Two weeks ago, I wrote an article for this column on five things to consider in the process of urban revitalisation. I knew at the time that I would be attending a public consultation hosted by Udecott (this past Wednesday) for a conceptual urban revitalisation plan for Port of Spain. I also suspected, unfortunately, that little of those considerations would be represented in the plan developed by the architectural consultants.
Unfortunately, what the consultants presented us with was a series of isolated projects and associated architectural renderings that are somehow envisioned to lead to revitalisation.
The proposed projects and the resultant comments from the audience revealed three key lessons that we have not yet understood:
People before cars
The consultants seemed to have simply looked at the vehicular circulation network, and chosen sites and projects located on major thoroughfares. There was no assessment of pedestrian circulation patterns.
In other words, in 2019, and with everything that we know about traffic, high levels of private automobile usage, and the resultant socio-economic and environmental consequences, we still see it fit to base a “plan” on the assumption that priority should be given to those arriving at the project sites via private automobile.
There was even an alarming depiction of a ramp from Wrightson Road to Colville Street that would not only represent an unnecessary cost, but also a further deterioration of the pedestrian environment of the surrounding area.
The trailblazers lead the way
I heard a number of concerns raised by both audience members and members of the consulting team about the challenges in PoS, ranging from homelessness to crime to sanitary conditions. While I in no way want to downplay these as challenges for any city (have you seen the rats on the NYC subway?), there is something that we just seem to keep missing. We cannot wait for all of these problems to be fixed before the process of revitalisation begins.
Without getting into exact figures, which I have seen, there are countless applications for multi-family residential developments that have been refused in the city over the last ten years. While many are undoubtedly for reasons related to incomplete submissions, applicant errors, and other problems, many are simply due to outdated urban planning regulations.
How can we say, as was heard from many in attendance, that people do not want to live in the city as is, when the market is clearly showing that there is in fact a sizeable demand (through applications for planning permission) for housing in said city? Perhaps this gritty city life is not for everyone, but there are particular demographic groups, especially young professionals, who will deal with the inconveniences that come from a less than ideal environment, in exchange for the proximity to entertainment, employment, and other conveniences that the “decent” suburbs can’t provide.
Improving the city is a process, but the market is telling us that there are people right now who would be willing to invest in residential developments in the city as is. The young trailblazers typically move back in first, before the families and other more discerning groups follow suit.
It’s all about the scale
I’ve written about this on many occasions, but the message needs to be constantly stressed on. Perhaps if we were living in a global centre like New York City, London, or Tokyo, then the idea of revitalisation simply through large-scale projects may seem logical; although still problematic and ill-advised. After all, there’s enough demand, capital, and know-how from established successes to execute massive works in these places.
That is, however, not our reality. We are a small country, with a small capital city, in a tenuous economic situation, and with few large, intrepid developers. Small developers and individual landowners though, are far more likely to invest in urban areas in small-scale one or two-lot projects.
The problem, however, is that these individual developments, which seem minute in size, but can add up to a revitalised whole, aren’t always given the same level of attention and leeway when it comes to urban planning regulatory approvals.
If a developer considers buying a lot of land in Woodbrook, for instance, valued at $2.5 million, but can only legally build three apartment units on it, it is hardly likely that he/she can develop the land for residential use, and sell the units for any reasonable price. The project will likely never get started.
Once again, the role of urban planning regulations in the process of urban revitalisation was undervalued and almost completely ignored — other than some throwaway comments about the lack of consistency in regulations and unauthorised development. The irrational and unrealistic nature of the regulations was ignored.
* Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org