The Next 50 Years - Nation must meet housing challenges

Published: Sunday | December 16, 2012 Comments 0

AT INDEPENDENCE, the structure of Jamaica's larger urban areas had already taken its present shape. Each of the historic commercial centres of large towns such as Kingston, Montego Bay, Spanish Town, Mandeville, May Pen, and Savanna-la-Mar had already been ringed with informal settlements referred to as 'the inner city'.

The term 'inner city' is borrowed from the United States of America (USA) where it refers to lower-income residential districts in an urban centre and nearby. In the USA, it has the additional connotation of impoverished black and/or Hispanic neighbourhoods. In Jamaica, there is the implication of squatter settlements with zinc fences bordering narrow lanes.

These inner-city settlements began shortly after Emancipation when newly freed Jamaicans migrated to the towns in search of work. With no peri-urban housing provided by the colonial state for these migrants who were unable to afford to rent or purchase existing houses, they constructed their own shanty towns with available materials. These ramshackle dwellings - often on gully and river banks - usually had no associated sanitary facilities, and garbage-collection trucks had difficulty penetrating the dense warren of irregular tracks to remove solid waste. Pools of stagnant water in gullies and after rainfall added to the health hazard.


The challenge facing the governments of independent Jamaica was to implement a shelter programme that would provide more housing in urban areas, upgrade inner-city housing, and dismantle the squatter settlements. What was required was effective urban planning, which would create suburbs of the main towns such that long commutes would not be necessary to fulfil most daily domestic needs.

Fifty years later, there has been some progress, but there have also been some backward steps.

Governments since Independence have been successful in creating the business environment for expansion of the housing stock in Jamaica. Metropolitan Kingston has spread out in all directions. The construction of Washington Boulevard in 1959 not only provided an alternative route from St Andrew to Spanish Town, but it also opened up a large area for settlement. Pembroke Hall (1,100 units), Patrick City (800 units), Duhaney Park (2,400 units), and adjoining communities were built with proper urban planning - with the necessary physical and social infrastructure (schools, shopping centres, etc).

Spanish Town also expanded, with the construction of Eltham Park (1,500 units) and Ensom City (900 units), Keystone (300 units) and Sydenham (300 units), Angels (900 units) and Whitewater Meadows (760 units).

The same occurred in Montego Bay, May Pen, Mandeville, Morant Bay, and other urban centres.

Across Kingston Harbour, a new conurbation was created: Portmore (60,000 units) and Greater Portmore (15,000 units) were built as Kingston's 'Twin City', significantly reducing the housing pressure on Kingston and Spanish Town. Significant environmental damage took place along the way, however. The ecosystems of Kingston Harbour, including several valuable mangrove stands, have been permanently damaged, and not all the social infrastructure has yet been put in place. Possibly, the Government has learnt from the experience, which will serve them in good stead over the next 50 years.


The above-described expansion of the housing stock was led by the private sector; but in several schemes where the Government was involved, the result has been zones of political exclusion which have come to be called 'garrison communities'.

The first such was the social experiment called Tivoli Gardens in western Kingston. Its architect - sociologist and then Member of Parliament Edward Seaga - fully intended it to be a model urban inner-city community - and in many ways it was. Seaga wrote: "I planned a community of 4,000 residents living in a variety of structures, some high-rise condominiums, other town-house-type complexes, and some bungalows. There were seven parks and one large playing field for football. Other playing areas provided opportunities for smaller games such as basketball and netball.

"A huge community centre was built with rooms for training in art and craft, as well as music. It seated more than 1,000 persons. On a nearby, separate lot there was a 12-bed maternity centre for expectant mothers from a wide region, including areas surrounding the community. The national maternity hospital, Victoria Jubilee, was only one mile away but was both run-down and congested, with two expectant mothers to a bed. This community maternity centre was manned by midwives.

