Fourteen years ago, a small non-profit called Urban Reclamation rebuilt a devastated neighborhood in Port-aux-Prince, Haiti. Though several other efforts had been proposed and enacted in Haiti the Urban Reclamation model was unique in that it concentrated a population that had once lived on 200 acres on to only 100 acres. The remaining land was cleared of recyclable, reusable, and hazardous material, and then, amazingly, returned to a quasi-pristine, natural state. Complete with native flora and fauna. Since that first project in 2012, Urban Reclamation has reclaimed land in Detroit, New Orleans, Japan and Bangladesh. Their techniques have revolutionized the human/nature interface while demonstrating the economic and health benefits of building up. In this interview we talk with Joshua Fletcher, one of the founders of Urban Reclamation, about how his group created an international aid organization that redefined how we approach blighted and underdeveloped areas.
DO: Urban Reclamation has been around for a while now and made friends and enemies around the world. Tell us how this idea got started:
Fletcher: Before we even began trying to figure out how to change the way our species approaches urban development, somebody had to realize there was a problem. I mean, people had been talking about vertical farming, rooftop gardening, road construction moratoriums for years. But the sheer cost of converting existing buildings and infrastructure was massive. One of our founding members, Emma Schwartz, first came up with the idea when she went to visit her father in southern California. They were driving through Orange County and her father was telling her about the orange groves that used to grow there. She realized that the urban design of southern California could never accommodate change. During her visit she researched the long gone orange groves and the native species that had lived there before the Americans came to dominate the landscape. From these initial ideas she came back to Montana with the seed of the idea that would become Urban Reclamation.
DO: Who else was involved with developing that initial idea?
Fletcher: There was Schwartz and myself plus a handful of other people. Pretty much it we were all in the right place at the right time. Emma was studying ecology, I was studying international business. Brent Wilson, a friend of mine from high school, was studying civil engineering in New York. Shannon Pierce, Jenna Vidrielli, and Kalya Redland all came to us as wildlife biologists. Between us we began to construct this idea that suburban sprawl and urban cores could be removed and replaced with green, concentrated development. Wilson pointed out that U.S. cities had been using demolition as a primary community development tool for decades. However, a lot of domestic demolition was never redeveloped. We saw this as a chance to begin converting cities from sprawling masses of degradation and energy waste to something much more aesthetically pleasing and efficient.
DO: As most of our readers know, your organization eventually spread to several hundred planners and volunteers. What did it take to build up from that group of friends imagining a better world to your first project?
Fletcher: A lot. The idea was simple but we had to find a lot of people and contact a lot of organizations just to put a business plan together. We constructed a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate what practices we expected to use and also to show the people we approached where we would need input and their help to make the overall idea a reality. We reached out to a lot of research departments and corporations. Many people were attracted to the idea of using their research to support this mission that wasn’t pursuing profits and that was offering a way to implement technologies that would otherwise be suppressed by entrenched corporations and anachronistic technologies. As more people came on board and filled in more of the pieces of the overall idea, we reached a point where we could begin to sign agreements and pursue funding. It was around this time that the earthquake in Haiti happened and presented us with an opportunity to prove our idea.
DO: Haiti was the site of your first pilot project?
Fletcher: Yes. We weren’t able to become active there until a few years after it happened. Despite all the aid that was channeled to the Haiti rebuild, practically nothing had been accomplished there and many people still lived in rubble or unsafe structures.
DO: Your work in Haiti succeeded in more or less proving the Urban Reclamation concept. Give us a brief description of how it happened:
Fletcher: In order for us to start we needed funding. Numerous businesses offered to donate equipment or technology. Fortunately, we received several grants, one really important one from the Gates Foundation and a few others from (Mark) Zuckerberg and another from the Sierra Club. We bought a 500 hectare plot of land east of the Siloe Neighborhood for our pilot project. Before we acquired this property, approximately 18,000 people had resided there. They experienced massive structural destruction with practically no reconstruction. Furthermore, practically no intact natural biosphere remained on this land. This project provided us the opportunity to fully demonstrate all of our ideas and technologies, while inventing some new solutions to unanticipated problems.
DO: Please give an overview of your process to our readers:
Fletcher: We began by cataloging existing infrastructure, biosphere, and potential resources for extraction. We identified what could be used, salvaged, recycled or cleanly disposed of. In addition to this, we surveyed existing native species and, in the instance of Haiti, we research historical flora and fauna. We didn’t worry about resource extraction on this project though that is an option we consider on some sites. We surveyed existing topography to identify the most ideal locations to position construction, ultimately deciding to concentrate the population on no more than 125 hectares, utilizing another 125 for agriculture, while rehabilitating the remainder. Our general idea is to position the structures and agriculture in such a way as to provide green ribbons and wildlife corridors throughout the land. On the larger portion we salvaged what we could from the rubble while clearing hazardous material and rubble. Much of the rubble on the property was left in place and simply covered with soil or organic waste, essentially forming a rolling terrain. In all reality, rebuilding a native biosphere was the cheapest part of the project. We cleaned out hazardous materials and pollutants, we put in riparian protections and planted thousands of trees, plants, and grasses while reintroducing a number of animal species, some of which were brought in from the Dominican Republic.
