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News > Advancing Architecture and Design > Meeting a Community's Challenging Needs Through Design Research

Meeting a Community's Challenging Needs Through Design Research

Community College of Philadelphia - Department of Architecture, Design & Construction

Ariel Vazquez- Faculty

Department of Architecture, Design & Construction

Community College of Philadelphia 

The Dominican Republic and Haiti border spans 392 km (244 miles) on the island of Hispaniola. Since the 2010 earthquake, the border has been a source of tension between the two nations. The Dominican Republic's previous president, Danilo Mejia, campaigned with support from the Nationalist movement on a promise to build a physical wall on 122 km of the shared border in response to an increased migration of undocumented Haitians. The current president, Luis Abinader, started to fulfill that promise after the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise in 2021. 

In October 2022, Haiti's Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, requested the U.N.'s aid and intervention in easing a humanitarian crisis caused by food and fuel price increases and the power vacuum left by the president's assassination. In response, President Abinader tasked the Ministry of Economy, Planning and Development (MEPyD) with investigating and providing data on the conditions of the Dominican border districts and towns. Unfortunately, the MEPyD had yet to finish their assessment when President Abinader made hasty decisions in response to Haiti's current situation. Unfortunately, some of these decisions have had lasting environmental, economic, and diplomatic consequences for both countries. 

During an academic visit to the Dominican Republic in 2020, I had the opportunity to meet with the architect Erick Dorrejo, who is now the Director of Border Zone Task Projects for MEPyD, also known as #MiFronteraRD. Our discussion focused on examining the potential impact of a physical wall on the surrounding areas, expanding from economic, diplomatic, and ecological issues. As a result, in the fall of 2022, we entered into an agreement with the Ministry (MEPyD) and the Department of City and Regional Planning of the University of Pennsylvania to dedicate an interdisciplinary studio to study 3 border towns on the Dominican side. To ensure a well-rounded study, we investigated three towns - one in the North, Pepillo Salcedo; one in the center, Jimaní; and one in the South, Pedernales. The goal was to create a strategic plan for these towns, which had been neglected and dismissed since the government of Trujillo in the 1960s. We also aimed to establish a relationship between the local universities and the Ministry by providing a research and pedagogical framework. This approach allowed the local universities to explore new teaching methods and planning techniques while allowing students to work with international graduate researchers/designers in a workshop-style studio. Additionally, it gave the local universities access to the data collected by the Ministry and exposed the students to new areas of the country. 

The work by UPENN/Drexel and (Universidad Ibero-Americana, Universidad Pedro Henrique Ureña, and Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra) in the Dominican Republic could be seen as stepping stones for international and interdisciplinary collaboration and giving the students and educators an honest way to converse and directly support those communities. 

While on a fieldwork trip to the Dominican Republic in October 2022, UPENN students witnessed the government's rapid border wall construction. The wall project destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of flora and mangroves in Manzanillo alone (the town to the North), where 40 percent of the mangroves of the entire island are situated. Seven hundred families were displaced, and properties were seized to construct the physical wall. We realized the speed at that the government was moving, so urgent action was needed. We needed to design fast and grounded alternative proposals for the Ministry to present to the central and local governmental agencies to counteract some of the problems those towns faced. We focused on completing a comprehensive design and strategic planning for all those towns, so we worked with the Ministry to arrange visits and meetings with community stakeholders. The facilitated community-led Charettes helped us to create a roadmap for a master plan with direct input from the communities. Community involvement allows for ownership of the work provided by can claim ownership of the proposed master plan and working directly with government agencies for implementation. The Charette also enabled researchers and designers to deliver projects that objectively met the community's identified needs and priorities. 

The result was three master plans for three towns spanning four months that looked into housing growth, commercial investment, environmental protection, and a new proposal for an "alternative" to the physical wall. All the towns accepted the proposal, pushing the government to implement 75-90% of what the researchers/designers of the University of Pennsylvania proposed. Now, the three towns, Pepillo Salcedo, Jimaní, and Pedernales, have legally adopted the proposed master plans under the new territorial ordinance law, which was passed on January 2023. 

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