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Bring a new vision for housing

Monday, August 18, 2014
On the Home Front
This aerial shot shows the density of housing in Laventille. Ivan Laughlin believes density needs to be reduced some areas but there must be a comprehensive approach to development to ensure it does not take place haphazardly. PHOTO: MARLON ROUSE

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 three features land surveyor Ivan Laughlin. who has designed and overseen urban planning projects for several decades. Laughlin believes in sustainable development and the expansion of villages to inspire communal togetherness and encourage decentralisation away from the urban centres..

 What are the current issues surrounding housing?

The complications we have created, of densely populated areas spread along corridors haven’t allowed opportunities for decentralising and easing pressure on the major urban centres. The way you provide housing, whether it’s single- or multi-family or dual-usage residential and commercial, these are issues we’ve been facing for 25 years without finding a proper way of integrating them. This is why people squat, because they have to have some form of shelter..

There’s a new Planning and Facilitation Bill, which takes account of issues like organising land for housing purposes and acquiring land. HDC provides housing, but there are other ways. Credit unions are very important because they operate a system whereby people in lower income brackets can save money on a regular basis to obtain loans, as a collective, at more reasonable interest rates. They generate income, have liquid assets and can invest..

In Bon Accord, I designed a development on 300 acres of land for the Mount Pleasant Credit Union and a third of the 300 housing units went to their membership at subsidised rates. They could also borrow money and take out mortgages through the credit union..

Thinking about land use, there’s plenty of land that can be built on, but is it privately owned agricultural land?

In terms of the overall land holding of Trinidad, about 50 per cent is owned by the State. For example, lands which were originally Caroni Ltd, lands which belonged to the oil companies, different categories of land, but all state land. And 50 per cent is private. State land includes forest reserves and so forth.
But we do have adequate land. Especially if you take Caroni (1975) Ltd into account, we have significant amounts of land. There was 75,000 acres initially. The land has been gradually channelled off in other directions and some is being developed by the HDC..

The two main HDC types are medium-density or single houses with a garden, right?

There are certain places where the HDC itself provides single-family accommodation. But if you’re covering large numbers of people at an affordable rate, cluster housing becomes important. It depends on where the land is available. It might be in the valley— hillside development—or it might be on the plains, which is pretty level land. There’s a big argument now for the use of hills for development..

 Should hills be used more?
Well, I think there has to be a careful assessment of the hillsides that are appropriate for that type of development. I am one of those who is in agreement with it, but it must be done in a way that improves the opportunities of using hillside land. I mean, the whole of Laventille is hillside...

 And from afar it looks fantastic. Does it work, in Laventille?

 It works, but it needs upgrading. It needs to reduce density in some areas.
But when you’re doing that you have to have a comprehensive approach to development to ensure it does not take place haphazardly. There’s squatting in Laventille in areas there shouldn’t be, because it becomes too clustered.
And in other areas we have to ensure people do not use steep hillsides for development.

 What’s the solution to decentralisation? Should we build new smaller towns and urban centres?

 We could expand existing villages. For example, Wallerfield, the old air base between Arima and Sangre Grande, is an important area. It was once a military base and there’s a lot of land. It could be a pool of growth for residential development. To the north and south are villages that could expand.
But the point is you don’t want to expand and then people have to travel into Port-of-Spain, you want people to be able to work in that area.

 What kind of industry could they provide there?

 There are a number of factors. IT activity. A campus for UTT would generate employment. The process of building provides jobs. You want a situation in which people see a future and opportunities they consider appropriate: residential development needs, within close proximity, agricultural development; organic farming, for domestic use and import, is a major activity we should pursue.
We need experimental approaches, initiatives, so people can see it taking shape. And take these visions and concepts to schools so young minds have their imaginations stimulated, to see the way it can work and people begin to see different opportunities for work and you create new avenues for people to become viable entities in their own communities.

​ So you wouldn’t build new towns?

