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Many Norms, Few Plans: Urban Rubble Clearance in the Cities of the Global South

Michael Hooper of Harvard University writes about the complexity of urban rubble clearance, a growing challenge for cities.
March 18, 2019, 5am PDT | Michael Hooper
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Urban rubble from the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
UN Photo/Logan Abassi

"The sign of our times is the ruins ... They are our new reality which is asking to be reshaped." Richter (1947)[i]

A combination of increasing urbanization and more severe and frequent natural disasters are complexifying the already enormous challenge of urban rubble clearance.

While post-disaster rubble clearance is a complicated task in many contexts, including in the developed world, this task is most daunting in the densely populated cities of the Global South. In such settings, the staggering physical challenge presented by immense volumes of rubble is made more complex by the social and political dynamics associated with urban disaster assistance. A wide variety of actors from diverse countries and organizations often converge on short notice to try to tackle the mountains of debris produced by storms, earthquakes, and other cataclysms. This article reports on a recently published study that seeks to better understand the complexity of urban rubble clearance, and to provide insights on how to better grapple with this vital task, through a study of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Published in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR), the study highlights the frequent lack of local plans for rubble removal in the Global South and argues for much greater support to governments to develop such plans and related planning capacities.

The United Nations reports that 62% of all urban residents are at high risk of exposure to at least one kind of natural disaster and that 90% of cities in low-income countries have high vulnerability to disaster-related mortality.[ii] The rapid growth of cities and increasing risk from natural disasters, the combination of which has been called a "game changer" by the World Bank, have led seismologists and engineers to refer to many cities in the Global South, including Istanbul, Tehran, and Delhi, as "rubble in waiting."[iii] The challenges facing such cities are often enhanced by a lack of disaster plans, which are "a rarity outside of cities like Tokyo and Los Angeles."[iv] In this context, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, provides an excellent case study for better understanding the complexity of urban rubble clearance and for developing better ways to tackle this problem. Like many other cities in the Global South, prior to the 2010 earthquake Port-au-Prince had only limited planning capacity, with a building code less than two pages long.[v] Following the earthquake, rubble clearance was slow, with only 2% of the rubble cleared eight months after the disaster.[vi] Slow action on rubble clearance wasn't simply an abstract planning problem—by slowing the work of responders and by radically limiting residents' movement the lack of rubble clearance contributed to a major humanitarian disaster.

The challenge presented by urban rubble has long been recognized. The archeological record shows that after a strong earthquake struck Taxila, in present-day Pakistan, between 20-30 BC, owners used the rubble to create foundations for new homes, thereby disposing of the debris and also increasing the stability of new structures. The task of rubble clearance reached new levels of complexity following World War 2, when bombing left cities buried under their own ruins. The volume of rubble in Hamburg alone, if placed in freight cars, would have constituted a train that could circle the planet.[vii] In Port-au-Prince, following the 2010 earthquake, early estimates of rubble volume were 20-25 million cubic yards, amounts similar in magnitude to those found in many post-war German cities. In Port-au-Prince it was estimated that 250,000 houses and 87% of key government offices were destroyed. Complicating rubble clearance in Port-au-Prince, a vast array of organizations arrived to respond to the earthquake. In 2012, the UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) listed 505 international and 222 domestic NGOs working on humanitarian issues in the country. The Haitian NGO sector is incredibly diverse, with some estimates of the number of NGOs in the country reaching 20,000. Organizations responding to the earthquake were remarkably diverse, ranging from 16 different UN agencies to an Armenian religious association and the Taiwanese International Cooperation Fund. The top foreign government donors spanned five continents and included countries as diverse as the United States, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Morocco.

To better understand why rubble clearance in Port-au-Prince was so slow, the IJURR study based its findings on interviews with 52 different organizations involved in post-disaster recovery in the city. These interviewees were drawn from seven categories of organizations engaged in this work, including large international NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, bilateral development agencies, small international NGOs, private contractors, Haitian NGOs and Haitian government agencies. The goal was to try to understand the factors that affected the success and failure of efforts to clear urban rubble, with the broader ambition of improving rubble clearance efforts in Haiti as well as in other at-risk cities in the Global South.

