Take a walk in town, Mr Mayor

In this file photo, vehicles are seen parked in Woodford Square, Port of Spain without approval from the City Corporation. on March 7.  - Angelo Marcelle
In this file photo, vehicles are seen parked in Woodford Square, Port of Spain without approval from the City Corporation. on March 7. - Angelo Marcelle

In discussions about the revitalisation of Port of Spain on Thursday, Mayor Joel Martinez and Downtown Owners and Merchants Association president Gregory Aboud couldn't agree on anything except that something must be done.

Each man laid the problem on the doorstep of the other, with Mr Aboud calling on the government to address the issue and Mr Martinez arguing that the business community must step up.

It wasn't clear if any of their perspectives reflected the experience of the wider population of citizens who work in and patronise the city centre, and that's part of the problem.

The government's plans to address the problem are predictably monolithic. Among the ideas offered by Mr Martinez are the construction of a hotel on the site where the Salvatori building once stood, and a multi-storey housing complex on the site of the now-defunct PowerGen station.

These are, regrettably, heavy-handed, big gesture efforts at addressing the decades long residential flight from Port of Spain. These projects also skip over the untidy fact that there has been no shortage of construction on the western end of Port of Spain, including the Hyatt hotel and massive government buildings that haven't improved the dilapidated state of the city centre, or East Port of Spain.

While the business community has tended to bring its focus to commercial opportunity in the capital city, it's the responsibility of the central government to design plans and initiatives, in consultation with stakeholders, for addressing its decline.

So, the mayor is correct to point out that business interests bought out the residents of Port of Spain, but structure and planning must govern any effort to encourage an agreeable environment for living in the city. Mr Martinez seemed surprised to discover from Newsday that Woodford Square was being used as a parking lot in defiance of its proper use, although part of Port of Spain is, in essence, right outside his mayoral window. It seems opportune, then, to invite the mayor to take a walk with his technical consultants and objectively view the city from the sidewalks to see how it is experienced outside of air-conditioned vehicles crawling in traffic.

What he may find is that the problems that beset the city he is responsible for are more comprehensively social than they are infrastructural.

Efficient and well-tended infrastructure are important, but it is the designed experience that makes a city inviting. Human-focused design has fallen by the wayside in the development of the capital. Efforts at gentrifying south-east Port of Spain have tended to falter because buildings alone do not change a community. There must be measured social intervention that guides the reorientation of the city as more than a place to visit for business and then hastily leave.


"Take a walk in town, Mr Mayor"

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