Why Canaan, a Haitian city without a government, is at a crossroads

Canaan is a unique settlement in Haiti, built by displaced survivors of the 2010 earthquake with little government oversight. But with a population of 250,000, the city is at risk of becoming just "another slum" unless the government gets involved, argues one expert.

Settlement built by victims of 2010 earthquake at risk of 'another slum,' says expert

A decade ago Canaan was a bare stretch of land just north of Port au Prince, but now it's home to 250,000 people. (Anne-Marie Petter)
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The Haitian city of Canaan — which sprang up after the earthquake that devastated the country in 2010 — has reached a crossroads, according to a professor who has studied the settlement.

"Canaan can go in two different directions in the near future," said Gonzalo Lizarralde, a professor at the school of architecture at the University of Montreal.

"It can become a slum — another slum — in Haiti ... [or] it can become a livable, formal city," he told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

Governance in the city was taken on by the residents themselves ... Leaders would emerge in different neighbourhoods.- Jacob  Kushner

A decade ago Canaan was a bare stretch of land just north of Port au Prince. After the earthquake, then-president René Préval declared the area to be public land.

While this did not give people the right to claim ownership, tens of thousands moved to stake a claim, first living in tents and slowly building homes. The city they built was created entirely by the people moving there, without government oversight.

Now 250,000 people live there, without running water, electricity or sewage.

"This always happens after disasters ... but what is unique here is the speed and scale at which this process happened," said Lizarralde.

If Canaan can grow into a formal city, he said, it may eventually "help solve the housing crisis that exists in Port au Prince and many other cities in the country."

Marketplaces are part of the patchwork of the settlement of Canaan. (Anne-Marie Petter)

Canaan is a patchwork of small homes, gardens and marketplaces where creativity has helped communities flourish, said journalist Jacob Kushner.

Kushner has spent years watching the settlement develop. Despite the lack of infrastructure, many saw it as a chance at a fresh start.

​"People imagine the businesses that they can create, they imagine a home that they could pass down to their children some day," he said.

"It's fascinating to see it in a place that, just several years ago, didn't even exist."

The challenges are very real, however. The city's first public school only opened recently (many schools in Haiti are privately run) and water is trucked in and sold by private companies.

Residents have stepped into the vacuum left by the lack of government control.

"Governance in the city was taken on by the residents themselves — these people who just moved to the place," said Kushner. "Leaders would emerge in different neighbourhoods."

People saw Canaan as a fresh start and a chance to build something for their children, said journalist Jacob Kushner. (Anne-Marie Petter)

Lizarralde believes much can be learned from the way the city developed.

"It tells us that if government is not there with infrastructure, if government is not there to provide the legal structures that are required for cities to function, eventually people would develop them themselves," he said.

But people power can only do so much, he cautioned.

"There is a need to catch up later on, to integrate these informal developments into formal cities."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler, Alison Masemann, Jessica Linzey and Kristian Jebsen.

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