The study's results show that there was little shared understanding of who was, and should have been, responsible for urban rubble clearance in Port-au-Prince. The wide range of beliefs concerning who was responsible stemmed in part from the fact that organizations from different countries had differing norms concerning who should lead this work. The IJURR study also conducted a review of rubble plans for the 10 cities worldwide most at risk from natural disasters. The review showed that some cities, like Los Angeles and Tokyo, do have detailed rubble plans. Many others, and particularly those in the Global South, do not. Also, the kinds of agencies delegated with rubble clearance responsibilities vary dramatically across countries, with leadership variously exercised by local governments, national governments, the army, and the private sector. The diverse organizations involved in rubble clearance in Port-au-Prince brought these divergent norms with them. In the face of extremely minimalistic local plans, the result was slow progress on this essential task. The confusion around rubble clearance in Port-au-Prince is hard to overstate. While 96% of interviewees believed a particular organization had been in charge of rubble clearance, interviewees nonetheless listed 34 different agencies as responsible for leading this task. In short, the diverse organizations involved in post-disaster recovery brought wildly divergent norms concerning rubble clearance to a context with few plans in place for this task, a combination that had dire consequences for both the city and its residents.

To better address the challenges likely to arise when diverse organizations have to collaborate on short notice, such as around urban rubble clearance, local plans need to be in place to guide action. In Haiti, even after the earthquake, revised and more detailed plans for organizing rubble clearance have not been developed. This suggests that in Port-au-Prince, as in many other cities, the potential for similar outcomes to those observed following the 2010 earthquake remains high. The IJURR paper concludes by drawing on the literature on inter-organizational norms, which suggests that tasks like post-disaster rubble clearance are likely to be problematic. When organizations from different professional and national cultures interact, the results are very often fragmented. In such cases, the literature suggests it is important to have new, shared norms around which to organize action. The IJURR paper argues that these norms should be based on local needs and priorities and be embedded in local rubble clearance plans. For such plans to be effective, local governments would need to be provided with financial and human resources to create and implement such plans, which diverse organizations could then follow. This would be a marked divergence from the pattern in Port-au-Prince, where plans have not been updated and where there has been insufficient attention on fostering local planning capacity. While the humanitarian and development sectors may consider the task of developing such capacity daunting, it is a worthwhile investment in ensuring that the humanitarian catastrophe that followed the 2010 earthquake is not repeated. Without such a transition towards strong local plans for rubble clearance, the chance of seeing coherent, locally-responsive and effective post-disaster recovery in the at-risk cities of the Global South is worryingly small.

The full article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research is online.

Michael Hooper is an Associate Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


[i] Richter, H-W. (1947) Literatur im interregnum [Literature in the interregnum].

Der Ruf15 March. In H. Glaser, L. von Pufendorf and M. Schoneich (1989), So viel

Anfang war nie: deutsche Städte 1945–49 [There was never such a beginning: German cities, 1945-49]. Siedler Verlag, Berlin.

[ii] Gu, D. , P. Gerland , F. Pelletier and B. Cohen (2015) Risks of exposure and vulnerability to natural disasters at the city level: a global overview. Population Division Technical Paper No. 2015/2, United Nations Division of Economic and Social Affairs, New York, NY.

[iii] Revkin, A. (2005) The future of calamity.The New York Times, 2 January [WWW document]. URL https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/02/weekinreview/the-future-of-calamity.html (accessed 13 July 2018).

[iv] Revkin, A. (2010) Disaster awaits cities in earthquake zones.The New York Times, 24 February [WWW document]. URL https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/science/earth/25quake.html (accessed 13 July 2018).

[v] Ouroussoff, N. (2010) A plan to spur growth away from Haiti's capital. The New York Times, 30 March [WWW document]. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/arts/design/31planning.html (accessed 13 July 2018).

[vi] Margesson, R. and M. Taft-Morales (2010)Haiti earthquake: crisis and response. Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC.

[vii] Diefendorf, J. (1993)In the wake of war: the reconstruction of German cities after the war. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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