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More to planning than just land use

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Urban planners are always concerned about the quality of the spaces that we create and live in. “Planning” involves much more than preparing land use plans and evaluating development proposals. It is concerned with the everyday experiences of the man in the street; the efficiency, functionality and appeal of our communities.


“Planners” have a responsibility to ensure that our central places—the hearts of our cities, towns and villages—work well and are comfortable, safe and aesthetically pleasing. This does not happen by chance, but by the deliberate acts of creative designers, willing and committed private- and public-sector entities, a discerning and interested population, and a strong political will.


We have accepted the decay of our downtown areas—the places that attract the vast majority of our daily population for employment and services. From Port-of-Spain to Chaguanas to Princes Town, common issues are apparent throughout: crime, vagrancy, vehicular congestion, pedestrian–vehicle conflicts, unsightly overhead lines and signage, inadequate and unsafe sidewalks, litter, uncontrolled street vending, derelict buildings, haphazard building forms, unimaginative new building design, absence of open spaces, decaying streetscapes, and a generally-chaotic appearance. 


Perhaps the Mighty Sparrow was right when he sang that “capitalism gone mad”—as booming economic activity in our downtown areas and the freedom of built expression that accompanied it has often resulted in unacceptable urban form and character.


Demise of town centres



The demise of our town centres over the last 30 years—due to neglect and poor co-ordination—has been accompanied by the rise of the suburban mall with its “gated” and air-conditioned streets, exhibiting many of the attributes of good public space. 


Where have we gone wrong? Is it that every agency is looking at the other to determine who is responsible for the problem and the solution? 


There is a sense of pride and satisfaction when we are in functional, aesthetically-pleasing spaces—what we try to accomplish in our own residential properties. The problem exists, however, in the “commons”—our public spaces.


Go back to the future



Perhaps we need to “go back to the future” to rediscover the good aspects of our urban past. 


One solution to reinvigorate town centres is a streetcar system, similar to what is now being reintroduced in Los Angeles and other North American cities—the rails of Port-of-Spain’s streetcars were visible up to only a few years ago. 


This could address the mass of vehicular traffic that has converted our streets to clogged conduits with increased visual, atmospheric and noise pollution. The developed world is limiting the amount of vehicles allowed to enter downtown areas, while improving public transit. Perhaps this warrants our serious consideration.


We have a solid foundation to build on. The historic Plaza Del Marina, now recreated as the Brian Lara Promenade, is once more a beautiful, functional urban park. We have a few areas in Port-of-Spain that have landscaped sidewalks with beautiful shade trees creating a pleasant ambience and positive visual impact. 


We have modern and efficient water taxi and luxury coach transport services linking our central places. 


We have several urban waterfronts that offer tremendous and untapped public use potential. Other unique and functional spaces include Harris Promenade, the Scarborough Esplanade, and parts of St James.


It must be seen that these downtown areas—Port-of-Spain, Chaguanas, San Fernando, Arima and Princes Town—need to become places where people can walk freely, sit in pleasant public spaces, ride a bike, take organised and modern public transit, enjoy passive urban recreation opportunities, bask in the beauty and charm of historic buildings and districts, and go sightseeing.


Our urban centres must reflect our economic status and role in the Caribbean. We need to look dispassionately at what we have, and take a comprehensive and integrated approach that considers the views of all stakeholders. 


We need to decide what our urban design goals should be, determine the policies, strategies and projects needed to achieve those goals, and identify the responsible agencies to execute them. We have the human capital and the natural resources. What we seem to lack, however, is the resolve and creativity to make it happen. 


The planning fraternity should take the lead by examining planning legislation to see how it can work in this context, meeting with the decisionmakers at the highest level to convince them that this renaissance is long overdue and that they need the political will to make it happen—now.


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