 I might do that too. I am cautious about the word “towns.” I would say I’d like to build new villages, I want to create something that has a communal feel. If you look at Laventille there’s Success Village, Trou Macaque…things like steelbands come out of villages. Villages bring people together. There are existing settlements which can be expanded.

 You seem to be promoting Laventille as a good example of what a suburban district ought to be.

 Laventille and Morvant were places where possibly the first public housing took place. Some of those houses are still evident and visible.
But the point is to create a sense of community, because once that breaks down, then criminalisation begins to take root, as is happening now.

What do you think of the East-West Corridor urban sprawl? Does it work?

 Well, people survive. But when you open up new avenues of development you begin to see how those places could be restructured further east and south, not around the corridor but into Central Trinidad, places like Brazil, Talparo. And across the Northern Range into the north coast.
But you’d have to do that very carefully to preserve the environmental integrity, and do all this in a way that creates new avenues of work and enterprise.

 So Trinidad is no different from any other country, people flock to urban centres and the rest of the country is low-population…

 I’m always cautious of describing urban as distinct from rural in a place like Trinidad because rural in Trinidad is really quite urban. In a metropolitan country when you talk about rural it’s really rural. But in Toco, which you might describe as rural, you have the same television facilities, electricity, water.

 What would you say are bad examples of urban planning in Trinidad?

 The new East-West Corridor housing estates, Maloney, La Horquetta: those are dormitory settlements, not villages. The people who live there leave early in the morning early and come home late in the evening. The sense of community life is very limited.
Chagaunas, because of the fact it’s grown so rapidly, has not been done with any kind of clear vision as to how you can organise it.

 Chaguanas is confusing as to what it actually is...

 It’s been allowed to grow without any sense of integration.
The way to solve that is to reconsider the transport system. Felicity is an area where you could establish a water-taxi port so people, rather than travelling to PoS by car, can go by boat. The water taxi needs to become a major transport link.

 So the land use development plan, what do we have in terms of that?

 The National Spatial Development Strategy (NSDS). I worked on that as part of the advisory team. We had a National Physical Development Plan in 1984 which they were supposed to revise every five years—and that was never done.
So this new NSDS document replaces it. It focuses on sustainability, which is necessary to ensure that what you are doing means subsequent people can earn a living.

 What do you think of PoS and the way land is used downtown and in the suburbs like Woodbrook?

 I believe any city centre needs more residential activity than it does now.
There have been many attempts at dealing with PoS and unfortunately there’s never really been a fixed approach to it. I take the Savannah and look at the areas to the east, south and west. They all need to be integrated.

What are we going to do about Nelson Street, George Street and Duncan Street, where people live?

That area needs some degree of rehabilitation but you have to deal with the whole city. You have to go “across the bridge” as they say, Laventille, John John, to see how those places can mature into a proper urban centre.

Do we need to change people’s mindsets regarding housing?

We are a small island and we need to form in people’s minds the idea that if they want to find a place where they’ll be contented living, it may not be in St Ann’s or Cascade. It might be in Cunupia or Rio Claro. You have to tell the country what the options are and people might move.
That is how settlement took place in North America. People moved and went west.
Once people know they will have employment and education within their vicinity.
Local government needs to be a major factor, it’s the only way you can get decentralisation and people who believe that if they live in another environment they’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of a quality of life. And then they’ll be able to shift into those areas.

Is there anywhere else in the world that is a good model for T&T to base itself on?

I perceive of the Caribbean as a place that has a certain historical experience. As a result there is a certain way in which we have organised our residential activity. I don’t see that we have to look at elsewhere; we have to try and devise our own model.

 If you were in charge, what would you do?

 We have enough studies to outline a vision. We have to start with an experimental process in different parts of the country. Planning and implementation must be simultaneous activities, so people recognise that something is happening tomorrow morning. People have been promised things for decades and nothing has materialised.

We have a significant amount of expertise in architecture and engineering; there just needs to be a thread that runs through it, and co-operation.
Once you have that you can listen to the voices of the land. If you walk a strip of land in the morning and you walk it again in the afternoon you hear different vibrations. Let the land tell us what it needs, don’t impose upon it.