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A Tale of Three Cities

The following is a guest post from the newest Threadheads, our summer interns, Brett and Emmy. Or as we call them “Bremmy.” 

(Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White/Getty Images/Popular Mechanics)

Can links be drawn between different cities (with vastly different cultures) in terms of urban renewal after a disaster? How can our own Pittsburgh—which had to burn street lights during the day 50 years ago because the smog was so thick—change the way we look at Haiti?

Often, it seems like we think about Haiti in terms of an irreparable, distant place that shares no connection to Pittsburgh. But, it hasn’t been so long since Pittsburgh served as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II, blindly placing mills and factories on the urban landscape, and making the city an undesirable, and even unsafe place to live. Without smoke abatement, and a diminishing demand for steel after the war, most affluent residents relocated and the city was left in disrepair.

Pittsburgh’s solution was to begin demolishing swaths of buildings, and rebuild with the environment and an urban plan in mind. This seemed to work, as Pittsburgh has since undergone a mini-Renaissance. And, the city has seen great advances in terms of sustainability and livability since this time. But similar tactics in a country like Haiti seem improbable, or even impossible.

What does that mean for Haiti? We draw upon Modern-day Manshiyat naser, or Garbage City, as it’s more colloquially known, on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt in relation to these two cities. Heaps of garbage cover every horizontal surface, including the ground plane, balconies, and even the roofs of buildings. It was hard not to compare something that is so explicitly characterized by its waste problem to the issue Thread is trying to eliminate on-the-ground in Haiti.

Source: Simone Larsen /

Garbage City is able to eliminate the waste in the city because of workers called Zabbaleen, who are given “garbage” from Cairo to personally collect, sort, and reuse. And, the most impressive aspect of this system is that it is all done by hand in a manner more efficient than the processes we use: 80% of the scraps collected are reused in some fashion. Food scraps are fed to livestock, mostly pigs, things which are broken are repaired, and if they are beyond use, they are either sold for scrap or burned for fuel.

However, this system is at risk. Much as the lack of demand for steel changed Pittsburgh, there is now a lack of demand for the Zabbaleens’ services; Cairo has begun to implement a more “modern” waste management corporation. Additionally, because of the outbreak of swine flu, the government has ordered the slaughter of pigs. Hence, not only are the already impoverished Zabbaleen now out of work because of sales resistance, they are now losing their main method of disposing of waste. To further prove Zabbaleen services valuable, citizens of Cairo have begun to see an increase in the amount of garbage accumulating in their streets. The problem has become severe enough that even the United Nations has noted that it was a mistake to eliminate the pigs, which the Zabaleen used extensively for disposal of trash.

How do three cities, with three very different cultures and three very different financial situations, respond and adapt to the similar problems? We cannot necessarily rely upon typical forms of recycling or reorganizing; often the most efficient and socially conscious solution is one, which is not ubiquitous. Pittsburgh had the resources for a more “typical” method of reorganizing; tearing down the pieces of the city they deemed less desirable and rebuilding back better. The other two cities, however, do not have this luxury.

Since contracting waste management services to private companies and ordering the slaughter of pigs, Cairo is locked into a new system which allows for a more uniform cycle of waste management, but it is restrictive in terms of how much it can clean up. This is a negative effect to the Egyptian infrastructure. The manner in which the Zabaleen upcycled disposed items proved to be the most efficient way to keep Cairo clean. As for Haiti, Thread is on the forefront of helping with waste management and control. Although not a usual form of eliminating waste, it is more beneficial than a typical waste management system. Thread is able to not only recycle waste, but also provide jobs, create a sell-able product, and simultaneously clean the environment. We look forward to seeing the long term effect this kind of business has on Haiti’s urban renewal.


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