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Haiti - a lesson about big cities

February 5th, 2010
By David Armstrong

The terrible humanitarian situation in Haiti following the big earthquake is saddening beyond measure. As for so many other outsiders I'm sure, for me there is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that even donating significant sums of money cannot alleviate.

The disaster also offers some lessons and insights about modern living, and I want to discuss one.

Most of what we're read and heard and seen in the various media has centred on what's happening in and around the capital Port-au-Prince, a city, we're told, of 3 million souls.

It's easy to feel anger or disgust when reading about or watching the looting and anarchy, the stampedes for food, but try to imagine a similar situation in a quake-threatened Wellington with its population of around half a million.

With the airport essentially out of action, how would planes get in with aid? With roads damaged and buildings collapsed along major thoroughfares, how would stuff be distributed? How would you get your survival food after days, even weeks, if all the shops ran dry or were destroyed? What would you drink if the water reticulation system was broken?

How long would it take before you took matters into your own hands and grabbed what you could from wherever you could find it? Desperate shortages lead to desperate actions.

We in New Zealand started to imagine the implications of such infrastructure stress when swine flu caused alarm a year or so ago. What would you need on hand within your home if you couldn't easily get to the supermarket or the chemist? We've also had civil defence analysis and advice put to us to contemplate what would happen in an earthquake or tsunami struck here. We tried to think down that path, but it's so hard to actually picture. I think it wouldn't be much different to events in Port au Prince, perhaps just a slightly more dignified or restrained desperation.

My point is that cities of the size of Port-au-Prince, or Sydney, or Auckland simply cannot operate for their residents without the infrastructure to enable goods and services to be traded or exchanged. In all but the most primitive of lifestyles, life depends on the exchange of products and services. You have no garden? That's OK, you simply buy food from those who do, using money you got from selling what you do have or services you offer to others in the city who don't have what you do.

It all works as long as there are places of exchange, the means for buyers and sellers to travel to those places, accessible producers of all goods and services regarded as necessary or desirable for life (including transportation to ship in goods not produced locally), and willing buyers and sellers.

But what happens when the market infrastructure breaks down physically? If sellers cannot get goods to market, or cannot even produce the goods, and/or if buyers cannot get to market or cannot afford to pay for purchasers, then it all turns to custard. In a big city, that is.

In smaller communities, people can exchange without the need for the intermediary marketplaces, and distance and access to market is not a problem.

Five months ago I moved from Christchurch to Motueka. Now everything I need to live comfortably and productively is within walking or cycling distance. The surrounding countryside is capable of supporting the living needs (in particular, the food) of all the residents. The water is sourced locally so, if push came to shove, I could walk to the river to fill a few pots.

If a major disaster hit Motueka, many people's livelihoods would be severely affected, but we would mostly get by with locally grown food that is accessible via barter trades from walkable sources. We could get clean water (although a tsunami may limit that for a while if lots of seawater got in). With a town built of discrete houses rather that built in top of and hard up against each other, it would be relatively easy to gather enough materials to built adequate temporary shelters.

Sure, there are some nice things that are not readily available in this town, such as big-box retail outlets, concerts by overseas entertainers, tertiary learning institutions, and a full range of eateries (though we do pretty well here on these). For these we do need to drive to Nelson. But most of us know that these consumer items are elective add-ons, not necessities of life.

I wrote a while ago about the reasons I moved to Motueka. Those reasons are based on concepts of community, physical size, and healthy sustainability. The news of yet another humanitarian tragedy in Port-au-Prince, which has been made far worse than many other earthquakes because it was centred near a large, populous, overcrowded and already-stressed city, reinforces for me the unsustainable nature of living cheek-by-jowl in large cities.

I'm not saying that therefore all large cities should be broken up and the population moved to smaller towns and communities like ours, but by encouraging the growth of larger cities - by centralising markets in order to build further material wealth - we are making ever bigger problems for ourselves into the future (as well as enlarging the potential for natural disasters to lead to greater humanitarian tragedies).

I believe we should stop fostering ever-larger cities and population centres by encouraging decentralised economies, and by de-emphasising market-driven consumer economics.

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