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Rethinking higher density housing plans

Monday, August 11, 2014
On the Home Front
Planner Ryan Darmanie, left, believes “wasted” spaces, like this one, used as a car park on Chacon St, downtown Port-of-Spain, could be used for mixed development apartment buildings that could help repopulate and revitalise the city centre. PHOTO: ANDRE ALEXANDER

Recent reports that the HDC housing waiting list has reached 200,000 have thrown up questions about strategies for land usage, housing design and urban planning in T&T.

In our series on housing, Joshua Surtees speaks to architects, planners and surveyors to find out if there is enough land available, whether everybody on the list can get a place to live and what kind of accommodation makes best use of space while providing comfortable, functional living that complements people’s lifestyles. 

Part Two features Ryan Darmanie, an urban planner working for the Ministry of Planning and Sustainable Development. Darmanie was trained in urban planning at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He spent a semester in Sydney, Australia, where he experienced living in a large, fully functioning city for the first time. It opened his eyes to the possibilities of architecture and human geography.

 Do we have enough land space for housing?

Absolutely. Do we have enough so everyone can have a one-family, three-bedroom home and a half-acre plot of land? Possibly. Is it in our best interests? No. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing for as long as I’ve known. We need to rethink what a good home means.

But why shouldn’t people live the Caribbean “island life” dream?

 It’s generally believed that Trinidadians are opposed to higher density living. I understand why, because we haven’t done it right in Trinidad. In other developed countries where you have high-density housing, it is strategically placed in walkable urban centres. So there’s a trade-off between smaller living circles and the convenience of being able to walk to the grocery store, walk to work and these kinds of things.
We don’t do that, we put high-density housing out in the suburbs. So people have the worst of both worlds, they have the traffic congestion and lack of amenities and services and then high-density cramped spaces. We need to reconsider where we build high-density housing.

So where should it be built?

 All along the East-West Corridor there’s high-density housing going up all the time. A recent example is the one at Victoria Keys, opposite West Mall. Why couldn’t something like that have been built in the city centre in Port-of-Spain? It would have made more sense. Diego Martin’s traffic is already pretty horrendous and you’ve put even more people into a place that’s suffering from traffic from people trying to get into the city. Why not put them in the city?

Is the East-West Corridor an urban sprawl?

Absolutely. It’s a collection of essentially dormitory communities where people just live and commute to Port-of-Spain on a daily basis. Most of their children go to school in Port-of-Spain. So it’s really an unsustainable arrangement.

Is a lot of space wasted?

Absolutely. Port-of-Spain has so much wasted space. Anywhere you see a surfaced parking lot, that’s wasted space. A two-storey building in the heart of Port-of-Spain, completely wasted space. Mixed-use development—residential on top of commercial—is the trend now in most developed countries, it’s where the world is heading, and we just haven’t cottoned on to that yet, I don’t know why.
It’s more sustainable. You have residents living above and they can support the retail activity on the ground floor of the building. It adds to the vibrancy of the whole street.

What are some solutions?

We need to stop housing supply being artificially limited by standards from the Town and Country Planning Division that only allow low-rise buildings in the heart of the city.

And what places do you see as models to follow?

There’s Mauritius, which is an island in the Indian Ocean. Funnily enough they have a similar demographic, a lot of mixed-race, African and Indian populations. Their economy is doing well. They don’t have natural resources like we do but they have finance and tourism and just over a million in population.
But we don’t even need to look at similar islands. We could follow a place like Washington, DC, where most of the buildings are six to ten storeys, mid-rise buildings, which look good, they’re not too imposing on the streetscape.
Population-wise we can just look at small to mid-size cities in the US or even the bigger cities; you’d be surprised at the similarities.

Places like Los Angeles—we have a very similar pattern of development to them.

Los Angeles has become a huge sprawl...

Yes, but if you look at what they’re doing, a lot more concentration on downtown, multi-family units, public transit. We could look at that.

If you had carte blanche and you were minister of planning and they said you could do anything, what would you do?

