The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.12.10

Thomas Fisher

How Haiti Could Change Design

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 hap pen 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.