Wednesday, January 20, 2010


At George Mason University I taught an undergraduate design studio titled Studies in Alternative Future Environments (SAFE), which I began each year with the suggestion that students might be well served by considering their academic goals: instead of working to determine what they wanted to do for a living, they could consider where they wanted to live.

We began with a framework borrowed from Ian McHarg's "Design with Nature.”

McHarq wrote that we must respect the underlying "nature" of the ground on which we live. In class, I suggested that a stable footing would increase the stability of student’s lives.

As we stare in shock and horror at the tragedy of Haiti, McHarg's work reminds me that if reconstruction is to be effective it must take into account the instability of the island.

It is too early to begin the discussion of "rebuilding" Haiti. Any energy that draws attention away from the stabilization of life there is energy misspent. But it has begun. Markers are being laid down and enormous amounts of money are starting to flow.

Discussions will be focused on the rebuilding of Port au Prince. There will be countervailing statements suggesting other approaches to the future of the Haitian people. Wyclef Jean campaigned for the evacuation of Port-au-Prince and the creation of tent cities in areas that could later be built into communities. Jean is pleading: "We need to migrate at least 2 million people," he said. "I give you my word, if I tell them to go, they will go. But they need somewhere to go. Help us work on these tents." Hopefully, wherever the survivors eventually take root, their helpers will consider the first principles of nature and locate them on stable ground.

We have had a spate of enormous disasters in the last decade and the world is trying to learn how best to respond. The Pakistan Earthquake of 2005 that killed 75,000 people and left millions homeless is the subject of an important study from The Feinstein International Center.

Within its pages are lessons regarding the critical importance of respect for the indigenous culture when attempting to provide aid. There is however no discussion of what I call "the persistence of place", the behavior of people rebuilding in the very places that have just experienced natural destruction. The evidence that the cataclysm will happen again goes unheeded. I think the concept is best exemplified by the arguments for rebuilding the ninth ward and other post Katrina zones of destruction. Occupants all along the coast argue that this is their home place and refuse to consider moving to other areas as a viable option. Worse, are the architects, builders, and developers who give in to this impulse and stage rebuilding exercises, exploiting them as laboratories for new green building, or arguing the moral high ground that they are being sensitive to the needs of the indigenous residents. This behavior and its effects are the subject of the book: The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization's Rough Landscape By Harm J. De Blij
An important excerpt is here.

Consider the fact that Banda-Aech was destroyed in the recent Tsunami
and despite the horror of that experience the rebuilding goes on and the beaches are open again to tourists.

On Sunday, scientists released an imminent warning that conditions are building for another likely Tsunami in the area.

The Chinese government have no plans to relocate the millions of persons
displaced by the Sichuan Quake of May 2008. In fact stories are emerging about new beautiful bamboo homes, built on plots cleared of rubble.

Maybe the most troubling of all examples is the response to the most recent quake that destroyed L'Aquila, Italy. The residents have a 700 year history of devastation and yet they persist in returning to the area.

Or consider the aftermath of the latest hurricane to destroy Galveston.

I lived for 5 years on the barrier island between the ocean and the inland waterway in south Florida. No amount of argument could prevent the developers building despite repeated warnings that the next storm will be devastating for the hundreds of thousands of persons who believe that they somehow will escape the inevitable. Unlike the hapless Haitian, persons who live in hurricane alley, or along the San Andreas Fault, or other highly unstable landscapes, have choices. They could move to areas suitable for human habitation. Their lack of sound judgment results in catastrophe. It is a burden that the rest of us shouldn't have to bear.

One of the more profound voices arguing for an alternative is Charles B. Perrow
Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Yale University. A lecture appears on the MIT World web site.
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters
About the Lecture: (It runs 1:33) "It’s time to trade in the Department of Homeland Security for a Department of Homeland Vulnerabilities," says Charles Perrow. At its peril, our nation “privileges terrorism over natural and industrial disasters.”

Let his be a lesson to all of us.

1 comment:

  1. There's a lot in this post, Will. It'll take me time to follow the threads. Somewhere along the line, I'm gonna want to comment here. Thanks for all these thoughts.