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Carol Archer | Creating new vision for Jamaica’s urban centres

Published:Sunday | August 7, 2016 | 8:00 AM
Carol Archer
In this April 20 photo, traffic is congested on Duke Street, Kingston, after a pickup truck broke down in the roadway. The Holness Government is considering the establishment of a third city in Jamaica.
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On July 14, 2016, the newly appointed board of the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) was mandated by Prime Minister Andrew Holness to make the creation of Jamaica's third city a priority. Prime Minister Holness is of the view that a new city would help to alleviate the urban overflow from Kingston and reduce the burden on the capital's infrastructure.

The prime minister also mandated the new board to transform Kingston into an international city and support the redevelopment of Montego Bay in keeping with the redevelopment plan which was completed in 2014 with funds from the Government of Jamaica and the Inter-American Development Bank.

The prime minister's vision for Jamaica's urban centres is notable in some respects and of grave concern in others. Most noteworthy is that the prime minister's vision acknowledges the United Nations' new sustainable development agenda to "end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all".

Goal 11 of the 17 goals speaks to making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Mr Holness must be commended for recognising the efforts of the previous administration for setting the framework for development in other urban centres such as Spanish Town, May Pen, Portmore and Ocho Rios and for supporting the continued collaboration of the respective government agencies to address issues of infrastructure, affordable housing, recreation, historic preservation, crime reduction, and restoration of civic pride.

 

CONCERN ABOUT BYPASS

 

Mr Holness' reference to construction of a bypass to mitigate traffic congestion in Montego Bay should be of grave concerns to anyone remotely interested in dynamics of cities. In the context of Jamaica being a small-island developing state (SID), Montego Bay can be categorised as a medium-size city based on population, land size, and infrastructure.

United States Department of Transportation-funded research shows that the construction of a bypass decimates medium-size cities. In fact, the research shows that working-class or low-income communities were the hardest hit by the construction of these highways as these residents were least able to afford private motor cars needed to access the highways.

DOT studies also showed that one of the bypasses in the city of Philadelphia negatively impacted three low-income communities because they were not able to attract needed economic investment, and the multi-lane bypass prevented residents from accessing recreational facilities. In the 1950s, US federal government was able to fund the construction of these highways from gasolene taxes, for the main purpose of spreading wealth "far and wide".

Unfortunately, at this point in history, these taxes have all but disappeared, and it has become far more expensive to construct and maintain bypasses to the point where technocrats are now looking at other means of addressing traffic flow in urban centres. John Norquist, former mayor of the city of Milwaukee, compared building a bypass to address traffic congestion to a fat person loosening his/her belt buckle to solve obesity, and the secretary of the US Department of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is convinced that bypasses did not spread prosperity; instead, they cut off low-income city dwellers from economic gains.

What is needed for Montego Bay, and indeed most of our major town centres, like May Pen, Mandeville and Santa Cruz, is a town/city centre vehicular traffic reduction plan. This would look at alternative forms of public transport into the centre, as well as more efficient roadways and parking with attendant premium charges for driving into the centre.

It is my considered opinion that the construction of a third city should not be a priority of the UDC at this time in Jamaica's history. The prime minister's call for the construction of a new city is a throwback to Ebenezer Howard, who published the book titled Garden Cities of Tomorrow in 1902. In order to escape the putrid air of poverty and blight in London, England, in the early 20th Century, Howard argued that the government and private developers should invest in the creation of a new city with homes on winding, tree-lined streets, served by new schools, parks and other public goods.

Things have changed since the 1900s, and the world is more conscious of issues related to population growth, urban sprawl, and climate change. In addition, Jamaica, being a SID is limited by the availability of suitable land for the construction of a new city as envisioned by Prime Minister Holness.

 

DECLINING POPULATION

 

Furthermore, the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) census data for 2001 and 2001 show that population in Kingston has been on the decline. This being the case, it is unclear as to the urban overflow and the burden that this has put on the city's infrastructure. I would strongly suggest that priority should be given to upgrading and maintaining the existing infrastructure in the Kingston Metropolitan Are, and all the other urban centres in the country.

I also agree with noted urban planner, Dr Pauline McHardy, whose letter to the editor in the July 26 edition of the Jamaica Observer urged the Government to complete the national spatial strategy before considering a new city. I also support McHardy's call for the Government to adopt an integrated approach to the planning and management of urban spatial development across the country if sustainable urban development is to be achieved.

The Government, through the UDC, the local planning authorities, and the National Environment and Planning Agenc, among others, should instead give uttermost priority to addressing and improving public spaces - reshaping parks, roads, the Waterfront, civic buildings and public transportation. Urban centres in Jamaica should become more integrated. One means of achieving this integration is significantly altering the parking requirements (lessening the demand on the developer to provide parking spaces for cars) and increasing the density (i.e., habitable rooms per hectare and/or plot-area ratio) for most urban centres and adjoining areas.

These measures have been proposed in the emerging development orders for areas such as Kingston and St Andrew, St Catherine, Clarendon and St James. The development orders are the legal document currently used to guide land-use management in Jamaica. Unfortunately, these orders are stalled at the desk of the chief parliamentary counsel awaiting review, and the Government is yet to decide on an approach and the finance for the preparation of the national spatial plan.

By adopting a vision of integrated city/urban planning, establishing the policy framework for achieving the vision and providing the relevant financial support for executing the programmes and projects, the prime minister can create a legacy of Jamaica's urban centres being inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

• Dr Carol Archer is associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.