Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Living The High Life

I do not mean to target the Minister of Tourism, who struck me as a perfectly decent fellow on the few occasions when we have met. However, he keeps launching into areas from which few men escape unscathed. His latest plunge is to suggest that 'urbanisation' and 'high-rise housing' are the way for Barbados to go. I think his rationale sits on the notion that the smallness of Barbados, with its 166 square miles (not yet expanded by offshore islands), does not give its population a lot of space on which to develop adequate housing. I personally do not believe this, but a major problem lies in the way that land use has been developed, and the thorny issue of whether some marginal agricultural land could be given over to housing.

The debate about the meaning of 'adequate' could be interesting, and it should go on. It is unfortunate that, given that obvious space limitation, one of the developments pushed as a product of the island to attract tourism and foreign investment was 'luxury' housing of the kind seen near the west coast. The mansions sit so awkwardly, cocking a snook at the ordinary Bajan housing.

A much harder debate will be about whether a country like Barbados can really adjust to having most of its population living in high-rise buildings. That is a far-off possibility, I think, but it may get a head of steam.

Now, for this country, I imagine and believe that high-rise housing will not be the type of towers one sees in Manhattan or London or Miami, where one may get vertigo just looking up at them. The indications are that two-to-four storey dwellings are envisaged, such as Country Park Towers, being developed by the National Housing Corporation. Yet, even that may be a challenge.

I hope that the Minister and the government of which he is a part study seriously the many examples of disastrous high-rise projects in developed countries, whether in the US, UK, France, etc. But also, where these have been tried in places like Brazil or Venezuela. Many studies have tried to discern why high-density housing complexes tend toward a new 'ghetto' and a breeding ground for crime. Part of the answer lies in how people are selected for such projects. Poor people cannot become rich just by changing their housing; their 'life chances' have to improve. That means schools, social amenities, leisure space, employment opportunities, etc. Where those remain bad, even with new and 'better' housing the cycle of poverty does not get broken.

Where well-educated people, with stable jobs, and higher incomes choose to live in high-rise developments, they often become models for high quality living: look at the areas around New York's Central Park.

But the poor in high-density housing can easily provide the 'playground' for the drug barons and the crime organizers, who profit from the poverty but also the facelessness, and warren-like nature of some projects.

I was shocked when I visited little Tortola (22 square miles, 24,000 people), just over a year ago, and was taken to a housing complex by a friend. Many foreigners live on the island for its better jobs. Many of them live in such developments. Many tell-tale signs of urban decay were there: abandoned cars and household appliances; boarded up apartments. It was like a mini-ghetto in the US. Scary. The only difference was that the housing sat in the shadow of the mountains, and there were palm-treed roads just five minutes away.

No one likes rotten housing. It is at the root of many social ills, though it can be as much cause as effect. The downward spiral associated with poor housing and poor educational attainment, poor health, high crime, etc. is well-known worldwide.

People who admire what Lee-Kwon Yew did for Singapore point out that housing shortages, and a dearth of land and natural resources could have crippled the island-city-state. But one of his major drives was a public housing programme, along with measures to tackle high unemployment. He also had two other pillars: good education and health provision. With housing, education, and health care assured, President Lee said to the population "Now work to make this country great" (to paraphrase).

Tourists are often content to live in high-rise hotels for a few days but quickly tire of the confinements that style of accommodation affords. They can usually get included or pay for whatever diversion is needed to make things seem better. The same is not true for people who have to live in high-rises all the time.

Will Barbados' proposed housing developments be part of an economic and social package that is geared to give people a better standard of living?

A house with a garden, even small and humble-looking, is a world apart from an apartment with a balcony. I hope people realise that and don't think that they are equal substitutes.

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