Editorial | Time to tackle urban decay
Among Jamaica’s more impressive developments in public infrastructure in recent decades is the expansion of its network of highways and major roads.
There is, for instance, the tolled east-west segment, between Portmore, St Catherine, and May Pen, Clarendon, of Highway 2000, built and controlled, initially, by the French company, Bouygues Travaux Publics, which the Government is about to list on the Jamaica Stock Exchange. Another is the Chinese-owned North-South Highway, between Caymanas, St Catherine, and Mammee Bay, St Ann. Before these was the redevelopment of the 225-kilometre North Coast Highway, from Negril in the west, to Port Antonio in the east.
Additionally, in the last four years, the Government has completed, or is near to completing, the rehabilitation and expansion of several key thoroughfares in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, at a cost of around J$25 billion. Other significant road projects are about to start, or are at advanced stages of planning.
What we suck at, even though the Government periodically pledges its intention to get on with it, is urban renewal. The evidence is obvious, and in clear sight, in decayed communities across the island, but especially in the capital. In part, the development of new roads, and the expansion of existing ones, is a nod to this failure. For, instead of fixing old communities, the emphasis, over decades, has largely been on greenfield housing developments. These demand new infrastructure, including roads with which to connect them to critical services in towns and cities.
Indeed, Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ pushing ahead with his new city of 17,000 homes at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, on what the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency describes as the island’s “most fertile” and “class 1” soil, is symptomatic of the problem. But urban renewal, in any context, is not easy. In Jamaica’s, it can be expected to be far more difficult.
It is estimated that between a quarter and a third of Jamaica’s population, or up to 900,000 people, live in squatter, or informal settlements, which means they have no titles to their properties and, often, that their communities are without formal infrastructure or other services. However, some of these are old urban communities, from which the original residents fled, and are decayed from decades of neglect, or inadequate attention. These communities are usually associated with social dysfunction and high levels of crime.
But that’s not all there is to them. Many have, to varying degrees of usefulness, basic infrastructure, such as roads and water and sewer systems, as well as, in some cases, habitable or salvageable houses. And not all the residents, as is sometimes presumed, are criminals, or supporters of criminality.
What they are likely to be, though, is financially poor and incapable of affording the upgrading of their homes and communities. This, however, doesn’t mean they are without resources, especially if helped to recognise their resources. In that respect, it can’t be beyond the capacity of Jamaican policymakers to devise schemes to unlock community resources, including sweat equity, and to leverage this with those of the State, via institutions such as the National Housing Trust, and the private sector, for a major assault on urban decay.
Notwithstanding its collapse under the weight of bad management and corruption, the Operation PRIDE scheme of two and half decades ago, with its aim of utilising community partnerships and state resources in shelter development, offers an insight into the possibilities. For such arrangements to be successful, they demand hard work, including strong government-led community mobilisation and effective management.
If Prime Minister Holness, in whose portfolio such a project would fall, has ideas on this front, he should share them with the public. The last time he spoke with any depth on this issue was at the height of the debate of his plan to site Parliament in National Heroes Park and for a redevelopment of adjacent communities. The latter part of the proposal, however, was, at best, embryonic and insubstantial.