"It would deal with regular deliveries only. The centre was adopted as a prototype by the World Bank, and 10 centres were included in the Family Planning Programme for Jamaica financed by the World Bank. After birth, infants were registered by working mothers at the crèche in the complex for day care. Later, they attended the infant school in the same complex.

"I named it the Mother and Child Complex, the only one of its kind. There were comprehensive programmes of sports, culture, and education for adults and youths. Skills training was included for boys and girls in data entry, photography, and repair of electronic equipment. Painting, sculpture, dance, drama, and modelling, together with a steel band and bugle and drum corps, filled out the cultural programme". The modern Tivoli Gardens Comprehensive High School was built; a branch of the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Library was located in the community; the Tivoli Gardens Dance Troupe - which has won National Festival Gold Medals - was formed; the Tivoli Gardens Football Club has been a force to reckon with in national football.


But Tivoli Gardens became the 'Mother of all Garrisons', a zone of exclusion where outsiders were not welcome - not even the police. It was governed by 'the Don', who was closely allied with the political leadership. Although over a period Jamaica had one of the highest murder rates in the world, and violence generally was high in Kingston, crime inside Tivoli was almost non-existent; a complaint to 'the Don' would result in quick redress.

Despite its internal security, its cleanliness, and its social development, Tivoli became an enclave cut off from the rest of Jamaica. Even though the informal activities of 'the Don' led to 'dallahs running' in the community so that 'man could eat a food', I doubt whether many enjoyed their precarious life in Fortress Tivoli.

The fact is, though, that Tivoli Gardens became a model community - not for the medical, sanitary, health, educational, social, recreational, and cultural services it provided to its largely poor, inner-city inhabitants, but for its garrison elements. Politicians from both sides replicated its down side, populating new housing schemes exclusively with their own supporters, and as the parties rotated in power, new garrison communities were erected by successive ministries of housing.

The provision of government housing is profoundly political because of its ability to concentrate votes in targeted areas, which can swing the partisan support and create safe seats. The political landscape of urban centres like Kingston, Spanish Town, and May Pen are largely the result of the machinations of successive ministries of housing. One main challenge of the next 50 years will be to find a mechanism to dismantle the garrisons. This will have political implications, as did creating them in the first place; but there seems little political will for this among our two political tribes.

As the national economy became progressively weaker, the services provided within new schemes became less and less. "Site and services" schemes - the bare minimum - became the norm, and the quality of government-sponsored housing schemes fell. Residents built on the foundation provided, usually haphazardly and without planning approval. The result is not aesthetically pleasing -a jumble of mix-matched matchboxes, much too close together.


The difference in quality between the residential areas built by the private sector and the inner cities created by the Ministry of Housing under successive regimes is stark and is a fair reflection of our first 50 years of political Independence. They match the inequity built into other areas of Jamaican life like the education system and the transportation system. It would have been a matter for celebration had the Tivoli social model been replicated - minus, of course, the garrison elements - in all the government housing schemes.

In the last 50 years, not a great deal of progress has been made arresting the problem of squatting. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if anything, squatting has increased since Independence as urbanisation has progressed. It is estimated that about one million persons, more than one-third of the population of Jamaica, are squatters on government or privately owned property, mostly in urban centres. To relocate squatters is to relocate votes,which means that there is little political will for it.

To relocate the unemployed and lightly educated to decent accommodation smacks of rewarding squatting, which can only incentivise it. Heavy rural-to-urban migration is evidence of the failure of rural development. Solving the increasing problems of Jamaica's inner cities in large measure requires economic and social progress to take place in Jamaica's rural areas as well, which is the task going forward.

In the next 50 years, the Government needs to require the private sector to put in social infrastructure along with the housing units.

  • Some mechanism needs to be found to dismantle garrisons.
  • The Tivoli model needs to be replicated (minus the garrison elements).
  • The squatting problem has to be addressed other than by rewarding them with relocation.
  • Genuine rural development is the only real solution to the problem of rapid urbanisation to attract people to live in the rural areas.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Send feedback to

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