Tue | Jan 21, 2020

David Salmon | Unplanned growth: The challenges of urban sprawl in Jamaica – Pt 1

Published:Sunday | December 15, 2019 | 12:25 AM
Bernard Lodge property in St Catherine.
David Salmon
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Prime Minster Andrew Holness has consistently expressed his interest in the construction of affordable housing solutions for the average Jamaican. His overwhelming support of the Greater Bernard Lodge Development is indicative of this ambitious effort. While I applaud the prime minister on his blitz approach to rectify the housing shortage, the actions undertaken to achieve this outcome raise immeasurable challenges for the future of the country’s sustainable development.

In the past, Jamaica’s development has often taken place in a silo with a limited understanding of the implications of decisions undertaken. For instance, the unchecked development of Bernard Lodge will contribute to unrestrained and unmitigated urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is the rapid expansion of the outward geographic limit of cities and towns. Additional construction is often unplanned and can be characterised by low-density residential housing that has an over-reliance on vehicles for transportation.

To illustrate this point, picture a city extending from Angels Estate, north of Spanish Town to Portmore in southern St Catherine. Then, think of it stretching from Bernard Lodge in the west to Bull Bay in the east, and within these spaces exist nothing but asphalt roads, paved sidewalks, concrete buildings and negligible green spaces. This is the potential future of our urban landscape. If one simply peruses the Greater Bernard Lodge (GBL) Master Plan, Spanish Town will,via Bernard Lodge, merge into Portmore, which is currently the fastest-growing housing settlement in Jamaica. Taking into consideration the pace of Kingston’s westward expansion, it is almost certain that this new development will be consumed by the capital in the next 20 years!

“Hurray! Development has been achieved,” is the likely counterpoint detractors will use to justify this occurrence. However, this is simply growth, not development. The consequences of uncontrolled urban sprawl are quite profound. First, you are going to see higher air pollution because of an increased dependence on cars. Research conducted by Li, Zhang, Sailor, Ban-Weiss (2019) from the University of Southern California, proved that amplified urbanisation can cause changes in meteorological conditions that influence concentrations of air pollutants, including nitrous oxides, ozone and fine particulate matter. In 2012, both Kingston and Portmore had more than double the appropriate level of air contaminants stipulated by the World Health Organization (WHO). This will unlikely change with additional urbanisation.

Second, you are going to see higher levels of water pollution. Bernard Lodge is described by its own master plan as a place of high aquifer vulnerability. Margat (1970) defines aquifer vulnerability as the possibility of percolation and diffusion of contaminants from the ground surface into natural water-table reserves. Spanish Town and Portmore have already been compromised. Even if strict environmental standards are applied (like Jamaica already has an exceptionally good track record of this), the possibility of contamination from surface run-off is a real threat.

AQUIFER PROTECTED ZONE

Additionally, the area was designated an Aquifer Protected Zone (APZ) in 2004. The GBL Master Plan found that this decision protected the aquifer as it sustained the green agricultural buffer zone effectively functioning as a moratorium on Portmore’s outward expansion. One can conclude that developing this area neighbouring Portmore, for housing, is not the best way to protect the aquifer. In fact, if you look at the existing location of wells and the proposed structure of the town, it would be easy to identify that the location of most wells corresponds with the location of housing units. To compound the situation, this development is taking place in the context of an incomplete National Spatial Plan. Without a framework on the effective use of the country’s resources, any such development will be limited in its scope at best.

Furthermore, the master plan states that there will be a moratorium to “prevent any further encroachment of urbanisation on to the Agricultural Zone, removing all loopholes for exceptions”.

This will be open for review within 20 years after it is implemented. The question one must ask is, “Who exactly would be responsible for enforcement and the subsequent review of this decision?” To quote a Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) study published in 2018, “ NEPA (our national environmental protection agency) has continued to operate under multiple laws that predate the organisation. There is no legislation to give legal authority to the agency,” which leaves the previous question unanswered.

Another finding of this report was also telling. It stated, “A culture of non-compliance … has evolved, a culture in which state agencies and private sector actors are not constrained by laws or regulations in their actions, regardless of the environmental effects … . There is an absence of effective enforcement measures, including the application of sanctions. Monitoring of the health of the natural environment remains extremely weak.” In light of these observations, it is obvious that enforcement is lacklustre at best, which indicates institutional weakness.

Therefore, in spite of this so-called moratorium, there is little capacity for enforcement and thus little to prevent further urbanisation, further urban sprawl and more pollution. It is clear that unmitigated urban sprawl represents a significant threat to Jamaica’s continued sustainable development.

- David Salmon is a first-year public policy and management student at The University of the West Indies and the 2019 recipient of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. To send feedback, he may be contacted at davidsalmon@live.com.