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Urban planners’ expertise missing from COVID-19 response


AN urban planner has argued that experts in that field have been absent from the front of the battle with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the Caribbean despite being the ones with the skill sets most needed alongside that of health workers.

“Caribbean planners ought to be at the forefront of this battle. Unfortunately in this current debate I don’t see them playing an active role, but we do need to play an active role because we are uniquely positioned to advocate and provide a strong voice for the resilience of sustainable, safe and inclusive Caribbean cities that can withstand future pandemics,” Professor Carol Archer, urban planner, international consultant and former dean of the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), told a teleconference put on by UTech, dubbed “Prevention a Yard”, on Sunday.

Archer was addressing the issue of Pandemics and the City. In referring to the Jamaica’s own experience, in which the virus burgeoned in the space of a week, leading to the shutdown of the parish of St Catherine for 14 days after an infected worker linked to business process outsourcing outfit Alorica led to a dangerous spike in cases, she said that, had the Government consulted with planners the outcome would have been different.

“Urban planners and land use managers are trained to handle a variety of responsibilities around planning, design and management of land resources. So issues of transportation, issues of public green spaces [are considered]. I can submit to you that, had we had planners or land use managers advising the Government about the limitations of movement or lockdown of St Catherine the results would have been a bit different and perhaps more palatable to the average Jamaican,” Archer said.

“The planners are able to assist the Caribbean to meet the requirements of sustainable development goals because of the education and training. Yes, there is the health concern, but the health concern is layered on top of how we design and manage cities,” she said.

While pointing to the age-old linkages between connectivity and urban density to pandemics, as well as data from the Ministry of Health and Wellness showing that the spread of COVID-19 is concentrated in more urbanised areas, Professor Archer argued that “not all densities are equal”.

She said Los Angeles is a good example of a city with neighbourhoods that are dense but where people can shelter, work remotely and have all the necessities addressed.

“On the other hand, if we were to look at communities in New York City, and even here in Kingston, we see very good examples of poor dense spaces where people are forced to navigate between vehicular traffic on the roadway, narrow or non-existent sidewalks and are herded into commercial facilities to shop for their basic needs,” she said.

“What we have to conclude is that when you have the necessary basic services and proper systems of management, then it will address the issues of the spread of various diseases,” Archer stated.

Low-income communities aside, she said there were also examples of high density in middle-income communities here in Jamaica, noting further that similar pandemics will occur in the future, hence the importance of proper planning and redesigning in areas.

“When we have insufficient public spaces… we have limited consideration because, going forward, when we construct our public amenities we have to now give consideration to six feet apart, and if we were to go to South Avenue or any of the new multi-family, high-rise buildings going up, it is very difficult, I would submit, for you to realise the six feet apart, particularly in the public areas. So we have insufficient public open spaces, insufficient recreational amenities to support these high-density developments, so there is a cause for concern,” she said.

“What we do need to be able to address these concerns is effective urban management. I submit that it’s with effective urban management that we would be able to address future pandemics. The opportunity now exists for housing developers, public policymakers to apply lessons that we have learned from this COVID situation, but also from past pandemics, as to how we deal with issues of density. We now have to redesign our towns and urban centres to reflect these concerns, and it’s not just here in Jamaica but throughout the Caribbean,” she said, while noting that this should not be driven by the market approach.

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