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Tuesday 23 July 2019
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Ignoring vital lessons


The end of 2018, for me, marks six years of learning, advocacy for a paradigm shift – and utter frustration with the state of urban planning in TT.

Here, as in many places, planning is faced with external and internal challenges. The latter, which are within the planning fraternity’s power to address, are a source of great discontent.

The first internal challenge is our apparent misunderstanding of our planning system. Our legislative framework is modelled on an outdated British Act of Parliament. Curiously, the technical mechanism that we employ, that is, how we determine permissible uses of land, is based heavily on a North American practice known as Euclidean Zoning.

Despite the old British legal framework, zoning results in a North American-style pattern of suburban development. It is these zoning regulations that are responsible for the way the physical environment is shaped, and the resultant social, economic, and environmental consequences.

But here, one dare not speak about American urban planners or planning strategies in learned circles. Both are often deemed irrelevant by many local professionals.

Denial of the influence of American-style zoning is harming us. It has become so egregious that whenever I mention Jane Jacobs, and her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I usually get a response that boils down to dismissal.

Of course, look beyond the word "American" in the title of this 1961 publication, and you'll discover its universal lessons and uncanny relevance to TT. Ironically, many of the recommendations made by this untrained American writer and activist form the foundation of current best practice in urban planning, and are accepted, perhaps unwittingly, by many of the same people who dismiss her Americanness.

As I've said in previous articles, many of our current issues are a result of Euclidean Zoning. But American planners are demonstrating how to amend zoning regulations to reverse past negative impacts. We are ignoring this knowledge, and instead looking to places that we believe are more relevant, like the UK and Singapore.

The UK does not regulate land use through zoning. Furthermore, it was largely urbanised before the automobile era, so its existing patterns of development are generally more sustainable than your typical American or TT urban area.

This is evident in the planning literature that comes out of the UK versus North America. The latter focuses heavily on the physical pattern of development that zoning produces, and the resultant implications – exactly where our fundamental troubles lie. Understanding this reality would serve us well.

Singapore, although a tropical island within the Commonwealth, is not suburban and car-oriented like TT and much of North America. It is a city-state of high-density neighbourhoods, and therefore doesn’t face the same issues that we do. Furthermore, it is often said to lean towards autocratic tendencies. Planning strategies that work well there probably won’t here, owing to stark differences in the effectiveness of state influence.

What about inspiration from Caricom countries? Six years of attending local presentations and two regional conferences have led to challenge number two. In TT, and seemingly within Caricom, planning appears to suffer from a particular malaise: an understanding, in theory, of the development pattern that is needed – but uncertainty or unwillingness to create appropriate enabling land use (zoning) regulations.

The noble focus on environmental and social considerations, in isolation from the underlying economic processes that can affect both, is problematic. This is an area where we can learn from the conversations that are occurring in American planning.

We tend to focus on things like squatting, flooding, climate change, and other issues, but fail to address underlying economic processes that can affect all of these.

For instance, if regulations only permit one house per lot and minimum lot sizes of 465 square metres throughout much of the urbanised land, and simultaneously make it difficult to build sufficient housing in strategic urban centres, like Port of Spain and San Fernando – what do you expect the outcome to be?

This inefficient use of land increases the cost of housing by discouraging or preventing the construction of multiple, smaller housing units (land and construction prices increase as square footage does) and by strangling the overall national supply of housing.

Is it not safe to say that a burden will be placed on agricultural or environmentally-sensitive land to meet the housing demand that desirable locations now can’t accommodate?

While we weren’t looking, the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, just ended single-family zoning, making it legal to build smaller duplexes and triplexes in all of its neighbourhoods. Why? To address housing affordability, urban sprawl, and general inequality. But I guess this practical American lesson isn’t relevant.

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.

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