New or renew

Holness floats ambitious idea of a new city in south-west Jamaica.

Jamaica has undergone substantial urbanisation over the last half-century with the urban population increasing from 30% in 1960 to nearly 60% today. This has put serious pressure on infrastructure, such as housing, roads, water, schools and public transportation which has struggled to keep pace with the rate of urbanisation. The result, according to Government data, is that nearly a third of Jamaica’s three million people live in informal settlements on the periphery of the countries cities.

To combat these problems Jamaica has two options: new or renew.

Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, appears to be leaning towards “new”. On 29 July 2022, he announced that the government was contemplating a project to establish a new city in the south-west of the island. The project has been met with reluctance from urban developers, planners, environmentalists, sociologists who claim that the government should direct new investments into urban renewal.

While Saudi Arabia has the financial muscle to embark on the construction of a new city (“NEOM”), an urban planning strategist in Kingston points out that Jamaica does not, “From a personal perspective, I don’t think Jamaica needs a new city, especially given the country’s limited resources. Beyond a lack of capital there is a lack of expertise and I don’t think anyone has even thought about how the city would be governed.”

“Beyond a lack of capital there is a lack of expertise and I don’t think anyone has even thought about how the city would be governed.”

Urban planning strategist, Jamaica

Holness argues that most urban centres in Jamaica have already outgrown their original infrastructure and that renewing it would be just as difficult as building from scratch. Nevertheless, the government has not provided any specific information about the project so no comparison can be made.

Local organisations supporting the plan claim that this is a unique opportunity for the island to build a suitable state-of-the-art, sustainable, climate-resilient city which would use smart city infrastructure to improve municipal activities and the quality of life of its residents. Plans would include a business district, educational and health infrastructure and an environmentally sustainable urban planning with multiple parks which would lead to a better quality of life.

One of the government’s main objectives is to improve life for the 900,000 Jamaicans living in informal settlements but will this plan work? A Jamaican economist didn’t think so, “The people who live in the informal settlements can’t afford accommodation. And so, even if this new city comes into operation, how many of the residential opportunities would be for these people and how can they afford it? Do they have the capacity to run a business or apply to get a loan to buy housing?”

“The people who live in the informal settlements can’t afford accommodation […] how can they afford [a new city]? Do they have the capacity to run a business or apply to get a loan to buy housing?”

Economist, Jamaica

The new city project is part of a broader infrastructure upgrade plan which also includes the improvement of the island’s airports. In this context, Holness has recently advocated for the construction of a new airport financed by the government. However, the Jamaican executive is yet to unveil the plans to finance and obtain the political green light for these projects.

So is this project likely to happen? The process is simple according to the urban planning strategist, “The Planning Minister reports directly to the Prime Minister. They would use the Urban Development Corporate (“UDC”) Act to declare a new area for development. With sign-off from Parliament, the UDC is free to start building with whoever they choose as partners, whether public or private entities. So, Holness can do it if he wants to, he doesn’t need a referendum or anything like that.”

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