 The first thing I would do is introduce an urban growth boundary for the entire country and seriously limit urban expansion, because we’ve done it enough and don’t need to do it any more. 

All new growth should be concentrated on the established city centres, Port-of-Spain, San Fernando, Chaguanas, Arima, Pt Fortin. Places where there are some level of services available already.

Would you build new towns?

Absolutely not. When we sprawl we’re using up agricultural land, we’re not using up land that’s infertile.

Should we encourage people to migrate south?

You mean from the East-West Corridor? What do they do once they’re there? Are there jobs? Development should be spread around the country. But I get annoyed when people use the term “decentralised” because we are already decentralised in terms of people. Everyone lives all over the place.
What we’re not decentralised in is jobs. Commercial activity to some extent is decentralised: Chaguanas is a huge commercial hub now, San Fernando, Trincity… but it’s the jobs that are the problem.

Is Chaguanas a good or bad example of housing solutions?

 In Chaguanas there’s no planning at all. Buildings creeping onto the sidewalk, it’s completely chaotic. It’s going to be very difficult to do anything about it.

This is why I asked about new towns and garden cities like in England.

We don’t have a very good track record of what someone described as “pouring good concrete.” I wouldn’t suggest building new towns to fix those mistakes. Let’s try to fix what we’ve already made a mess of instead of making a mess of new places.

Do you see a perfect image?

 I’d like to see us focus on housing in the city centres, and not just any old housing. Design is a huge part of it. You design for one of two things: an automobile or a pedestrian. Design a building for people who drive or people who walk and take public transportation.
If you build a ten-storey apartment block the tendency is that it’s going to be surrounded by a parking lot and you’re catering for people who drive and you destroy the quality of life for the pedestrian walking on the sidewalk next to this empty parking lot,  whereas if you have proper design standards you bring the building right up to the edge of the sidewalk and make it more interesting to walk. When you’re walking and you see activity going on in a building it makes it a lot easier to continue your walk.
In a place like NYC I might end up walking 15 blocks and you don’t even realise it. Here I walk two blocks and I’m like, “I need to get back in my car.” There’s no trees shading anything, there’s huge concrete walls everywhere you walk. There’s no life, it’s just dead. Everyone is hidden behind walls and fences, or you’re looking at a car park.

So in urban centres, like here in Port-of-Spain, where would you start building residential apartments? Where would they go?

Well, I definitely wouldn’t start with downtown. It’s a harder sell for people. I’d start with the areas that are already quite attractive, like Woodbrook. I envisage starting there, Tranquillity, Newtown, close to the Savannah, the areas that offer something. The Savannah is an amenity. Ariapita Avenue has the nightlife. I imagine as the demand grows it would spill over into the other areas of the city and revitalise it.

Do local residents object, say in Woodbrook, if you tell them you’re going to build 200 new homes?

They would, and that would happen anywhere you go in the world. But people have to understand that the problems in terms of noise and the spread of office buildings into residential districts is because there aren’t enough residents living there. It’s because of restrictions on what you can build there. 

A two-storey office building is a lot more attractive than a two-storey residential building. Nobody can afford to put up a single-family house in Woodbrook because of the cost of the land. 

So they need to understand that increasing density and bringing more residents in actually benefits them because it means a greater voice for dealing with issues. 

If Woodbrook’s residents had three times the number, they would have a lot more impact on the issues in the area. The area would become more family- and pedestrian-friendly if there were more people living there. Right now, the type of housing that exists is incompatible with where the area is heading. You can’t have single-family residences in an area that is in such high demand.

I am reading a book that talks about when you don’t want higher buildings in your area (which is an attractive area to live) then you’re pushing people to live in areas that are more unsustainable. 

So when Woodbrook residents complain about high-density living, they’re pushing people to live densely in the East-West Corridor, which is an hour drive from Port-of-Spain, which is leading to more traffic congestion and more environmental degradation. They need to see the bigger picture.


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