Sun | Sep 26, 2021

Editorial | Central Kingston and urban renewal

Published:Thursday | June 24, 2021 | 12:07 AM

DR HORACE Chang, the national security minister, has a germ of a point about what is necessary to fundamentally address gang violence in central Kingston, and, for that matter, the development issues of large swathes of the downtown section of the capital, from Bull Bay in the east to south St Andrew in the west.

These areas, Dr Chang said last week, require more than being made zones of special operations (ZOSOs) – areas where the Government sends in the security forces with the intention of routing gangs, followed by the repair and buildout of infrastructure. They demand, he suggested, infrastructure and social overhaul that is beyond the contemplation of the ZOSO law.

We understand, and agree with, the essential element of Dr Chang’s argument, but continue to hold that community development, large or small, need not be grounded in security-related laws. The Government just needs to get on with it. In any event, there is nothing, or very little, the Government and the security force can do because of ZOSO legislation that could not be achieved before it.

The latest ZOSO, announced on Sunday by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, is in the community of Norwood, St James, where there have been 15 murders so far this year and 66, according to Mr Holness, since 2019. “But more disturbingly, there are six gangs known to be operating within that very small space and those gangs, although they are based in that area, they operate all over St James,” the prime minister said.

That central Kingston was not in the picture was surprising to many persons who had lobbied for the area, where there have been 34 homicides so far this year, to be declared a ZOSO.

Downtown decay

Prime Minister Holness, however, promised that the community remained on his ZOSO agenda, although the Government’s short-term preference would be a state of public emergency, giving the security forces wide powers to detain people without having to bring them to court. The administration, however, feels constrained in deploying emergency powers, given the Supreme Court’s ruling last September that the Security Powers Act was unconstitutional. That ruling is being appealed.

In his analysis of the problem along the east-west, downtown corridor, including central Kingston, Dr Chang told Nationwide News that the social conditions were unlike the small communities where ZOSOs were declared, and the demands were that “you fix a road and put in light and water”.

Of the downtown communities, he said: “...You need housing, which takes some time – redevelopment, which also takes some time. You also need social development.”

To be stark, what the security minister intended to describe is the decay that envelops most of that region and vast swathes of urban Jamaica, which is especially obvious in the capital and adjoining parish of St Catherine, where the majority of Jamaicans live. Indeed, over half of Jamaicans (an estimated 56 per cent) reside in urban areas. But redevelopment of cities and towns have not kept pace with the growth of their populations over the past half-century.

The people who flood into the cities and towns are often less well off, while wealthier residents flee urban blight to suburban developments. At the same time, as suburbia expands, the old districts, like those along the corridor identified by Dr Chang, are not being renewed. The result is obvious: overcrowded tenements, failed infrastructure and limited social services. These gritty environments have become Petri dishes for social dysfunction and crime.

Urban renewal

Dr Chang’s larger point, in summary, is that a lasting fix in places like central Kingston will not happen if people live in squalor. And it is not possible to move them all out.

It is a phenomenon which we assumed Prime Minister Holness fully grasped when he pointedly added urban renewal to the portfolio of housing, the environment and climate change, to which he assigned Pearnel Charles Jr after last September’s general election. The move, we hoped, implied a major assault on the crisis of urban decay, placing it on the front line of the Government’s housing policy.

The administration has said that it intends to build 70,000 homes during its five-year term, an average of 14,000 annually. A large number of these housing solutions, Mr Holness often repeats, will be geared to low-income people.

However, we have heard little, either from the prime minister or Mr Charles, about the Government’s policy or strategies for urban renewal.

As we have noted before, many of the capital’s inner-city communities have salvageable infrastructure, such as roads and water, and in some cases sewerage. Some homes, too, are in relatively decent conditions or are repairable, although in some instances questions of ownerships and titles arise. But it cannot be beyond the capacity of the Government to resolve such matters, if urban renewal is a primary objective.

Neither should the Government, private-sector partners, international agencies and owners/residents of inner-city communities be incapable of leveraging each other’s resources, including sweat equity, in pursuance of schemes to confront urban blight. Of course, the approach to such projects cannot mirror how we handled developments like Tivoli Gardens and Arnett Gardens that became zones of political exclusion and breeding grounds for many of today’s criminals. It is past time that we begin to hear from the Government, at least an outline of its ideas on urban renewal.

In the meantime, the security forces need no special legal arrangements to make their presence felt in central Kingston, or anywhere else in Jamaica.