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Editorial | Urban renewal now PM’s ball

Published:Tuesday | January 18, 2022 | 12:05 AM

WE HAD hoped that by adding ‘urban renewal’ to the name of the seeming superministry to which Pearnel Charles Jr was assigned after the 2020 general election, Prime Minister Andrew Holness was signalling his administration’s plan for a major assault on the rot in Jamaica’s towns and cities.

As it turned out, in his 15 months in the job, poor Mr Charles cut an abject figure. He was incapable of much. For despite being the de jure minister of housing, urban renewal, the environment, and climate change, he had little authority. Mr Charles was not in charge of any of the critical agencies – the National Housing Trust (NHT), the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ), the Urban Development Corporation, the National Environment and Planning Agency - that are needed to get serious action.

They all were under the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, of which Mr Holness is the substantive minister. Last week, Mr Holness abandoned the pretence of the superministry. It does not exist any more. ‘Urban’ does not appear in the name of any ministry. We hope, however, that that does not mean a total abandonment of any focus on inner-city redevelopment. If that were the case, it would be an error.

Mr Holness should, therefore, assure Jamaicans otherwise. Further, he must himself, or one of his Cabinet subordinates in the ministry with responsibility for growth and jobs, urgently outline the administration’s plans for tackling urban decay. There are great social and economic benefits in making the question a national priority.

Even without up-to-date data on the urban communities that are categorised as decayed or blighted, there is sufficient anecdotal and empirical data to indicate the scale of the problem. The Government, for instance, says that approximately 900,000 people, a third of Jamaica’s population, live in squatter settlements. These cover more than 700 communities, over half of which are in the Kingston Metropolitan Region, the island’s largest urban centre.

Additionally, nearly 60 per cent of Jamaica’s 2.8 million people live in cities and urban towns, a proportion that has grown substantially in the past half-century.

SUBSTANDARD LIVING CONDITIONS

Indeed, large swathes of these urban dwellers live in substandard conditions. Their homes are tenements that lack physical and social infrastructure, and they contend with high unemployment and dysfunctional community relationships, including gang violence and other forms of criminality. While these problems have long been acute in the Kingston Metropolitan Region, they have grown exponentially in the past decade and a half in the parishes of St Catherine, Clarendon, St James, and Westmoreland.

Urban decay feeds on itself to breed more social dysfunction and crime. Any sustainable strategy for addressing Jamaica’s crisis of crime, including its 1,400 murders a year – for a homicide rate of 51 per 100,00 –must involve an assault on urban squalor, starting with small things such as regularly cleaning drains, cutting verges, removing garbage, and community-based policing.

Then there is the matter of large-scale renewal. That can be achieved with creative thinking; the leveraging of the resources of a broad range of sectors, including the Government, the private sector, international partners and inner-city residents; hard work; and leadership from the Government.

The good thing is that in most inner-city communities, there is something with which to start. Most have basic infrastructure – roads, even if they are badly rutted; electricity; water systems, notwithstanding that the pipes may be old and leaky; and a portion of the houses, despite being run-down, have salvageable bones. Some of these properties are owned by the people who live in them although they may not possess titles. In other words, some inner-city residents have wealth that needs unlocking. Doing that cannot be beyond the creative capacities of a government whose thinking is transformational.

If this is indeed the posture of the administration, it may, for example, decide that there will be a major reversal of Jamaica’s urban rot over, say, 15 years, during which the greater portion of spending by the NHT and the HAJ, as well as the central government’s budget for social housing, will be allocated to urban renewal. Government money can be leveraged with private-sector capital and donor agencies’ contributions to create a larger pool of funds to finance big things.

Communities could be prioritised on the basis of transparent criteria but staggered in a way so as to ensure the generation of investable income to help sustain the initiative. The point is that the private sector, while it stands to benefit from a massive renewal of urban communities, should not be asked to engage in social welfare. Given government support and community equity, and the sheer scale of the undertaking, it would make profitable sense for the private sector.

The remaking of gritty communities, it must be clear, should not mean wholesale displacement of existing residents.

At the same time, the project, as this newspaper envisions it, would be an opportunity for planners to design the renewed communities in the context of global warming, climate change, and the digital revolution without employing technologies in a way to make getting started almost impossible.

While the Government pulls together this project, it can have the demonstration effect of urban renewal by getting its bureaucrats out of the way of a plan for the downtown Kingston market district involving a group led by businessman Glen Christian. Frustrated by nearly a decade of government barriers, Mr Christian’s consortium announced last year that it would shelve the project. That is not good.