Our Readers' Opinions
May 26, 2006
Urban renewal in SVG

by Sherrill-Ann Mason  26.MAY.06

It was with pleasure that I welcomed the establishment of the new Urban Development Ministry and more recently the commissioning of a taskforce by Minister Baptiste to develop a framework to tackle urban development in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The significance of this move must not be lost on any Vincentian, who must certainly have noticed that Kingstown has grown to capacity. Kingstown, our capital city, has been the centre of our economic, political, social and cultural life since the late 19th century. Most of our important institutions, events and commercial activities are concentrated there. {{more}}Migration from the rural areas has continued steadily over the years, especially with the decline of the agricultural sector. But the prospects of employment have not kept apace. Hence, we have seen an increase in urban underemployment and unemployment, illicit drug trafficking and drug use, street children and vagrancy, overcrowded housing and squatting, illegal street vending, pedestrian and vehicular congestion, and environmental decay.

The immediate challenge of the taskforce and the Ministry is to develop a new vision and strategic plan for Kingstown and its environs. This represents a new and welcomed paradigm in urban development or city planning in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The broad-based nature of the taskforce represents an effort to unify the approach to planning. However, it appears that key representatives from the business sector and civil society are missing.

Community-based approach

It must also be fully understood that at the heart of urban development are people and not physical infrastructure. To this end, it is hoped that the taskforce will adopt a community-based approach and will ensure that community members are integrally involved in every phase of the planning process. This avoids the problems that we have too often seen when the people are consulted too late. Residents of neighbourhoods and users of facilities must be seen as experts in their own right and should be consulted. Any new Urban Development Vision must be partly crafted by the people, especially since they are the ones who will bear the brunt of any dislocation associated with new uses or construction of new facilities.

Further to this, the taskforce must acknowledge the benefit of using a place-driven, rather than a project-driven, approach to urban development. Simply put, a project-driven approach develops a quick, pragmatic solution to a problem. For instance, the Kingstown Vegetable Market was seen as a solution to street vending and the need for decent market space. But this project can be deemed a failure because it did not fully take into consideration the identity and culture of the city, or the accessibility and usage of the facility. On the other hand, a place-based approach develops a well-thought out, practical solution that fully explores issues of usage, maintenance, management, and sustainability. Central to the place-driven approach is creating public spaces or neighbourhoods that are well designed, accessible, stimulating, and secure. This approach chiefly values people’s usage of a place.

So what is to become of Kingstown and its environs? Certainly we must deal with environmental factors such as flooding and rising sea levels. Therefore, proper drainage and sea defense walls are necessities. Moreover, the obvious neighbourhoods of Rose Place, Paul’s Avenue and Quarry must undergo a major transformation that will ensure an increased quality of life for current and future residents or users. Hard decisions will have to be made about whether an area will be used for residential, commercial or tourists’ activity. The challenge is to find the right mix of uses.

Removal of the poor

With housing as a critical need for urban residents, construction of medium density, low rise rental apartments with open green space for leisure and cultural activities should be explored. However, the ability of current residents to return to the redeveloped areas must be factored into the proposed rental cost structure. Too often urban or slum clearance in other parts of the world has been a code for removal of the poor from prime developmental land to accommodate the luxuries of the rich. This must be guarded against and properly managed in our urban renewal efforts. Additionally, suburban neighbourhoods like New Montrose, Kingstown Park and Cane Garden, whose residents and housing stock are aging, must be a part of any urban renewal plan.

Places like Heritage Square, Little Tokyo, China Town and the Vegetable Market may not require major structural work, but a creative beautification and management plan. Recently Minister Mike Browne explored the idea of moving government offices into the present Vegetable Market. This kind of exploration is essential in the initial stages of any urban development plan.

Furthermore, we must deal with issues of traffic congestion. Perhaps, one of the best long term solutions to this problem is to minimize the demand for people to come into Kingstown to take care of their business. We have got to begin to reorient our national thinking from the “coming to town” mentality. In this vein, the redevelopment of Kingstown should be pegged to the redevelopment of all of our towns, so that essential commercial, tourist and government services are available in locations closer to where people live. Such decentralization will deal with issues of traffic congestion and local economic development.

Finally, the work of urban development must be seen as an ongoing process. It does not end with the completion of a project. Too often it is forgotten that urban development deals with issues of maintenance, management, and sustainability of pro-jects.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that urban development is essentially about socio-economic development.

The author of this article is a Vincentian who currently resides in New York City. She is a substitute lecturer and advisor at Medgar Evers College. She has completed a masters’ degree in Urban Development and is pursuing professional certification in Project Management.