The damaging consequences of non-sustainable development are apparent in countless ways — some dramatically foregrounded by current news, and many that are more subtle and local. January’s earthquake in Haiti is a prime example of an environmental and economic catastrophe that was in the making long before the actual event. Here in Southern California, our local issues of water and energy conservation, land use, and vulnerability to wildfires and landslides have made us all increasingly aware of the need for intelligent planning. Sustainable design starts with understanding a specific environmental context and the place of humans within this larger ecosystem. It offers solutions that solve seemingly separate problems in one well-integrated design. Two projects serve as examples: a contemporary design for redevelopment in Haiti, and a 23-year-old, thriving housing development here in Claremont.
The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti revealed not just the island nation’s poverty but also profound issues of sustainability: most obviously its lack of appropriate building materials and building codes, but also its polluted urban slums, insufficient power grid and sewage treatment, depopulated rural countryside, and massive deforestation which has caused erosion problems and soil too degraded for agriculture. The earthquake exposed a human ecosystem that was not synchronized with the larger local ecosystem.
Together with the non-profit International Green Technology Institute (IGTI), based in Southern California, Claremont Environmental Design Group (CEDG) has created the “Project Green Haiti” initiative, a proposal to establish fifty “E Villages” throughout Haiti, each one to house and support about 2000 people.
The E Village is designed to reconnect Haitians to their local ecosystem. It will enable people to leave over-populated large cities, and to start growing food to feed themselves and to sell to local markets. Each E Village will provide housing, hygiene, off-the-grid electrical power, health care, food preparation, clean water, and facilities for governance. It will make possible sustainable agriculture not only for food, but also for appropriate building materials and even exportable products. Sustainable agriculture and agroforestry techniques will properly integrate agriculture into the landscape, preventing erosion and improving the health of the soil. Integrated community centers will provide an Internet connection for training in sustainable agriculture, entrepreneurship and other ongoing needs. The initiative will address problems of long-term renewable energy and food security — both crucial for Haiti to develop a sustainable economy — without depending on a power grid or other extensive infrastructure that Haiti currently doesn’t have.
The E Village can be quickly constructed to address the emergency needs of thousands of Haitians still living in tent cities. An E Village can be configured with temporary pre-fabricated dome shelters that provide safety against both weather and earthquakes, giving the community time to develop an economy and, ultimately, more permanent housing. Everything needed to build a village for 2000 people will fit into thirty 20-foot shipping containers. After delivery, the containers will be repurposed to house the village’s civic buildings, communal kitchens and washing facilities. The E Village can also be built from the start with permanent housing: CDEG has created a small, solar-powered starter home designed to be easily expanded using locally grown building materials. The house is well-shaded and well-ventilated, essential for Haiti’s tropical climate.
A more local example of sustainable planning is an 84-home development at the corner of Mills and Miramar Avenue in Claremont, completed in 1987. CEDG addressed multiple problems with a well-integrated design. East-west street orientation allows the homes to optimize solar orientation for energy and natural light. Taking advantage of the site’s natural slope allows water runoff to be directed on the surface through a dry creek in the park — not through underground drainage pipes. The dry creek helps recharge the ground water, rather than sending runoff through underground storm drains. The park provides a large, green common area for walking and playing. This project demonstrates, further, that sustainable design can be less expensive to build: the developer did not have to install subsurface drainpipes, and grading expenses were minimized by the street layout integrated with the natural slope. A great testament to the development’s ongoing success is the very low turnover of homeowners.
Sustainable design begins by understanding the larger environment, and that a successful sustainable project integrates social and economic requirements into the larger ecosystem. The lesson from Haiti — and from Claremont as well — is that human social and economic requirements are not separate from nature’s ecosystem, and that sustainable design must integrate these seemingly separate problems.
For more information, please join us at Sustainable Claremont’s “Sustainability Dialog” talk on Project Green Haiti, on September 13, at 7 p.m. in the Hahn Building, Pomona College, Rm. 101 at 420 N. Harvard Avenue, Claremont. The event is free.
Demystifying Sustainability is an initiative of Sustainable Claremont (sustainableclaremont.org).