PORT-AU-PRINCE – Like a snake shedding its skin, the walls are tumbling down in neighborhoods across the capital. In other places, the writing is on the wall; literally. Mixed in with the ubiquitous political graffiti are the spray-painted words “to be moved, 2 meters.”
As greater Port-au-Prince’s population soars and the number of cars filling its narrow streets grows every higher, the government is trying to catch up by increasing a rare commodity in this metropolitan area of 2.5 million residents; sidewalks.
A zoning regulation requiring a 2-meter right of way between the street and the property line has been on the books since 1937 according to planner Paul Emile Simon. What’s new is that the cities that make up the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area have finally begun enforcing the rule.
Since 1970, the population of greater Port-au-Prince has more than tripled according to Fred Mangones, the Secretary General of the Association of Haitian Planners and Architects. Meanwhile the number of cars grows steadily at an annual rate of five percent, leaving streets increasingly congested.
The street widening project was initiated by the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation, and Communication in 2007 in partnership with local mayors. They were spurred to action by growing numbers of pedestrians being struck by cars, said Charles Hygin Raymond, the Ministry’s assistant director of public works.
The work began in the city of Port-au-Prince and has since been extended to the neighboring municipalities of Petionville, Delmas, and Carrefour. The City of Kenscoff has also begun widening streets but without the involvement of the Ministry of Public Works. Retroactively putting in sidewalks in this teeming city is a Herculean task, said Raymond.
So far more than 35,000 square meters of sidewalk have been created according to Raymond but he said that amounted to less than two percent of what was needed.
In Delmas, one of eight municipalities that make up the capital region, landlords were told to cede two meters in the spring. Eight months later, many of the old walls are still intact; others lie in ruins, their remains spilling into the street, making congestion worse.
One of the reasons so many walls have yet to be moved is that many properties belong to absentee landlords, according to Raymond. Delmas’ mayor, Wilson Jeudy said the city has begun forcibly demolishing walls to get landlords to act.
Residents say they are thrilled that the government is finally enforcing the law.
On a recent weekend afternoon, Gilva Jean, 50, sat on a railing with his friend Guerrier Auguste, 57, on Fragneauville street in Delmas a few yards from where a large work crew was rebuilding a wall to make room for a new sidewalk.
“It’s a good thing,” said Jean, “there was no room.” The father of 11 said knowing his children will have sidewalks to get to school was a relief, especially given “that people drive terribly,” he said.
Pointing up the road to a large pile of rubble, Auguste said he wished property owners would hurry up and get rid of the debris.
A few blocks away, George Sablon Jean Louis, 71, sat forlornly on a folding chair in front of the three-storey apartment building he owns. He said the first time he heard of the street widening plan was when he saw the spray painted edict on his wall telling him to move it back two meters. Other than that he’s received no word from the city.
“I simply don’t have the money to replace the wall,” said Jean Louis whose only source of income is the rent he collects from the building.
He said that when he built the house 20 years ago he didn’t know about the zoning regulations. He estimated it would cost him $3000 to do the work and wished the city could help him out.
Jean Louis knows that any day the city could come and smash his wall, and that could bring down the building’s upper floors which are supported by columns rising from the property wall.
While the project has been a headache for landlords, others are smiling.
A couple of weeks ago contractor Frantz Gillemeus stood 5 feet of the ground, perched on a half demolished stone wall. Around him his crew toiled in the afternoon heat, digging a trench and stacking large rocks as they simultaneously took down the 70-foot long wall and shored up the earth behind it.
This project was his fourth in three months thanks to the decree and he expected plenty more jobs in the months to come.
But even as space has been cleared for sidewalks, it hasn’t always eased congestion.
This summer, The Quisqueya Christian School on Delmas 75 spent $80,000 dollars moving its 175-yard wall back to make way for a sidewalk. Today that space is crowded – with vendors. Women crouch in front of plastic tubs filled with avocados and plantain, while moto-taxi drivers sprawl on their bikes waiting for passengers. One 10-yard stretch is covered in garbage, further down the road tap taps – modified pick-up trucks that serve as public transportation – are parked on the sidewalk. Meanwhile pedestrians are forced into the street.
In an effort to deal with these problems, the city of Delmas is building a municipal parking facility and has cleared a one-hectare parcel of land on which it plans to relocate 6,000 merchants. But already today, in the city’s existing markets, many stalls sit empty as vendors prefer to be on the street where passing drivers and pedestrians can see their wares.
On a Saturday afternoon, on the sidewalk in front of Quisqueya Christian School, Hosiane Lazarre, 35, stood before a dozen pairs of second hand women’s shoes displayed on a slab of plywood, behind her a few dusty sport coats hung on a wall.
Lazarre said she knew what she was doing was illegal, in fact city officials had previously confiscated all her goods, still she said it was worth the risk.
“I can go a week without selling anything in the market,” said Lazarre, “on the street I sell something everyday.”
City planners say that while the work being done is necessary, widening the streets alone will not solve the city’s growing pains.
Paul Emile Simon said a fundamental problem is the lack of coordinated land use planning in the country as a whole and city governments that aren’t equipped to keep pace with the rate of urbanization. The percentage of the country’s population living in cities has more than doubled since 1970 to slightly under 50 percent and is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050 according to the Haitian Institute for Statistics and Computing.
In 1998, Simon was appointed to a presidential panel on the development of the capital region. The panel recommended the creation of an agency that would coordinate development across Port-au-Prince’s eight municipalities. Mayors would work with the state, utilities, civil society and the private sector to try and impose some order on anarchic and runaway growth.
More than a decade later there is still no central planning body. Simon said the cities were in favor of the plan but the federal government rejected the idea. “The executive was very afraid of having eight strong mayors grouped together,” said Simon.
Meanwhile a 1998 plan to divert traffic in the city by creating ring roads around the capital has not materialized due to financial constraints, said Wilson Edouard, a traffic engineer at the Ministry of Transportation, Public Works and Communication.
Beyond a master plan for greater Port-au-Prince, experts say something has to be done to stop the constant flow of migrants from the countryside.
The city is not designed to accommodate 3 million people according to Fred Mangones. “We need to stop the flow,” said Mangones, “by developing the provinces so people stay home.”
Sitting in his cramped office, on the Champs de Mars, with the sound of car horns honking on the street below, Charles Hygin Raymond, the assistant director of public works, echoed those sentiments.
“The problem is that Port-au-Prince is the only economic pole in the country,” said Raymond. “I’m from Jacmel, when I finished my engineering studies, I would have loved to go home, but there was no work.”