by Larry Smith
According to Padraic Kelly, the Irish head of a legendary international design firm called Buro Happold, most planning interventions around the world fail due to the lack of an economic vision.
"A shared social and economic vision is as important as an environmental one," he told a group of experts gathered here last week to explore sustainable development in the Bahamas. "There must be clarity as to what pays for sustainable development because an unfunded vision won't work. And the institutional capacity must be in place to implement the vision."
Kelly was speaking at a conference organised by the Ministry of the Environment, the Bahamas National Trust and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham opened the conference, and other speakers included Harvard Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, Erich Mueller of the Perry Institute for Marine Science, Robert Reiss of the Bahamas Institute of Engineers, and several top planners and university professors.
The meeting attracted conservationists, architects, engineers, educators, developers, civil servants and journalists. Their immediate focus was the island chain of the Exumas, where the world's first land and sea park was created in 1958. The government wants to use Exuma as a model for land use planning throughout the country, based on the provisions of the Planning & Subdivisions Act.
The new Planning Act calls for land use plans on every inhabited island, with transparent rules to guide development. The Act was brought into force with a preliminary plan for New Providence, based on existing zoning. The Harvard experts will work with their Bahamian counterparts to formulate a land use plan for Exuma that can act as a template for other islands.
Kelly has 34 years experience as an urban planner. He co-founded the Working Group on Sustainable Cities at Harvard University, and is currently advising the city of Detroit, whose population has shrunk by more than a million over the last 50 years, on ways to recover from the decline of the automotive industry.
His firm has worked on many big projects around the world, including the restoration of New York City's heavily polluted Jamaica Bay, the development of Kuwait's massive Sea City project for up to 100,000 people, an eco city in Latvia, and the rehabilitation of a polluted river valley in Saudi Arabia, using treated wastewater to recreate wetlands.
Last year, the Saudi project won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which recognizes “projects that set new standards of excellence”. The Award is governed by a committee chaired by the Aga Khan, who owns an island residence in the Exuma Cays. Also on the committee is Mohsen Mostafavi, the Iranian-American architect who is Dean of Harvard University's prestigious Graduate School of Design.
The Aga Khan also funds academic programmes at Harvard, and that - in a roundabout way - is how experts like Kelly and Mostafavi came to be involved in a conference on the future of Exuma.
"The intention for this introductory event," explained Environment Minister Earl Deveaux, "was to share views, exchange ideas and prepare the ground for a research initiative that will consider the Exumas from environmental, social, economic, and design and planning perspectives."
It is not clear yet precisely how this will take shape, but there is no doubt that this represents a significant break with the previous ad hoc approach that has led to much thoughtless destruction. A comprehensive legislative framework is now in place that can be integrated with evidence-based planning.
However, to some extent we have been there and done that. In 2004 the Office of the Prime Minister proposed a strategic land use plan for Exuma based on public meetings in Black Point, Farmer's Cay, Staniel Cay and George Town, as well as workshops for government officials held in Nassau and Exuma.
The preparation of that earlier outline was guided by Canadian planning consultant Malcolm Martini (who is now retired), along with some of the same technicians who are part of the Ministry of the Environment team today. Ironically, the 2004 document contained the urgent admonition that planning "decisions have to be made now", with a tilt towards protecting the environment.
Exuma was settled initially by loyalist refugees from the American Revolution, who established plantations that soon failed. The planters attributed their failure to "the indiscriminate cutting down of trees" and "clearing and planting more land than they could properly attend." This led to erosion of the thin soil and the collapse of commercial agriculture. Former slaves were left to fend for themselves in scattered settlements that often took the name of their defunct plantations.
The island was a backwater from the end of slavery until the Second World War, when the US Navy built a base and airstrip near George Town, and its population remained relatively stable (at around 3500) from the turn of the 20th century until recent years. But the 2004 report projected a doubling of the population by 2013 due to a slew of multi-million-dollar developments then in the works, and to over 15,000 by 2023.
"The general planning strategy for the Exumas is to take advantage of tourism opportunities and meet the needs of Exumians in an environmentally friendly manner," the 2004 report declared. This would require new housing, the protection of sensitive areas, avoiding beachfront development, and discouraging speculative investments. The report argued that the Cays "should stay pretty much as they are" with small-scale tourist facilities and limited second home development.
