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It is almost noon—lunchtime in the Caracol Industrial Park, the “PIC,” a bold flagship economic development project in Northern Haiti. In a few minutes, hundreds of workers, most of them women, will hurry out of the Park’s industrial shells for a spot in one of the long tables in the main dining hall. Still others will dash out of the gates to look for street vendors, whose presence confirms the PIC’s economic potential. It is one of the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative’s (ESCI) first visits to the PIC and the surrounding municipalities, and we can already sense the potential for rapid demographic growth and some of the challenges and opportunities for future urban sustainability in the region.

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Picture by Patricio Zambrano-Barragán in Haiti

The North is a sparsely populated region, traditionally devoted to agriculture and fishing. But change is stirring. Southeast of Cap Haïtien lies Carrefour de la Mort, “Death’s Roundabout,” which is neither a roundabout nor especially deadly. The place marks the beginning of Route National 6, a seemingly unremarkable two lane backcountry road. The drive east from the Carrefour is quiet and soothing, offering a view of the Massif Nord mountain range and an occasional glimpse of the mangrove coastline. Stretching some 70 kilometers long, RN6 sees little traffic beyond a few loud motorbikes, an occasional SUV, and tap-taps—shared taxis—filled with school children. Yet RN6 is newly repaved and has the potential to connect over five-hundred thousand people in Haiti’s Nord and Nord-Est departments.

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New developments line both sides of the renovated RN6. Near the town of Limonade, construction has just finished on a new, 10,000 student campus, l’Université Henri Christophe. A few miles away, a cluster of pink, blue, and yellow houses interrupts the otherwise empty savannah: the site of a new USAID-funded, 3,000-unit housing complex, still under construction and awaiting new dwellers. Following on the PIC’s lead, both projects are expected to spark development in the region. The Park itself could bring over 20,000 new light manufacture jobs in the next few years. The project is a bold undertaking for Haiti and its partners; with support from the United States government and the IDB, the PIC was built quickly and presents a way to decentralize economic activity following the earthquake that shattered Port-au-Prince in 2010. The PIC occupies 75 hectares north of RN6, midway between Cap Haïtien, Haiti’s second largest and fastest-growing city, and Ouanaminthe, a trading city on the border with the Dominican Republic. Half a dozen large industrial shells house operations for the first PIC tenant, South Korea’s SAE-A, a textile conglomerate. Currently, over one thousand people shuttle daily to the PIC for work, Haitians whose prospects for a minimum wage job would otherwise be slim.

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Picture by Patricio Zambrano-Barragán. USAID Housing near Limonade

The PIC stands out among the few other industrial operations in northern Haiti. It is spacious, clean, and colorful; even the USAID-funded diesel plant that powers the site is painted cheerful shades of pink and yellow. The Park functions as a privileged site—a free trade zone where products benefit from a differentiated and/or preferential economic and trade regime (also known as ‘maquila’ or ‘special production zone,’ depending on the particular geography and local political goal). As such, the PIC tests the efficacy of a traditional economic development idea—an anchor project that serves to spur infrastructure, capitalize on trade-related competitive advantages, and ultimately to deliver development through state- and donor-led investments.

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Picture by Patricio Zambrano-Barragán. Parc Industriel de Caracol (PIC)

There are, however, no clear prescriptions for how to spread growth to communities outside the PIC. Even positive economic performance indicators do not guarantee equal improvements in quality of life in urban settlements nearby. The spatial impacts of special economic zones are scarcely understood and difficult to predict. Improvised and extralegal use of surrounding lands for housing and commerce that ultimately leads to the ghettoization of communities is a common phenomenon (Haiti itself has had bitter experiences in the past in this arena). Managing this is not only a law enforcement challenge, but one of spatial equality, i.e., an urban development problem of balancing political action between the state and civil society. The challenge is to ensure that territorial management—formalizing settlements, providing basic infrastructure, reducing risk and vulnerability, protecting the environment, etc.—simultaneously helps anchor projects like the PIC succeed while accommodating the myriad potential uses citizens may give to the transitional areas nearby.

Haitian planning authorities are well aware of the challenges and opportunities tied to the PIC and other economic development projects in the region—which they now refer to as the Northern Development Corridor. The IDB’s ESCI recently partnered with Haitian authorities to work on site-specific urban development strategies. Our joint approach is, by necessity, interdisciplinary—with a focus that includes integrated resources management for the region’s watersheds and its main aquifer, the Massacre, to the development of multimodal mobility plans (the average worker may spend over 25% of her salary on transportation alone), among other topics. Local administrative capacities face a common problem: a small tax base, dependence on national-level distribution of fiscal resources, and limited technical capacity for regional planning. ESCI’s work in Haiti is thus also multi-scalar: plans for future development must empower each municipality while keeping a regional perspective, especially in light of overall growth scenarios and implicit infrastructure needs arising from increased activity, both formal and informal.

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Picture by Patricio Zambrano-Barragán. Haiti

Lespwa fè viv, goes the Creole proverb—Hope lets you live. The PIC and other economic development projects in the North will likely succeed in creating long-term job opportunities for local communities. However, these benefits will mean nothing if new, inequitable spatial divides arise in the region. Any development intervention in the Corridor is thus inextricably linked to the right to sustainable cities—the capacity of Haitians to shape future urban growth.