If you're like me, the earthquake in Haiti made you feel an even stronger commitment to your community, love for your friends and family, and a deeper appreciation for all the things you are blessed with. I know it caused me to think about how I can be altruistic in my daily actions, and all the things I can easily do, and should do, but often don't. Like donate blood. Or send a $10 donation to a group doing important work. While there are no parallels that can be drawn between the tragedy in Haiti and our work here, there are lessons that can be learned about how to build on individual and neighborhood assets as the key elements to rebuilding a community. How can we harness the energy that often arises out of situations such as these, and ensure that it is put to the greater good? Part of the puzzle is getting the primary decision makers, including local government, to recognize the importance of neighborhood-based action, and to value the wisdom of the people who actually live and work in a place and know best how to make it work again.

Here's more food for thought on this topic from the NY Times:

Learn From Postwar Tokyo
By MATIAS ECHANOVE and RAHUL SRIVASTAVA
Published: January 16, 2010

The standard approach to residential redevelopment projects is to take ground zero as a starting point — even if it means creating it. This often translates into shifting people from substandard but incrementally developing environments into apartment blocks that cut them off from their social networks and livelihoods. These projects often become housing-centric and blind to the relationship between neighborhoods and economic development. They end up benefiting the construction industry much more than the population they are supposed to serve. Haiti’s shattered urban landscapes were about communities, street life, resourcefulness, aspirations and dynamic local exchanges. As we have seen in the Dharavi area of Mumbai (the setting of “Slumdog Millionaire”), poverty often generates creative responses and initiatives. Local actors tend to produce piecemeal development that directly supports neighborhood-level activity. As we consider how to rebuild Port-au-Prince, we can find an alternative to the usual top-down redevelopment model in postwar Tokyo. The Japanese government didn’t have the money to rebuild housing and so focused instead on roads, sewage and rail transportation. It also encouraged lenders to give families money to build homes. A decentralized and highly participatory urban redevelopment process produced areas of low-rise, high-density structures built with local skills and material. This not only strengthened communities but also stimulated the local economies. Tokyo today has a landscape that is futuristic and yet retains many traditional Asian urban features including street markets, small-scale businesses and family enterprises. The incremental redevelopment of Tokyo was thus intricately connected to the rise of its middle class. If aid in Haiti aims specifically at regenerating local economies, if it promotes existing skills and collective initiatives, if it consults with grassroots groups and residents directly, it may well bring about a real transformation.

Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava are founders of URBZ — User-Generated Cities.

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