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The Next 50 Years - Nation must meet housing challenges

Published:Sunday | December 16, 2012 | 12:00 AM

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

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

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

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,

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

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


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

"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

"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


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

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.

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

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
  • The Tivoli model needs to be replicated
    (minus the garrison elements).
  • The squatting problem
    has to be addressed other than by rewarding them with
  • 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