interesting approach, and it’s being implemented.

It’s very good for this project to start with a pilot, to actually see some outcomes before applying interventions to the entire area of around 2,000 houses and 10,000 people. Phases 2 and 3 are the action plan for the entire Villa Rosa. Phase 2 is mapping, analysis, building standards and strategies, and Phase 3 is specifically proposals and planned designs on special zones, what we call “micro planning zones.” By the end of June, Phase 3 will be submitted.

HQ: Could the plans be applied to other neighborhoods?

NM: I would say the Community Led Planning approach could be applied to other neighborhoods, but if the same thing is replicated in other contexts it would contradict its own principles of emerging from the community. But some of the designs are very flexible. We designed several typologies for housing, pathways and ravines which are applicable to other communities.

In themes such as waste and water strategies, you need to have an overall view because these things go beyond the border of the neighborhood. Any other specific designs would need to be adapted, but the principles are still very much useful.

HQ: You mentioned how Villa Rosa is one of the “16-6” neighborhoods-is work happening simultaneously with the other 15?

NM: Yeah, other work is happening, but every neighborhood is different from one another. Villa Rosa is very dense – and surprisingly in it’s denser areas there are fewer collapsed houses.

HQ: Why’s that?

NM: The areas of less density might have been occupied more recently, developed and built on poorer quality land. That’s just a guess.

HQ: How is working on Villa Rosa different from other planning projects you’ve worked on?

NM: I’ve worked in low-income housing projects before, but not in such a situation, when it’s an informal community which was hit strongly by the earthquake. The people are very much vulnerable. Many people were moved to the camp on the Southern part of the site, including homeowners who didn’t have land titles, and the vast majority of residents who are renters. Around 85% of the people living in that camp were actually renting their houses in Villa Rosa.

Also the physical situation: it’s on a very steep hill, there’s no accessibility, especially vehicle accessibility. One thing that was very different was mapping – there was no formal data that exists for this particular area. We started from scratch, mapping with traditional tools. We have limited resources so we cannot do proper mapping, but manually.

It’s not only about hardware, it’s also about software – the people were very much important in this process because they knew the place much better than us. We always had to ask for their help to guide us to the pathways and priority areas that needed intervention. This is different for me; working directly and intensively with the people than the projects I have been involved in my experiences before.

Left: analysis of existing water supply; Right: the Rebuilding Center’s strategic implementation plan

HQ: What do you mean by “traditional tools?”

NM: We started with an aerial photo from 2010. Of course [the neighborhood had] completely changed. Informal areas are dynamic and we would go out there and see how it was a different world now. Every day there was change – someone would be building a house or building a cistern or a reservoir.

So we set to measuring pathways, marking [structural assessment tags of] houses, etc. We also had GPS but if we couldn’t get a good signal the points would be off by tens of meters. But we made more accurate maps than any of the base maps we had access to.

We focused on “micro planning zones.” The area was so dense, we could not provide precise designs for the entire neighborhood. We chose to apply “urban acupuncture” to map very precisely certain zones and plan according to the existing situation – then make connections so the interventions would work together.

(It should be noted that other themes such as water, waste etc, require holistic planning, and for those we applied a different methodology.)

HQ: It sounds like you guys developed a process to navigate a ton of challenges.

NM: You would just learn by doing- there was nothing you could be completely aware of, every day you would go out and could see something that would change your approach. You have to be flexible and at the same time work in a way where everything matches up in the end.

HQ: The mapping process worked hand-in-hand with community charrettes. What surprised you about the charrette process, or the planning process as a whole?

NM: Once during the first days, I went to a participatory community engagement session. We provided modeling materials for a ravine reconstruction. The community had so many great ideas and were so helpful – I could never imagine how much of a contribution residents would make to the work of architects and planners.

Ravine and drainage charrette. Images by Rickie Siegel and Nazanin Mehregan

We went back to the office and tried to see how the concepts could be technically suitable. We kept reminding ourselves of the specific community feedback as we developed the solutions. “Remember the people said like this, maybe we should change that part.” There was a high level of involvement. We worked out our responses at the Rebuilding Center and re-presented the designs to the community at Validation Sessions.

