Five Takeaways from the Fifth Caribbean Urban Forum

The most important urban thinkers of the Caribbean recently convened in St. Lucia to discuss the future of cities in the region, during the Fifth Caribbean Urban Forum. For the first time, the IDB was an official sponsor of this event and has joined other international partners—the Organi­zation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), the Caribbean Local Economic Develop­ment Project (CARILED), the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), and the Caribbean Commu­nity (CARICOM)—in supporting this dialogue.


Debates over urban and land management issues—and their impact on the environment—have accompanied the region’s development since its inception. One might ask, “what’s new in the Caribbean urban debate?” Here are five recent trends:

  1. Caribbean planners are rewriting the “legislative DNA” of urban policy

A raft of new legislation has entered the Caribbean urban policy debate that will have ramifications for decades to come. In Jamaica, this includes several draft legislation: the National Squatter Management Policy and Implementation Plan (expected 2016), the National Housing Policy, the National Spatial Plan, and a revision of the Building Code. In Trinidad & Tobago, the Planning and Facilitation of Development Act was approved by Parliament and is awaiting proclamation by the President. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, one of the most vulnerable countries in the Caribbean, is debating a draft of its Land Policy.

  1. New professional associations are raising the standards of city planning in the Caribbean

The Saint Lucia Institute of Land Use Planners was launched at the Fifth Caribbean Urban Forum, the newest of several associations that are strengthening the discipline of planning in the region. This follows in the wake of the establishment of the Caribbean Planning As­sociation (CPA), a membership organization founded in 2011 and structured on the model of the American Planning Association and Canadian Institute of Planners. The Belize Association of Planners was formed in 2013 and the Planning Association of Dominica was established this year. Ahead of next year’s Caribbean Urban Forum in Paramaribo, organizers are in the process of creating the Suriname Institute of Land Use Planners.  The planning association in Guyana will also be created this year. These associations provide critical training to planners who are on the frontlines of permitting, affordable housing construction, urban revitalization, and climate change adaptation.

  1. The Caribbean is creating a post-2015 “New Urban Agenda”

The theme of this year’s Caribbean Urban Forum, “Island Systems Planning”, underscored the critical role that city planning plays in reducing the environmental impacts of development. Caribbean planners are engaged in new efforts to enforce coastal setbacks, control urban sprawl, and to revise and rewrite unclear, outdated town planning laws. Although debates are often still local or national, a Caribbean-wide regional urban debate is emerging, due in part, to the preparations for the Habitat III United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Quito, 2016). Already Jamaica has held a National Urban Forum and drafted their national Habitat report, which summarizes their issues and challenges in urban governance, housing, urban planning and disaster risk reduction. Caribbean countries have articulated positions in the debates surrounding the Sustainable Development Goals whose draft includes a specific urban goal (“Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”). The Caribbean Urban Forum, along with the General Assembly of Ministers and High Level Authorities of Housing and Urbanization of Latin America and the Caribbean (MINURVI) are cultivating this rich regional dialogue.

Participants in the Caribbean Urban Forum also highlighted key research gaps that hamper the comparative analysis needed to inform a “New Urban Agenda” in the region. These gaps include the lack or absence of:

  • updated public information about housing costs and prices in primary and secondary markets;
  • information on land supply for housing production;
  • reliable data on housing deficits; and
  • statistical uniformity in the region to ensure comparative analysis and rapid urban assessments.

  1. Unresolved housing and land issues still hamper tenure security and

The affordable housing deficit in the Caribbean is growing despite the commendable work of several housing authorities. Although most governments have shifted away from direct construction and are assuming a facilitative role, the private sector has generally been unwilling to assume the risks associated with housing for low-income households. This dynamic has created an “affordability gap” whereby many households cannot afford the cheapest units produced in the formal private sector. Participants voiced the challenges of upgrading existing housing and the need to create new legislation to expedite regularization and land titling. Several IDB programs in the Caribbean are assisting countries to upgrade settlements and build more affordable housing.

Recent IDB Urban Development and Housing Programs in the Caribbean

Country Program Year Approved
Bahamas Implementation of Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative in Nassau, Bahamas 2015
Barbados Housing and Neighborhood Upgrading Program 2008
Guyana Second Low Income Settlement Program 2008
Jamaica Kingston Urban Renewal 2002
Suriname Second Low Income Shelter Program 2009
Trinidad and Tobago Neighborhood Upgrading Program 2011

Speakers also highlighted how unresolved land issues continued to stymie the development of housing in the Caribbean. Challenges voiced by Forum participants were reflected in the IDB Country Strategy for Bahamas, 2013-2017, which highlighted that land tenure security and economic development is reduced by “overlapping claims and rights to land as a result of property disputes and the lack of a parcel based cadastral map, uncertainty regarding ownership of land resulting from outdated real property rights system and information in the registry, and a complex conveyance system for property registration and transfers.” Despite these challenges, the region has experienced several achievements in modernizing registries and reducing the cost of registration, such as the creation of the Jamaica National Land Agency (NLA). Additional efforts could assist public land management given the high percentage of land owned by the state in the Caribbean, such as in Trinidad and Tobago where state-owned land comprises over half of the country’s land area.

Urban sprawl has arrived to the Caribbean

The large number of vacant lots in cities like Paramaribo and Bridgetown, combined with low density residential development, has created new, more polycentric urban forms in the Caribbean. This type of urban sprawl has converted previously agricultural and environmental lands into residential and commercial areas. Using satellite imagery, New York University urbanist, Shlomo Angel, calculated that by 2050 cities in the six countries of Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago will use an additional land area of between 410km2 (44,000 city blocks) to 2,380km2 (256,000 city blocks). This urban shift will entail a doubling to a quadrupling of total urban land area. Beyond impacting the environment, the growth of cities outside their administrative borders will create additional needs for inter-municipal collaboration for transport, waste collection, water provision, and a host of other issues. Already, contiguous cities like Kingston and Clarendon are beginning to merge, which implies the emergence of new polycentric “city-regions” and “urban corridors” in the Caribbean.

These issues and additional themes will be discussed next April when Suriname hosts the Sixth Caribbean Urban Forum.


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