Think big, act small for 2021


A popular sentiment these days is that the current covid19 pandemic represents an opportunity for a reset: a transformation to deal with the inefficiencies plaguing our society.

While this may in fact be true, morality requires us to pause and reflect on who has, and is, making the greatest sacrifice to make this reset possible.

For the most part, the burden continues to fall disproportionately on the economically disadvantaged, who are disproportionately the young.

Generations Y and Z – already more educated, tech-savvy and productive than their predecessors – were already grappling with high levels of unemployment, under-employment, and temporary employment; low levels of savings; and lack of, or a shaky sense of, independence owing to a near-impenetrable housing market. Impenetrable except for a handful in high-paying jobs, fortunate enough to be left with real-estate inheritance, or lucky enough both to financially qualify for and be chosen to receive an HDC home.

The chosen response to this pandemic has in fact exacerbated the economic chasm between generational cohorts. Job layoffs typically follow the “last in, first out” approach, with junior employees being the sacrificial lambs. When hard times hit and employment-derived income diminishes or dries up, it is those with high levels of savings or assets, or other sources of guaranteed income (eg pensions) that fare best.

Ask yourself, who is faring best right now?

In framing a national recovery strategy, it cannot be business as usual going forward. We must frame our approach to economic growth within the paradigm of sustainability, resilience, and the ever-so-crucial moral imperative of equity.

To that end, one key shift that could serve us well is the mantra: think big, act small.

One major societal ill that we currently face is a housing crisis, which no doubt seems like a gargantuan hurdle to overcome. It is one of our greatest societal problems and, while resolution will not happen overnight, thinking small can indeed hasten that process and bring about a more just outcome.

Our current thinking as it pertains to housing is to build on a large scale, whether it be developments of multiple apartment towers, or large new residential subdivisions.

Apart from the State, there are only a handful of developers able to undertake large-scale projects. These projects typically require complex and expensive financing arrangements that drive up costs to the developer, which results in higher selling prices. A system designed this way also limits the pool of people who can effectively become real estate developers, further monopolising wealth in the hands of a few.

Two easy and targeted approaches to begin to deal with this problem focus on land-use regulations and parking management.

A nationwide overhaul of land-use regulations, a minor investment, can begin to unlock privately held capital – a large cumulative total made up of many small contributors – and lead to a great multiplier effect across the economy in a more equitable way.

By crafting regulations that make it more feasible to build multi-family housing units on small lots of land, there is a greater potential for small-scale developers to build more housing, more efficiently, and with cash or simpler and less costly financing arrangements. These smaller developers could be existing landowners, small investors, or even pooled cooperative arrangements with a few like-minded potential homeowners.

Tackling the cost of housing is but one factor in the overall question of affordability; the other is that of transport. The situation has deteriorated to the point where some households are spending more on the latter than the former. While housing can be built more cheaply on peripheral land, the result is an ever-increasing transport burden. In our case, that generally means an increased need for car ownership and usage, which consumes not only household income but also foreign exchange.

One way to deal with this is to build more housing within urban job centres. Efficienct use of space and a rethinking of parking policies can compensate for the higher cost of land in these places.

The government, through Udecott, municipal corporations, or other appropriate entities, can focus on building multi-storey car parks in strategic locations within urban centres; not concentrated in one geographic area, as the explosion of parking facilities in downtown Port of Spain demonstrates. Current incentives for the private construction of these facilities should also be continued, but be targeted to geographic areas. In fact, the formulation of the policy should be done in tandem with a land-use analysis that identifies specific locations where such facilities would have the greatest positive impact.

Land-use regulators can then reduce or eliminate on-site parking requirements, allowing needs to be met in off-site parking garages. Those individuals who choose not to, or cannot afford to, own vehicles will not be paying the significant additional housing costs that providing on-site parking adds to construction.

These two simple suggestions can begin to reduce the cost and increase the supply of housing, while checking multiple boxes on our social, economic, and environmental to do list.

Ryan Darmanie is a professional urban planning and design consultant, and an avid observer of people, their habitat, and the resulting socio-economic and political dynamics. You can connect with him at or e-mail him at


"Think big, act small for 2021"

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