Editorial | Bernard Lodge and the lesson from Rasta City
There are two significant takeaways from Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ visit last week to the Rasta City area of the west Kingston community of Tivoli Gardens.
One is that he was appalled by the squalor in which people lived. “Your conditions here are not something that the Government is proud of,” the prime minister said.
The other is that while the PM promised to do something about the decrepitude, he didn’t say that people would be moved to greenfield communities, or that new cities would be built. Indeed, Mr Holness recognised that the blight that has overtaken Rasta City is common across urban Jamaica. The visit, perhaps, provided the prime minister with new perspectives on how Jamaica might go about inner-city renewal, leading, hopefully, to shelving of his plan to plant the island’s best agricultural land in concrete for a new city.
Jamaica faces a major problem, if not crisis, of shelter. An estimated 900,000 people, or nearly a third of the population, live in squatter or informal settlements, with inadequate access to basic amenities, as is the case in Rasta City, most of whose multistorey apartments, built more than a half a century ago, are now derelict.
Up to now in Jamaica, the way in which urban decay is dealt with is for people who can afford it to flee the encroaching blight to new suburban developments, leaving the tenements to a new influx of ‘migrants’ and squatters. But new communities have a cost, requiring supporting infrastructure, such as roads, sewerage, electricity and, sometimes, even highways, to connect to critical services.
Often, the lands on which they are built used to be in agriculture. It is not surprising, therefore, that in little over half a century, of the 37 per cent of Jamaica considered suitable for agriculture, less than 20 per cent is available. Much of what has been lost was requisitioned for real estate development, including by state agencies or their partners. And more of the best agricultural lands are in danger of capture.
Take the case of Bernard Lodge Estate on the St Catherine plains, which the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) says possesses Jamaica’s “most fertile” and “A1” soils. It is there that the prime minister plans his new township of 17,000 homes, as well as commercial and recreational facilities. That is separate from the 3,000 acres to be used for large-scale farming and agro-industrial facilities.
This won’t be the first time chunks of Bernard Lodge are hived off for real estate. That doesn’t mean the precedent should last.
Putting cities on the most fertile soils forecloses those lands to agriculture, undermining, it seems, the Government’s declared policy commitment to farming and food security, at a time when the science of global warming warns that a hotter planet will lead to a decrease in agricultural yields by up to a third. All things being equal, in a few years it will require 33.3 per cent more land to grow the same amount of food. Food prices will rise.
In any event, there is enough marginal lands across Jamaica, including in proximity to Bernard Lodge’s proposed agro-industrial projects, on which a new township, if desperately needed, can be built.
The availability of marginal lands apart, urban renewal, as Mr Holness appreciates with respect to Rasta City, should be the first consideration in dealing with Jamaica’s shelter problem. Most communities, including those around National Heroes Circle – the capital’s last remaining significant bit of green space, where Mr Holness wants to construct a new Parliament – possess basic infrastructure, including roads, water and creaky sewer systems. They are already in proximity to government and commercial services. Much of their housing stock is salvageable.
A large proportion of the people who live in these communities neither hold titles to the properties they occupy nor can afford to refurbish them. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be part of an urban renewal, in which they have a stake. For they are not without resources, including, potentially, sweat equity.
It can’t be beyond the imagination of Government to leverage community equity, as well as those of state institutions and the private sector to launch a major, and concerted, assault on the urban decay that so blight people’s lives.