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Barriers protect pedestrians at the Sam Sharpe Square in Downtown MoBay. Foto: Roland Krebs, 2013. P1120177

Montego Bay, or “MoBay” as the locals refer to it, is Jamaica’s second largest city and most important tourism hub, receiving 80% of the country’s arrivals. MoBay is a historic city, ideally located on the sea, which is within walking distance to the city center. However, over the past few decades, more and more people have left the city center, leaving downtown MoBay almost completely abandoned in terms of residential use. Instead of human beings, cars rule the public space of downtown MoBay.

During our last ESCI mission to Montego Bay in August we met with local and national planning experts from the St. James Parish Council to take a closer look at Mobay’s spatial development over the last thirty years in an effort to discover the explanation behind this transformation.

On our way down Church Street to see the historic St. James Church, we met Richard, a 36-year-old street vendor. On the weekdays Richard commutes from his home close to the abandoned railway station of downtown Montego Bay to the Charles Gordon Market. Despite starting his day as early as 3:00am he rushes to arrive on time in order to rent a pushcart, obtain his merchandise and set up his mobile business before another small vendor or a car gets the place in the shade of a tree. Richard knows if he arrives too late, the street will be full of parked cars.

Due to the absence of affordable housing, citizens like Richard settle on an informal basis close to the urban core of downtown MoBay. He could live in a better place outside the city, but this would lower his income drastically since commuting to the city center by taxi is expensive and there is no public transportation system. In MoBay both middle class families residing in single-family settlements in the suburbs and wealthier families in homes inside fortress-like gated communities commute into the city by taxi or private vehicle.

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Cars everywhere, even at St. James Church and cemetery. Photo: Roland Krebs, 2013. P1120190

Why does no one live in the city center?

In 1983, the zoning plan allowed for the development of huge shopping malls and residential complexes, strictly divided by use. The then-proposed zoning for the city center was, and still is, zoned as “commercial” and “office”. As a result, hardly anyone, except the urban poor, resides in these downtown areas, which has become a single-use commercial and administrative center. This rigid separation of urban functions and establishment of a low-density suburbia have had a severe impact on the city life: the city center is always congested by heavy traffic.

We spoke with two summer interns at the St. James Parish Council urban planning department about life in downtown MoBay, who both claimed that walking there is dangerous because of the traffic. They told us that they only come to the city when they have to since beyond work, there’s nothing else to do. After 6:00pm MoBay is considered a dangerous place to be due to the lack of security on the streets. After 6:00pm MoBay turns into a lifeless place: the city completely shuts down.

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Charles Glendon Market. Photo: Roland Krebs, 2013. P1120215

Our aim in this mission was to gather ideas from local and national stakeholders about urban design and link these with other sectors (water, waste, etc.) into a strategy. All stakeholders agree that no urban solution would be complete without considering a comprehensive transportation strategy, an adequately designed and partly car-free urban public space in the central core around Sam Sharpe Square and residential projects for the urban core. Additionally, cultural and artistic interventions in public spaces could act as urban catalysts for the area and support citizen participation in the development process. Recent proposals by the Montego Bay Arts Council to expand the Civic Center, an elegant colonial stone building, into a local community center and museum could support our local development effort. Upgrading informal settlements into new mixed-use projects that follow urban patterns of a dense city could bring life and security into the city center.

If we want the city to return to a visitor- and resident-friendly center we have to find solutions that allow residents like those we have spoken with, and the potential one million plus annual visitors enjoy downtown MoBay.