Editorial | New city a misplaced priority
ALTHOUGH HE was cryptic about the details, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has made known his administration’s ambition to establish a new city somewhere in southwestern Jamaica. It seems that the prime minister wants a bespoke development – a city built from scratch.
The target area, the prime minister said at a function in Black River, St Elizabeth, last week, has natural resources that are ripe for development and the people who possess “the right energy, character and dignity to be part of this future project”.
He did not give a specific location for this city, but said: “We are looking at the southern end (of Jamaica), and it appears that we are heading in the southwestern end … I am not saying where, but it seems that all the features coincide in this end of the island.”
While this newspaper appreciates Mr Holness’ wish for a shiny new metropolis, built to his vision and upon which he can affix his imprimatur, we feel that the prime minister is misplacing his priority. In the current circumstances, it cannot be anywhere near the top of the Government’s to-do list. Indeed, given Jamaica’s limited resources, the Government should be focused on urban renewal. The decayed and gritty communities across Jamaica are in urgent need of fixing. And not superficial makeovers.
The Government recently reported that it was developing data on the crisis of run-down urban communities. That will be useful. But even before then, we have a sense of the problem.
Part of Jamaica’s challenge is its rapid urbanisation over the last half-century – more than half of the population resides in towns and cities – and the failure of infrastructure, such as housing, roads, water, schools and public transportation, to keep pace with this growth. Moreover, the situation has been exacerbated by complex social and other issues. Older urban communities, for instance, collapsed when previous residents moved out and new people moved in.
A quick tour of any of the island’s cities and towns, including Black River, the parish capital of St Elizabeth, where Mr Holness spoke, will reveal the depth of the crisis – crumbling tenements where tens of thousands of people live, rutted roads, unkempt verges, and run-down water and sewage systems amid high levels of crime. The tour would add context to the Government’s data that around 900,000 Jamaicans, a third of the population, live in squatter communities, or informal settlements.
The credible and cost-effective solution to this problem does not lie in new cities on the country’s most “fertile … A1 soil”, as will be the case with respect to the 17,000-home municipality planned for the plains of St Catherine on the island’s south, or any place further to the west. Indeed, global warming and climate change, and their obvious negative effects on agricultural production, make an unimpeachable case for our farmlands to be left for that purpose, and for an end to the practice of appropriation of these lands for housing development.
A better way would be fixing what is already available and in place. As we have noted before, urban renewal comes with some upsides. Most of the communities already have basic infrastructure, such as electricity, roads and water. And more often than not, they are in relatively close proximity to critical services, like schools, hospitals, government offices and businesses.
Further, some of the homes in inner-city areas have good bones, even if their owners cannot afford to repair them or may not have titles to the properties. These are not insurmountable problems. After all, it cannot be beyond the capacity of the Government, as we have noted before, to leverage the assets, including money capital, to tap into the resources of international partners, the domestic private sector and residents to launch a major assault on urban decay, and for the rebuilding of communities.
In this regard, the concept of Operation PRIDE, or variations thereof, with guard rails to prevent corruption that undermined the previous effort, can be revisited for community elements of urban rejuvenation. However, no one expects such projects to be acts of charity for private entities that will be asked to risk their capital.
Additionally, Jamaica’s expanding communications network of highways, mobile telephone and the Internet lessens the need for new cities, especially if existing ones are sensibly upgraded. For example, the town of Mandeville on the central plateau, given the current and planned highways, is now a stone’s throw from the communities in the southwest. Perhaps it is Mandeville that deserves attention as part of an urban renewal project. And it can be designated a city.