As for building new infrastructure, our neighborhoods are purposely built to not accommodate cars. This wasn’t much of a problem in Haiti but met with resistance on other projects. With our developments so concentrated we focus on foot and bike travel with plans for the future implementation of light rail and commuter trains for connecting neighborhoods and regions. In this project we built up between ten and twenty stories, employing Haitian architects to design the buildings. We employed a mixed-use infrastructure: placing commercial, manufacturing, etc on the bottom floors with residential above. All units are built to be comparable in size, ranging from studios to three bedrooms. We knew this would be a problem with a high birth rate and relatively large family sizes but, considering that as the community would reach a higher level of wealth and education, family sizes would predictably drop in the future and oversized units would ultimately be inefficient. In addition to unit size, we built a capacity for 110% of the original population that we needed to serve, allowing us to sell excess units as well as our idea.
Our construction recycles as much material as possible from the previous buildout while installing stand alone modern amenities. Each home had an electric range, running water, and an air conditioner. We installed solar water heaters, solar paneling, solar paints, compact wind turbines, and Tata’s aquapower generator. We maximized rain water collection to reduce reliance on the local water table. Furthermore, we employ advanced sewage treatment to replenish the hydrosphere.
DO: How did you win approval from the people who had lived there before and how did you involve them?
Fletcher: Some of the people were against us when we first arrived for the simple fact that the Haitian government sold us the block of land without compensating a number of the previous owners. We worked with the community to address their concerns and to show them what we intended to do. Many of those who felt they had been cheated by the government were small shop owners. We assured them that we intended to provide them with new properties for their businesses.
Once we overcame initial local opposition we used the vast majority of the people there to make this project a reality. We brought in cheap prefab structures to house the people while the rubble and buildings were cleared away. The local people provided all the labor on site. We provided them with contracts that ensured either a wage or a guaranteed home and job once the process was complete. Many of the young residents received training from us in construction, appliance repair and maintenance, agriculture, land management, security, administration, and teaching for starters. This education makes the process much more sustainable in the long run.
We attempted to organize the entire community on a Cooperative Business Model. The idea was to give everybody an equal share in the success of the community.
DO: But that model didn’t work out?
Fletcher: No it didn’t. We wanted to organize the Haiti build around a neighborhood cooperative, essentially so that the community would own all the property and finance some of its support jobs itself. Really we attempted to create a new form of local government. However this did not succeed. We faced a cultural backlash against this idea that could not be overcome. People wanted to own their homes outright, with no obligation to their neighbors. Furthermore, the people didn’t understand the idea that they whole community was a business. Most of them simply wanted a job with a boss or to own a small shop. We had to adjust our overall plan to meet their wishes. Many of the businesses that remain in the Haiti project are organized around a cooperative model and receive funding from the community, but this required bureaucracy that we would have liked to avoid.
The primary business role of the pilot project was to produce a skill base to expand the idea throughout the city. We trained enough people to manage subsequent developments, with our continued assistance. However, even after the first few years the whole thing exploded and the original community became quite rich. Since we continued to own a number of the buildings and land we received a portion of their profits which we directed toward future projects.
DO: What are the major lessons you learned from this project?
Fletcher: We learned that the people take pride in their community once they have something to be proud of. Everybody who live there place great stock in the fact that they live in modern housing with electricity. They no longer need to cut firewood or live in a smoky environment. The people zealously protect their natural lands and work to spread the elements of their community to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Nonetheless, security has always been a major issue. People from adjacent neighborhoods who still rely on firewood have cut down a number of trees. The protective force that we created became extremely aggressive in defending the trees which resulted in some legal problems. This is why we formed local organizations to enact similar projects to eliminate the practice of cooking with firewood.
Another business that we created was a recycling business. All the people sort their trash and one of the community businesses sells the plastics, papers, and glass to a Chinese firm. The community even enacted an ordinance preventing the sale or distribution of goods in packaging that they could not sell or process. The fact that they lived in a clean environment for the first time in their lives also contributed to the success of the recycling program.
A major problem we continue to face is funding. Our developments employ cutting edge technologies that do not provide much opportunity for the transnational corporations to come in and make a profit. We believe that a localized economy is cheaper and cleaner than a reliance on products made around the world. Of course many materials and objects we use are made around the world by a number of businesses but our essential social model and business model does not meet to their liking. So, we face opposition from many groups and struggle to receive funding. Strangely, the past few years China has stepped forward to fund some of our projects and to provide the materials and equipment we install.
The last major lesson we’ve learned since Haiti is about retention. Initially our organization was made up of volunteers. Today we actually rely on more volunteers than ever before but we learned that we have to maintain a paid staff to avoid deadly turnover rates. People are eager to make a name for themselves with us but they also need to pay the bills.
DO: What’s in the future for Urban Reclamation?
Fletcher: We have many exciting projects ahead. We have ongoing projects around the U.S. and Canada as well as a high profile project in Mexico City. Despite our recent successes our goal is still the same: to reduce the urban footprint on our planet, fostering a respect for nature while providing the means for society to better integrate with. Our practices have demonstrated that vertical construction is more efficient, less costly and less destructive than the twentieth century concept of urban sprawl. Our mission continues to be to save the planet.