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UCL brainpower boosts project in heart of Haiti

29 July 2010

Thinking Development's Marcel Noeding and Sr. Yannick Saieh

A team of architects, engineers and students from UCL are pooling their expertise to build a primary school and community centre complex in earthquake-stricken Haiti.

The earthquake, which struck the Caribbean island in January this year, killed nearly a quarter of a million people, left a million more homeless, and reduced much of the capital Port-au-Prince to rubble.

Thinking Development, a non-govermental organisation (NGO) which has emerged at UCL as a collaborative response to the disaster, is masterminding a project to redevelop a site in the heart of Port-au-Prince.

The Centre Rosalie Javouhey will include a primary school, an adult education centre, a community kitchen and canteen, a multi-functional community space, and an urban garden and playground.

The goal is to make the centre disaster-resistant, eco-friendly, sustainable, community-sensitive and beautiful, embodying local knowledge and cutting-edge design, and empowering the local community to develop as they see fit.

UCL Philosophy research student Linda O'Halloran kickstarted the project after receiving an appeal through the alumni network of her secondary school. 

The school in Ireland was founded by a religious order, the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, who are also the biggest educator of women in Haiti.  

The email asked past pupils to rally their resources to help their operations in Haiti, which were severely affected by the earthquake.

The demolition of the old Rosalie Javouhey school building

Ms O'Halloran, who was already a member of the Global Development Initiatives society at UCLU, set about stimulating interest in a project in Haiti.

With support from the UCL Development Planning Unit, she quickly recruited a cadre of architects and engineers, and a team of students to help promote the project and raise funds.

Ms Halloran said: "The vision for the project has been evolving over the past few months, but what has remained constant is the conviction that we are not dishing out charity; we are a not-for-profit social enterprise. We aspire to empower people in Haiti to direct their own development, by consulting them in all decisions, and by encouraging them to take on responsibility where they might otherwise leave it to the NGO.

"In so doing we are already learning with them how best to plan development in the post-disaster Haitian context, and how best, ultimately, to 'design ourselves out' of the picture. We aspire to have our eyes and ears open to past experience from within and beyond our own team. In this regard, we are excited to be an associate of the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, a network we hope will be able to monitor and inform our progress. We want to build something beautiful, economic, sustainable and Haitian."

Thinking Development registered as a new NGO in May and Ms O'Halloran and two of the team's architects, Carlos Manns and Marcel Noeding, visited the site in Haiti in July. 

Ms O'Halloran added: "It was more of a success than we could have hoped for. In fact, we've been turning work down since we returned due to our present lack of a Port-au-Prince base – something we might soon rectify if we can secure some start-up capital. Already we have committed to building two schools instead of one, since on our visit we realised that the sisters are moving a second school to the same complex. Land tenure is a big problem in Haiti at the moment. The government aren't permitting certain sites to be redeveloped for their original purpose. This affects many public services. The sisters are still struggling to find land for other schools that they need to get running as soon as possible."

Thinking Development is unveiling its first design concepts for the site at a formal project launch at UCL on Tuesday 10 August. For more information or to register for the event, please email Thinking Development.

For more information about the project, please follow the link above.

Image: top right, Thinking Development's Marcel Noeding discusses the building layout with Sr. Yannick Saieh in Haiti; bottom left, the demolition of the old Rosalie Javouhey school building in July.


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Related links: 
Earthquake experts focus on helping Haiti
L'Aquila anniversary highlights need for better buildings