The old naval base at George Town was to be converted into a new public facility, with government offices, schools, a park and a new dock. Housing would be restricted to specific sites and industrial development would be confined to the area around the airport. The strategy "would seek to preserve islands, beachfront and other sensitive lands for future generations. while sale or lease of crown land would be limited."
The alternative was unplanned development, which would mean higher costs for infrastructure and public services, more devastating environmental impacts, the loss of environmentally senstitive areas, a decline in public amenities, and growing land use conflicts.
The 2004 strategy was never implemented. Essentially, the Christie administration kicked the can down the road. So here we are seven years later considering the same issues. The big difference this time around is that a robust legislative framework exists that can give land use proposals the force of law.
In the meantime, the $64,000 question is how to make all these good intentions real to the average Bahamian as well as to developers. Swedish-Bahamian developer Orjan Lindroth (who conceived the eco-friendly Schooner Bay residential resort on Abaco) has suggested the creation of a Bahamian 'smart house' that could be easily and cheaply built on the islands.
"We need to show with deeds, not words, because macro concepts are too abstract," he told me. "I think what happened last week was positive. I do not think anyone knows where it will take us, but it will provoke good thought and comment and hope for better communities. Having Harvard on the agenda can only help us tremendously."
We all know what the environmental vision is. We need a shared social and economic vision to get citizens and developers to buy in to planning policies, and then make certain they are implemented and enforced. The alternative is too upsetting to contemplate.
LELAWATEE MANOO-RAHMING AND THE KALA PANI
Lelawatee Manoo Rahming is an Indo-Trinidadian-Bahamian engineer who dabbles in poetry. For most people, poetry is an arch irrelevance - "an artificial language that hardly exists outside school essays and unvisited library shelves.". But in Manoo-Rahming's case, it is the journey that is perhaps more interesting than the destination.
She recently published her second collection of verse - Immortelle and Bhandara Poems - which she describes as "a celebration of life and the lives of those who have passed on." A book launch is planned for Chapter One on the afternoon of Saturday, July 30.
"The language of these sensual poems is a syncretism of her East Indian-derived Bhojpuri Hindi, and her Trinbagonian creole, peppered with nuances of the Bahamian vernacular," the preface says. And there is a helpful glossary to explain terms like Canbouley (a sugar cane harvest festival), Iere (the Amerindian name for Trinidad), and Kala Pani (fear of the sea in Hindu culture).
Manoo-Rahming's poverty-stricken ancestors overcame their strong cultural taboo against crossing the ocean to endure an agonizing three-month journey from India to the West Indies in the holds of British ships, where they faced five years of near-slavery on the sugar estates.
In Trinidad Indian indentureship began in 1845 and continued until 1917. The Indians satisfied a need for plantation labour after the emancipated slaves deserted their former masters. Some 145,000 were transported to Trinidad, 239,000 to Guyana, 50,000 to Jamaica, 40,000 to Surinam, and smaller numbers to other Caribbean islands.
They were eventually offered land grants as an incentive to stay. Manoo-Rahming's grandparents were cane cutters and subsistence farmers, but she has no record of her earlier ancestors. Her father (Premchand Deosaran who died in 1996) cleaned roads and drains for the government, while her mother (Dolly Manoo who died in 2001) sewed clothes for neighbours. None of her parents or grandparents enjoyed any formal schooling.
In 1962, about two weeks before Lelawattee’s second birthday, Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Britain and Prime Minister Eric Williams made it compulsory and free for all children to attend primary school. That is how she and her siblings were able to be educated.
She did well - gaining a first degree in mechanical engineering from the University of the West Indies and a graduate degree in building services engineering from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. In 1983 she married Bahamian engineer Hammond Rahming, whom she met at UWI, and they have been running their own engineering firm in Nassau ever since.
Why does an engineer dabble in poetry? Here's what Manoo-Rahming has to say about that:
"I do feel as if I have been blessed, from I was a child, to be able to work in words, and numbers and concrete imagery and abstract thought. The gift manifests itself as an all-consuming need to create - whether engineering a building, or writing poetry or short stories or making visual art or handicraft or sewing."
Finally we're inside
The gated community
Finally with massa inside
The gated community
Savages singing the blues
Safe within the pink wall