What do cemeteries, canals, and coconuts have to do with sustainable urban development? Follow this new 3-part blog series and you’ll find out. Using the example of Belize City, one of the 70+ cities in the Emerging and Sustainable Cities (ESC) program, you’ll see how one municipality is making moves towards sustainable development in areas such as neighborhood revitalization, flood mitigation, and local economic development.

By piggy-backing on Belize City’s new brand and slogan “Savor the Flavor, Feel the Energy”, a new “flavor” will be introduced each week related to current development happenings that will be sure to give you a taste of what is to come for this burgeoning coastal city. The current flavor of the week is “cemeteries.” Continue to read and you’ll find out how cities can transform stranded assets into opportunities for improving lives.

Belize City is the largest city in Belize, and is a gathering place of history, culture, business, and trade. It is a destination in itself, and a stepping off point for the rest of the country and the cayes. The country is extremely biodiverse and Belize District (encompassing the greater Belize City area) has one of the lowest emission levels compared to the ESC program cities; but, with the positives always come a few tradeoffs. At or below sea level, the city receives over 79 inches of rainfall a year and suffers easily from flooding. As the center of commerce and the most populated city with over 70,000 residents in the metropolitan area, Belize City is at high risk to the impacts from natural disasters and climate change. According to the ESC Vulnerability and Natural Disasters Study, it is one of the most exposed ESC cities when it comes to flooding (pluvial, fluvial, and coastal).

The ESC program in Belize City, which launched in September 2015, desires to embrace these challenges head on while also focusing on improving the habitat of city residents, especially those in lower income areas. In 2016, the IDB facilitated a partnership between the Belize City Council and the American Planning Association’s (APA) Community Planning Assistance Teams (CPAT) program to make a small area plan for the revitalization of the Yarbrough neighborhood, a key coastal corridor linking downtown with the cruise ship port. The recommendations that came out of this exercise will inform the ESC sustainable development action plan for Belize City (forthcoming).

The Yarborough neighborhood, commonly referred to as “Yarbra”, is located in the South Side of the city. A typically underserved low-middle-income coastal community, this corridor’s most emblematic landmark is the city’s first cemetery, located in the center of the main thoroughfares. Flanked by the coast, schools, a historic church, small shops, residences and the canal, the area offers a lot to work with while facing many difficulties related to flooding, traffic flow, quality pedestrian infrastructure, and safety.

The CPAT Team used a participatory approach consisting of workshops, town hall meetings and focus groups to identify 4 key planning priorities for the neighborhood:

(1) linking assets and a reorientation of the community to the water;

(2) supporting community-led initiatives and activities;

(3) implementing green infrastructure and resilience strategies; and

(4) ongoing project development and management using metrics and “strategic doing.”

The interdisciplinary team visited Belize City in February and June 2016, and just revealed their final results and recommendations at the APA’s Annual Conference in New York on May 7, 2017. The small area plan for Yarbra offers recommendations that range from low-resource high-impact interventions, like planting new trees or painting street murals, to larger green infrastructure projects like a floodable amphitheater that serves as a recreational space and coastal adaptation measure, while transforming the historic House of Culture space downtown. This type of green infrastructure allows for improvement of the public realm, while also adding a valuable cultural and recreational asset to this neighborhood that doubly serves to reduce the impacts from flooding and allow for natural drainage of an area vulnerable to flooding.

Other potential interventions include activating vacant spaces around the cemetery temporarily with uses such as a pop-up event or market; and improving traffic flow and congestion through temporary installments – like parklets and street furniture that make pedestrian- and bike-friendly streetscapes, and also temporary adjustments to vehicle pathways. Incremental actions like these are within reach of a municipality and can have far-reaching benefits. They can foster increased activity and renewed interest in “forgotten” spaces and stranded assets, improve pedestrian safety and lower traffic congestion, improve local stewardship, and promote entrepreneurship to push the revitalization of this historic waterfront community.

Example from Wichita, Kansas (USA), of how “pop-up urbanism” uses inexpensive, temporary, and moveable objects/interventions to show how transformation is possible. Source: Better Block Foundation

One of the takeaways from this experience is to foster partnerships with academic, private, and non-profit institutions that can offer pro-bono services and expertise with the cities in LAC. Such partnerships bring expertise, fresh approaches, experiences from other cities, and innovative, context-specific solutions to the client for their ultimate benefit. Sharing both best practices and lessons learned from other cities around the world that have relevance for the cities in the LAC region can have tremendous impact and be transformative if adapted for these cities. When you see what can be done overnight in cities such as Curitiba and New York, it is easy to imagine quick and inexpensive urban transformations in Belize City.

Stay tuned for the next flavor of the week, canals.

*Images courtesy of the APA CPAT Report (unless otherwise indicated), which can be downloaded here.