There were several sound clashes at the editors’ forum on ‘The Building Issues’ that was hosted by The Gleaner on June 24. One of the dub-fi-dub contests was between Dr Patricia Green and Mr Christopher Whyms-Stone. Both are architects but they obviously don’t see eye to eye on the issue of the rapid transformation of housing in Kingston and St Andrew from predominantly single-family homes to high-density apartment buildings.
Whyms-Stone is the deputy chairman of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA). That’s the policy arm of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). The NRCA Act identifies five functions of the authority. The very first one is “to take such steps as are necessary for the effective management of the physical environment of Jamaica so as to ensure the conservation, protection and proper use of its natural resources.” Surely, ‘physical’ must include the built environment!
In his opening remarks, Whyms-Stone categorically declared, “Kingston is a … has … has since inception been a single-family city, since inception undoubtably. Ahm, it cannot stay that way; it just cannot. For so many reasons: economic, infrastructure-wise, growing population, a, a great housing deficit. It can’t stay that way. Change is hard. And it’s harder on those it impacts. Ahm, where I would agree and where we can discuss further is how you manage that change.”
Dr Patricia Green, a senior lecturer in architecture and historical preservation at the University of Technology, dropped a champion dubplate in the closing moments of the forum: “I challenge the comment that since the development of Kingston it has been single-family. That’s not the historic fact. And the housing in Kingston ahm … (Whyms-Stone interrupted her to say ‘predominantly’), it has not, they have been multi-family dwellings in Kingston, especially in the lanes of downtown. And mixed-used development in Kingston; and it has extended even after the 1907 earthquake. And that’s a historic fact. And I speak in my authority as a historian over the city.”
Sound clash done! In response to Green’s devastating challenge, Whyms-Stone tried in vain to rally with a worn-out dubplate. He asked, “So everywhere should look like downtown, then?” I suppose his question was meant to be sarcastic. After all, the lanes of downtown Kingston are not a preferred residential address for uptown Jamaicans. The irony is that the concrete jungles rising up all over the Corporate Area are not that different in density from the downtown lanes that Whyms-Stone appears to disdain.
Take, for an instance, a large apartment complex with a mix of studios, one, two and three-bedroom apartments, totalling 200 units. That means, perhaps, 350 residents living in what is, basically, an uptown tenement yard. The cost of buying or renting an apartment in such a building would be astronomical. After all, the amenities would be far superior to those in a downtown yard. But the congestion in public spaces may not be all that different from downtown. The lanes are both vertical and horizontal.
FLEEING FROM THE POOR
There was a time, not so long ago, when Kingston proper was a grand city. Wealthy Jamaicans actually lived downtown. Gracious homes were built in neighbourhoods like Rae Town, Brown’s Town, Lindo’s Town, Hannah Town and Bournemouth Gardens. Most of these houses have fallen into disrepair. But there is still evidence of their former elegance if you look closely enough. And the streets were wide, indicating careful urban planning.
David Howard, an associate professor in Sustainable Urban Development at Oxford University, wrote the book Kingston: A Cultural & Literary History, which is part of a guide series on Cities of the Imagination. Kingston is right up there with Tokyo, Rome, Seville, Venice, Belfast, Zagreb, Stockholm, London, Kyoto, Buenos Aires, Madrid, New Orleans, among others.
Our former poet laureate Lorna Goodison wrote a lyrical ‘Foreword’ to Howard’s book: “Like a beloved relative or friend who has fallen on hard times, you keep wanting to say of her, ‘you should have known her then’. You should have known her then, the Kingston where I was born as Kingstonians say, under the clock, over half a century ago, for if she was not the city of lights she was certainly the city of life, the promised land to which thousands of people like my parents had come from country to ‘make life’.”
The wealthy quickly distanced themselves from those who had come to Kingston to make life, fleeing first to the Liguanea plains to establish new residential communities. Eventually, the fugitives retreated even further up into the hills! But they maintained their businesses downtown. Kingston remained the commercial centre of the country.
PRIME REAL ESTATE
The establishment of New Kingston in the 1960s hastened the downfall of the old city. It was Maurice Facey, chairman of PanJamaican Investment Trust, who led the transformation of the Knutsford Park Racecourse into the new commercial centre of Kingston and St Andrew. The value of the old city’s location on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world was not fully appreciated. In any other country, a harbour like Kingston’s would have been prime real estate.
Sensible companies like GraceKennedy refused to leave. At the opening of their new headquarters in 2019, Group CEO Don Wehby proudly declared, “This building is so much more than a physical structure. It is really a manifestation of the vision of generations of GraceKennedy leaders, many of whom are with us here today. It shows where GraceKennedy is coming from, and [is] a demonstration of the commitment we made in 1922 that downtown Kingston would always be our home. It shows where GraceKennedy is 97 years later, and where we are headed on our journey to becoming a Global Consumer Group.”
Maurice Facey was also chairman of the Kingston Restoration Company (KRC), which was incorporated in 1983, approximately two decades after the establishment of New Kingston. According to the company’s website, the KRC is a response to “the collapse of downtown Kingston as the prime centre for business and commerce.” This is a clear case of shutting the gate long after deliberately letting the racehorse out of the stable.
New Kingston is one of the prime locations in which high-density concrete jungles are now flourishing. How will investments in these properties be impacted by new urban developments? In the not too distant future, a New Kingston Restoration Company may very well become essential if and when the proposed new township is established at Bernard Lodge. Urban planners are doomed to repeat history if they do not learn from the mistakes of the past.