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First incorporated under the colonial rule of the French in 1749, Port-au-Prince has grown to become the capital, commercial base, and largest city of the Caribbean country of Haiti. The city has witnessed sustained economic activity since the civilizations of the Arawaks not only because it borders a natural harbor, but also due to the fact that it acts as an export hub for coffee, sugar, shoes and other commodities (Sherwood, Bradley, Rossi, Gitau, & Mellicker, 2014; Tobin, 2013). The present paper researches on the biography of Port-au-Prince with the view to indentifying its urban challenges and recommending ways through which such challenges could be effectively addressed.
Historical Evolution (Urban Growth Context)
Available literature demonstrates that urbanization in Haiti and specifically in Port-au-Prince “followed patterns similar to that elsewhere, but unique economic patterns and lack of construction regulations placed the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince in special danger” (Tobin, 2013).
Although the city’s history dates back to the arrival of the Taino from eastern Venezuela in approximately 2600 BC, migration to the capital increased under the Duvalier regimes and was reinforced by perceived flaws in institutional capacity. Agricultural policies coupled with continued high birth rates witnessed in Haiti worsened the problem of population density in Port-au-Prince as people moved from the countryside to the city in search for employment and opportunities for economic betterment (Tobin, 2013). Lack of proper planning and weaknesses in institutional capacity crystallized to fuel the eruption of shanties and poorly constructed high-density homes on every available hillside to give Port-au-Prince the outlook it currently projects.
Special Features of the City
Before the catastrophic earthquake which occurred on 12 January 2010, the presidential palace stood its ground as an elaborate structure suggestive of French colonial times. The city also borders a natural harbor, not mentioning that it is the seat of government and mainstream economic and commercial activities in Haiti (Scarpaci, Escamilla, & Brothers, 2012).
Urban Challenges and Problems
As documented in the literature, Port-au-Prince is faced with many urban challenges and problems, ranging from social and geographic segregation to elevated poverty levels and occurrence of natural disasters which compound the problem of poverty (Scarpasi et al., 2012). In social and geographic segregation, demand for exclusive high-income communities have led to the displacing of poor groups from targeted urban neighborhoods as high-income groups increasingly isolate themselves defensively in limited-access or gated communities. The social and spatial segregation being witnessed in the city has not only led to increased inequalities between the rich and the poor, but also reinforced an orientation whereby slum dwellers are gradually being excluded from the various urban functions (Tobin, 2013).
In elevated poverty levels among the urban populace, available literature demonstrates that a substantial proportion of the city’s population lives below the poverty line and the situation is being made worse by an increase in the concentration of the poor in the urban neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince (Scarpasi et al., 2012). Indeed, as demonstrated by these authors, “Haiti stands out…as the poorest country not only in the region but also in the entire western hemisphere” (p. 131). The high levels of poverty in Port-au-Prince has ensured a substantial proportion of city’s dwellers lives in slums and other marginal environments with no or minimal access to clean water supply and sanitation (Tobin, 2013).
In natural disasters, available literature demonstrates that Port-au-Prince is clearly in harms way as “it lies in the Caribbean hurricane belt, on the edge of the Enriquillo-Plantation Garden Fault zone, and at the base of the steep Massif de la Selle” (Scarpasi et al., 2012, p. 131). These authors argue that the population of Port-au-Prince exploded immediately after the World War II and led to the proliferation of slums and poorly constructed cinder-block houses in areas considered as hazardous to human existence due to constant flooding, storms, as well as landslides. Port-au-Prince was recently hit by an enormous earthquake which not only killed more than 200,000 people, but also sparked a massive displacement crisis in the city and wanton destruction of some of the architectural beauties such as the presidential palace (Sherwood et al., 2014).
Recommendations and Suggestions
Drawing from these challenges, city planners and other stakeholders must attempt to reduce social and geographic segregation by developing effective and accessible mechanisms to restore housing, land, property and economic activities. To deal with elevated levels of poverty, it is suggested that government should promote opportunities for employment and encourage the inhabitants of the city to participate in public affairs (Sherwood et al., 2014).
In dealing with natural disasters, available literature demonstrates that the deadly consequences of the earthquake that affected huge sections of Port-au-Prince are not unique as they only serve to show how nature presents risks; however, cites such as Port-au-Prince amplify these risks by undermining slopes, aggravating flood peaks, shunting the poor onto flood plains, and facilitating or supporting the development of high-density homes on every available hillside (Scarpasi et al., 2012). Drawing from this exposition, it should be the task of the city planners and government to promote long-term safety and security by ensuring that the poor are given alternative areas to build.
Overall, this paper has discussed the biography of Port-au-Prince to identify its urban-related challenges and possible solutions. Although the city is faced with myriad challenges, faster responses are needed to solve its social and geographic segregation, elevated poverty levels, as well as exposure to natural disasters.
Scarpaci, J.L., Escamilla, I., & Brothers, T. (2012). Cities of Middle America and the Caribbean. In S.D. Brunn, M. Hayes-Mitchell, & D.J. Zeigler (Eds.), Cities of the world: World regional urban development (5th ed., pp. 101-135). New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Education. Web.
Sherwood, A., Bradley, M., Rossi, L., Gitau, R., & Mellicker, B. (2014). Supporting durable solutions to urban, post-disaster displacement: Challenges and opportunities in Haiti. Web.
Tobin, K. (2013). Population density and housing in Port-au-Prince: Historical construction of vulnerability. Journal of Urban History, 39(6), 1045-1061. Web.