Many cities across Latin America and the Caribbean share a common issue: the existence of central areas or downtowns that are run down or underutilized. In most cases city centers are bustling with activity during the day, but become ghost towns during the night. This phenomenon is especially common in emerging cities where the inadequate use of tangible and intangible urban assets contrasts with a rapid urban expansion towards suburbia.
In Bridgetown, a city that concentrates many of Barbados’ historic and cultural treasures, infrastructure and regulations are lagging, preventing it from becoming a vibrant destination in the Caribbean. The central Bridgetown area is ripe for infrastructure such as bike lanes and signage. Vendors take most of the space in the already narrow sidewalks, making it difficult for locals and tourists to transit. This situation is worsened by the recent growth of mixed-use communities outside of the city such as Holetown and Warrens, which has driven greater pedestrian and vehicular traffic to these areas, causing in the decline of downtown Bridgetown.
For public and private leaders alike, the revitalization of Bridgetown—particularly of commercial and historic assets located within the Bridgetown and its Garrison area declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—is a great local economic development opportunity this city. However, this process is far from being spontaneous: it requires a multi-sectoral response that must be in line with the city’s cultural and historic fabric and distinctive Caribbean character. Hence, an idea of a “Bridgetown 360” perspective is emerging as a means to maximize Bridgetown’s economic and cultural activity in the short term, and to re-position the city as the center for commerce and entertainment in Barbados.
Having this in mind, we decided to implement the Urban Design Lab methodology in Bridgetown: a participatory design method that consists in working with diverse social actors to identify and discuss current issues and develop scenarios for potential interventions. We convened more than 50 stakeholders from government agencies, private sector, academia, communities, and the like to discuss the challenges and opportunities to revitalize downtown Bridgetown.
As a part of a future Emerging Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESCI) Action Plan for the city, the discussion was aligned with the IDB’s tourism investment portfolio that prioritizes 5 main products or activities for the Bridgetown area:
After a lively exercise and discussion, here are five of the main proposals that came up during the meeting:
1. Pedestrianizing Broad Street: the city’s main corridor harbors duty free stores, jewelry shops and other commercial establishments, but is currently a victim of a situation we see in many cities in LAC: 80% of the space is used by cars, and only 20% is used by people. Participants discussed the possibility of closing this street to pedestrian traffic, and of recovering the alleyways that connect it to other main streets such as Swan Street (to the north) and the Wharf Road (to the south).
2. Connecting both sides of the Careenage: the north side and south side of the Careenage and the Constitution River are only connected by the Chamberlain Bridge. Creating another pedestrian bridge would provide greater access to the restaurants located on the south side, as well as to the historic Screw Lift Dock, one of the two remaining dry docks in the world (the other one is in Singapore). This could be complemented by a water taxi service that takes tourists from the Barbados Cruise Terminal to the Screw Docks, and then takes them to the Bay Street Corridor where many hotels and the Garrison are located.
3. Improving tourist services: the city currently lacks services such as visitor maps, public restrooms and a visitor center. Participants discussed the possibility of using technology to share information about the city, its amenities and tourist attractions; as well as providing free WiFi in public spaces.
4. Recovering historic sites and public spaces: Historic buildings populate the city, such as Marshall Hall, a dilapidated structure which hosted balls and concerts, and once was described as “the largest room in the West Indies”. Buildings like Marshal Hall have the potential of being transformed into cultural or performing arts venues, or even incubators for local startup companies. Participants also mentioned the importance of maintaining public spaces such as Independence Square, the Boardwalk and Queens Park, as well as removing cars—particularly taxis—from these public areas.
5. Making Bridgetown a 24-hour city: All shops and businesses in the area (with the exception of a handful of bars and restaurants such as the Waterfront Cafe) close at 5:00 pm every day, and don’t open on Sundays. As a means to make the city more attractive at night, participants pointed out the need to give people more reasons to stay in the area after work, such as free exercise or dance classes, live music, and even an outdoor cinema. They also discussed the importance of encouraging people to practice sports in the area such as jogging and road tennis—a sport originated in Barbados—during the day as well as during the night.
As Professor Henry Fraser—a distinguished academic and one of the participants of the workshop—pointed out in a recent article, the best place to start is by implementing some of these ideas that will make the city more attractive for locals as well as visitors. Once these elements are in place, and with the collaboration of key stakeholders and community groups, it will be easier to transform Bridgetown into a hub for business and entertainment in Barbados and in the Caribbean.
For downtown Bridgetown the challenges are big but the future is bigger!