Our urban planning has been guided by ideology rather than evidence and logic. Instead of learning from the past, our conservative society chooses to look back with sentimentality and nostalgia.
Second thing to know: The decline of TT's capital city, Port of Spain, is an inevitable outcome of ideological planning.
Let us start at the turn of the 20th century in London. As recalled by Jane Jacobs, journalist turned urban planner, a court reporter named Ebenezer Howard witnessed the inhumane conditions of London and came up with a solution.
Howard proposed redistributing London's population into small towns known as garden cities, with a predetermined mix of residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural land, and green open spaces. In other words, a perfectly decentralised settlement. It was based on the ideology that densely-populated places were not fit for human habitation, and that man should be returned to the purity of natural countryside.
The truly disturbing lesson here is that virtually all of orthodox planning would come to be guided by one man’s ideology, while ignoring the lessons that thousands of years of civilisation had taught us.
The garden city, a form of ideological planning, introduced anti-city ideals, Jacobs tell us.
First was the notion that people should live, work, and play in separate areas of the town. Real cities, on the other hand, are mixed-use places, where a building, for instance, could have a mini mart on the ground floor, and apartments above.
Second was the notion that apartments and townhouses were not to be considered decent housing.
Third was the notion that business activity was simply the routine buying and selling of goods. Howard had little concern for the innovation or new forms of enterprise that real cities nurture and facilitate.
Fourth was the notion of static planning. Once the plan is done and the community built, it should not undergo any changes. Demand for new housing was to be solved by building new towns, of course!
Historically, cities formed because people realised two benefits of living close to each other: that is, access and security. Access and proximity are as relevant today as in ancient Rome, because these are the foundations of many socio-economic processes that are vital to the progress of human civilisation. Cities are by necessity densely populated, complex, and highly interactive.
In 1960, the residential population of Port of Spain peaked at just under 100,000.
Over the next decade, Port of Spain lost one third of its residential population, a trend that continued until dropping to less than 40,000 today.
The out-migration from Port of Spain did not happen by chance. Deliberate housing policy to decentralise the population into planned communities like Diamond Vale, and the increasing influence of American media, and its idealisation of suburban white picket fences, were major contributing factors.
The eventual operationalisation of the Town and Country Planning Division in the late 1960s, with its garden city planners, would continue the trend. The garden city concept was meant not to improve the city, but rather to prevent a place from becoming a city.
Its ideals, however, mainly in the form of urban planning regulations and design trends, continue to be applied by those who, ironically, hope to improve cities, their underlying ideology being the removal of those very characteristics that make a place a city.
For example, based on the notion that a public street is an undesirable environment, buildings are often designed to have main entrances and windows facing the side of the lot and not the front, towards the sidewalk. They are often elevated unnecessarily high above street level so that contact with passers-by on the sidewalk is diminished, and set back far and separated from the sidewalk by a layer of greenery – all to create the illusion that one is not actually in a city. There are also regulations to prevent the mixing of otherwise compatible land uses in many city neighbourhoods and to keep population densities low, again to provide an illusion, but under pretences like privacy and public health.
After successfully depopulating the city, a 1987 plan was drafted to stimulate the development of housing. That plan limited the heights of buildings, on the average-sized lot, to two storeys just about everywhere outside of the central business district. Those unrealistic regulations were supposed to facilitate the repopulation of the city.
Urban decline is the outcome of garden city planning. A reluctance to let the city grow up and evolve hampered the financial-feasibility of new residential development. However, it naturally attracted commercial development, even into those areas where the ideological planners neither wanted nor expected it.
Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant (facebook.com/darmanieplanningdesign) with a Master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation.