Feeble consultations on urban revitalisation plans erode public trust

Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook is part of the Port of Spain revitalisation plan. - File photo
Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook is part of the Port of Spain revitalisation plan. - File photo

The following article on Government's urban revitalisation plans for Port of Spain and San Fernando was submitted by the TT Society of Planners (TTSP) and the TT Institute of Architects (TTIA).

As urban planners and architects, we have a vocation to improve social, economic, and environmental conditions, primarily through strategic land use allocation, design guidance, sustainable land development practices, and a number of other cross-sectoral policy interventions.

First and foremost, we are members of society and share in the collective responsibility of nation building. It is therefore our duty to advocate for the public good through policy advice, education and sensitisation, and standing up for the public’s right to be an invaluable partner in the governance of land development.

This year, TT celebrates its 59th year of Independence, and the physical and societal conditions facing us as a nation are unprecedented. We acknowledge, are impacted by, and share many of the palpable feelings of our fellow citizens in these trying times: anxiety about an uncertain economic future; sadness about the loss of lives and mental and economic trauma experienced over the last fifteen months, and; deep concern for the exacerbation of socio-economic inequity generated by our pandemic response measures.

If we hope to move forward towards a collectively empowered and resilient future, our institutions and approach to governance must treat us citizens as inherently intelligent, worthy of a voice, and able to make informed decisions.

After decades of erratic and inconsistent planning interventions, we are faced with an ever-worsening situation in which we continue to pursue unsustainable forms of development. Ribbon residential development, car-centred transportation policies, and low urban residential densities have left us with unnecessarily high levels of inefficiency in the use of scarce energy, land and economic resources; elements characteristic of suburban sprawl. Unmet housing demand, derelict and decaying town centres, the economic and psychological burden of long work commutes, a crippling dependence on imported cars, and the loss of the most fertile agricultural land are some of the most visible consequences of poor urban management decisions.

To begin to reverse these unsustainable patterns of development, we must begin to dismantle the outdated ideologies, policies, and practices executed by the State with focus and haste. Whilst we are heartened by the recent emphasis on the revitalisation of San Fernando and Port of Spain, we must raise grave concerns about the State’s undemocratic and deficient approach. We wish to highlight recent events and announcements that bear witness to a lack of transparency and decision-making in the interests of the public.

In the forefront of the public’s minds is the much-promoted urban revitalisation of Port of Spain. This latest attempt, though touted as the definitive transformative effort, bears no resemblance to a progressive, 21st century planning activity. It commenced with an event on September 18, 2019 at the Government Campus Plaza Auditorium. Although referred to as a consultation, it was anything but. There, consultants engaged by Udecott through an opaque sole-select tendering process, presented their plans for the city. Without prior receipt of plan documents, and therefore no time to assimilate the information provided, participants were expected to provide feedback. Not surprisingly, the feedback from the audience was not positive, and highlighted a flawed process. Notably, the consultant team did not include any urban planners, and requests for proposals had already been issued for two of the chosen sites at Keate and Piccadilly Streets.

After much scrutiny, Udecott subsequently hosted a series of focus groups, to get a broader array of voices from professionals in critical fields. Many gave freely of their time, including representatives from our organisations.

On November 16, 2020, the Ministry of Planning and Development (MPD), in collaboration with Udecott, hosted the Spotlight on Urban Development: The Revitalisation of POS, at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad. The event was again a presentation, and from what was shown, seemed to be the same set of random project proposals presented in 2019, despite feedback given at multiple focus groups.

On December 3, 2020, the TTSP wrote to the Minister of Planning and Development, expressing major concerns, including: the lack of a properly developed planning framework for the exercise; the flawed planning process; the questionable procurement process, and; lack of access to the actual revitalisation master plan document. To date no response has been received.

Subsequently, the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry (JCC) requested a copy of the master plan, among other documents and clarifications, from Udecott and the minister through the Freedom of Information Act process. The request for a copy of the plan was denied. Interestingly, the minister’s response stated that the master plan did not originate in that ministry and was not a “development plan,” but rather “encompasses seven infrastructure projects.” This suggests that despite the impression that this was a project of the minister, that the effort was a revitalisation plan, and that urban planners were involved in shaping the strategy, there was minimal involvement of urban planning expertise in the exercise, and the initiative is essentially a series of mega-projects.

On April 26, 2021, at another presentation hosted by Udecott and the Ministry of Tourism, plans for the development of Ariapita Avenue were shown to members of the public. The feedback was again less than positive. At this event, the minister abruptly announced that the Cabinet had approved new land use regulations for Port of Spain.

A preview of the new regulations was released to the media, describing updates for Ariapita Avenue and Tragarete Road. If these new regulations are intended to spur development in the city, the preview indicates that major hurdles and deficiencies in the previous regulations have not been addressed, and the updates are accordingly unlikely to serve the intended purpose.

As a result of this pattern of flawed planning and decision-making, the TT Society of Planners and TT Institute of Architects wrote to the minister and the Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) director on June 14, 2021, expressing concerns over the lack of consultation with any architects or any planners outside of the TCPD, impacted communities, and technical staff at agencies like the Port of Spain City Corporation. To date no response has been received, and a request to access a copy of the new regulations, which are already in use, has yet to be fulfilled.

This past Monday, yet another presentation was hosted by the HDC, focusing on projects at Piccadilly and Besson Streets. The event was advertised as a consultation, and the projects as conceptual, despite the fact that the Piccadilly Street project was the subject of an RFP in 2019.

Our effort to raise awareness on these issues concludes next Sunday, with a look at the ways in which genuine collaboration with our organizations and other stakeholders can assist in facilitating the revitalisation of Port of Spain and other urban centres, and help the nation achieve a more functional development pattern.

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