HQ: What were some of the common comments from the charrette sessions?

In general, Villa Rosa lacks open spaces – it was very hard to identify very little open land where you can locate these functions. It was tough to do that – people indicated they needed more open spaces and public activities in the neighborhood.

HQ: How did you guys surmount that? Where do you get open space?

NM: Sometimes we realized we need to focus on linear spaces, along pathways. During Some of the micro planning sessions we asked if people would be willing to give some land as public space. It was very hard to ask people to do this, but still we could find a willingness to donate land for the upgrading plans.

Drainage, retaining walls and urban agriculture typologies

Proposed ravine redesigns

The Southern zones of Villa Rosa it was much more green, less dense, and we could envision even some terraced urban agriculture there in the future. For areas that were prone to erosion, where housing is not allowed to be built, we thought about installing gabions, provide some terracing and it could become open green space too. We would look at each of these areas, and then step back, zoom out and see the whole plan coming together.

HQ: Can you talk about how the Rebuilding Center worked together on this project?

NM: The office shares project updates at the end of each week. In these “Open Office” meetings, we sometimes do specific project pinups and non-team members would give feedback. The Haitian staff for instance would offer advice if some aspects weren’t feasible, and suggest how we could improve it. Within the Villa Rosa team, there are three categories: Mapping, Planning and Community Engagement groups, although everyone was involved in all three. You’d never do something without support of other team members.

HQ: What was your success rate for those Validation Sessions?

NM: Good, people were quite happy. In validation sessions people would vote on the final proposals and strategies. Most of the time we would get enthusiastic and thorough feedback. I never saw a complete rejection [of a developed concept], maybe some modifications would be needed in some of the designs, but that was all.

Ravine redesign

HQ: Any memorable stories from the whole process?

NM: On one of the mapping trips people kept coming up and asking what where we doing, so we explained the project, what’s going on and how it would affect them. You know people here all have very, very small gardens. One woman came up with a basket of fruit for us, to thank us! It was so nice. We brought the fruit back to the office, and shared it with everyone. I say “fruit” but they were tamarinds – fresh tamarinds, it was amazing.

HQ: How did you get involved in this program – how did you find Architecture for Humanity?

NM: I got my architecture degree in Iran and am currently doing a master’s course in International Corporations and Sustainable Emergency Architecture in Barcelona. It’s part of a program called Mundus Urbano, which started the first year with an Urban Development course in Germany. During my master course I got some lectures from AFH (Nathaniel Corum) and due to my interests in urban planning and emergency scenarios, I chose Haiti as a place to do my three months of internship.

Being in a planning project in the Haiti Team meant working on Villa Rosa and it’s been an amazing experience.

A “priority pathway” proposing solar-powered lighting along a refurbished pedestrian corridor

HQ: How do you see your work proceeding from here?

NM: My master thesis since going to Haiti has completely changed! I’m now focusing more on cooperation among different stakeholders – it’s amazing how there are so many partners involved in this project, working with the community, itself one of these partners. I focused on community participation, what are the tools we’re using and how efficient they are. It’s very good to have different partners when there are limited resources, financially and in terms of expertise and professionals.

It was always the objective to provide a master plan and action plan that can be useful firstly for the community but also for other NGOs and development actors that can provide technical assistance, implement various parts of the whole, provide financial resources or in anyway that they can contribute.

HQ: Would you recommend volunteering for the Haiti the program?

NM: I’m actually thinking of going back myself! All of my classmates are back form all their abroad programs: Japan, Mongolia, Brazil, Rwanda…. When you talk about Haiti though everyone’s like “Wow, why would you go there, it’s an extreme situation?” But I really enjoyed it very much. We’re doing good work.

June 2012, and the implementation of one of the microplanning recommendations: a shaded pubic space, with solar-powered lighting for evening use, designed and built by the community. A critical improvement to Villa Rosa. Thanks to Darren for the pic.


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