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The 3 D’s and Affordable Communities Everywhere

At Dartmouth College, my home institution, students and faculty in business, engineering, medicine, architecture, anthropology, environmental studies and other disciplines took on the challenge of designing affordable communities in areas deeply affected by poverty. These were the initial questions posed:

  • How can organic, self-built slums be turned into livable housing?

  • What might a “house for the poor” look like?

  • How can world-class engineering and design capabilities be utilized to solve the problem?

  • How could the poor afford to buy this house?

Looking at potential solutions to affordable housing in both India and Haiti, students and faculty quickly came to three basic conclusions:

  • There is no one size fits all solution to the worldwide affordable housing crisis.

  • The only way to develop viable solutions is through disciplined work in the field.

  • We can help, but the successful solutions will come from the communities themselves.

They issued a challenge to the design community to employ the strategies of innovation and disruptive thinking to attack this persistent problem.

Members of the Dartmouth community have had longstanding relationships with the country of Haiti and following the devastating earthquake of January 2010 we established strong ties with a number of successful NGO’s there. Numerous Haitian and Haitian/American Dartmouth students have become involved in the initiative, and the team concentrated on design solutions addressing the critical need for permanent and durable housing in Haiti.

The college launched a series of interdisciplinary research trips to gather information and establish close relationships with communities in Haiti.  At the same time, we organized and facilitated a housing design workshop including students, faculty, Haitian experts and design professionals. The workshop had four tracks:

  • Rural House Design Prototype

  • Urban Housing Design Prototype

  • Community Development, Infrastructure, Education, Healthcare Delivery

  • The Development of a Business Plan

Specific sites in urban and rural Haiti were utilized for the prototype designs, and partner organizations from these communities participated in the process. The resulting reports and designs were impressive, but the work was just beginning.

The next step was to take these ideas back to the communities for feedback on design and implementation concepts. Fundraising for the projects progressed, and some new strategies were developed to move forward in Port Au Prince.

At present, we have focused the urban house prototype construction on the area of Martissant where a large-scale comprehensive urban planning initiative is being directed by the Foundation for Knowledge and Leadership (FOKAL). The incorporation of our urban housing concept into this larger framework offers significant promise in a collaboration between FOKAL and Dartmouth.

Participants in the Affordable Communities Everywhere Summit of 2016, ranging from politicians to developers to academics, posed the question as to how an international, interdisciplinary initiative could help to deliver affordable communities everywhere. ACE2016 made significant progress, yet there is much more work to be done. The theme for the Summit was the doctrine of the three D’s, developed by Jack Wilson and Vijay Govindarajan, in association with the Dartmouth/Haiti initiative:

  • Dignity - After extensive field work in Haiti, we have come to believe that differentiating the poor by building their homes out of waste or materials that the middle class and wealthy would never consider for their own homes is not a viable option. Similarly segregating the poor into new communities that have no variation in socio-economic status and that are separated from their home communities and from economic opportunity is also counterproductive. Any solution to housing for the poor must maintain the dignity of the members of the community.
  • Durability - We will never break the cycle of poverty by creating housing for the poor that falls apart in five to ten years and then becomes so expensive to maintain that the owners cannot improve their general condition. This is a large part of the innovation challenge and where lessons learned from the local community can be so important.
  •  Delight – Life holds challenges for all people; none of us are immune to tragedy and grief. Likewise, we all thrive on moments of delight: the smile on a child’s face or perhaps the knowledge that our family is safe and has enough nutritious food to eat. Walking through a remote village in southern Haiti where children walk four kilometers each way to fetch water, one sees beautiful ornamental plants at every doorstep. It’s a reminder that at the end of the day even the poorest of the poor delight in the beauty of life.

Economic opportunity, clean water, sanitation, electricity, healthy food, security, education and health care: all of these elements are bound together in addressing this wicked problem. We cannot successfully build homes without building community.

Dartmouth graduate and ACE2016 participant Julia McElhinney sums up her experience in the initiative with these thoughts:

I feel very fortunate to be involved in such a creative, collaborative and conscientious initiative as an undergraduate student and now as a young professional. It is an incredible feeling to be even a small part of such proactive and positive change in our world. Largely because of my experiences on this project, I have decided to dedicate my studies to sustainable urban design and, in particular, public placemaking for community building.

Can the project deliver on the three D’s? Stay tuned or better yet join the initiative.