will the children play?
By John Maxwell
Foreclosing Our Options
Let Them Eat Cake
About twenty-five years ago, Mr Easton Douglas, then Government
Town Planner, wrote a short but eloquent document about the disappearance
of public open spaces in the development of Kingston. Playing fields
and parks were being take over by schools, by housing schemes, by
new commercial developments.
In 1946, as a twelve year old at Calabar, (then on Slipe Pen Road
on the edge of West Kingston) I was able to walk a few hundred yards
and watch people playing cricket or football at Calabars two
huge playing fields, and at Chetola park and Jamshipco and Unifruitco
higher up the road. Kingston was littered with parks and playing
fields, and at that time the population was less than a quarter
of what it is now.
The playing fields and parks, sports clubs and open spaces were
swallowed up by housing schemes, commercial and government buildings
and other works, all worthy, but all reducing the space for public
recreation and ease.
Recently, the Government Town Planner, one of Mr Douglas successors,
denied permission for a new housing scheme on land which is part
of the national endowment known as the Royal Botanical Gardens,
Hope. The scheme was for the construction of a development to be
known as the Hope Country Club on land between Hope Pastures and
Hope Gardens proper.
Hope Gardens proper is past its best. Over the years various government
departments have encroached on the property. Housing estates have
been built where we use to steal mangoes, when I moved from Calabar
to Jamaica College. And gone too is the huge field across from the
gardens which used to be one of the wonders of the world; a pasture
which in August every year and probably at other times, was captured
by peenies fireflies millions of them switching on
and off rhythmically, like some extra-terrestrial semaphore signalling
to the stars.
Hope Gardens had its Maze, a favourite of small children and lovers,
the bandstand, decorated every Sunday by the Jamaica Military Band
playing their hearts out, it had its lily ponds, aquarium and arboretum,
orchidarium, even an avenue of exotic palms.
In the seventies, when I was chairman of the NRCA and Mr Douglas
was Town Planner and a member of the NRCA board, we tried to rescue
Hope Gardens and the other government gardens at Fern Gully, Cinchona,
Castleton and Bath, to restore them to health and to make them really
attractive places of resort for Jamaicans and visitors. We were
also negotiating with an American millionaire, Mr George Farkas,
to buy Laughing Water and if possible, restore some of the Roaring
River Falls and to make an orchidarium out of the place.
We had plans, and dreams. We were going to make Jamaica beautiful
again, going to give Jamaicans and our visitors, the opportunity
to see their country as it could be, But, between the IMF and bureaucratic
resistance, we failed to get permission to take over the gardens.
Among the plans we had for Hope was to move the Zoo and Coconut
Park to relocate them at Percy Junors Oaklands
estate on the Constant Spring Road. We would thus achieve two things,
bringing the fun park and the animals nearer to more of Kingstons
children while freeing up the Hope Gardens to be a real gem. We
would earn money to keep it in shape and blooming by re-starting
the plant breeding programme which used to be one of its enterprises,
breeding things like orchids, ferns and palms for sale and for official
FORECLOSING OUR OPTIONS
Mr Douglas very kindly phoned me this week to discuss the issue.
We spoke at some length about the proposal to build houses at Hope
Gardens. His case, briefly, is that the lands are not part of Hope
Gardens as such a quibble in my opinion and that the
development would help rescue an adjacent piece of land from squatters.
Both contentions are, in my opinion, without merit.
We need more gardens and parkland, not less, and we wont always
be so poor that we have to sell the household furniture. The development
violates Mr Douglas own Development Order of the 1970s, which
designated the whole area as public open space. It also violates
Mr Douglas own precepts of the 70s, when he presented overwhelming
arguments for an end to greenfield development in Kingston: there
was not enough water; there was a great deal of unused and under-used
space in Kingston to be redeveloped and finally that the public
interest demanded a halt to development which created slums and
crime by sucking in Jamaicans from all over the countryside because
there was no development out there. These arguments are even more
powerful today than when they were first made by Mr Douglas, and
I intend to use them in my own formal objection to the proposed
LET THEM EAT CAKE
If the rich need housing space, let them buy it on the free market
like everyone else. There is no reason for the Minister to exercise
his authority under the Housing Act to declare the area a housing
area. The Housing Act was meant to give Ministers the authority
to move in and clear slums, which is what the Ministry of Housing
and the Urban Development Corporation should be doing, instead of
speculating in real estate which belongs to the people of Jamaica.
Mr Douglas insists that the estate will not be for the rich. The
housing costs are limited because the mortgage insurers will lend
no more than $5 million per housing unit and $5 million is not rich
I remember when Easton Douglas, Richard Thelwell and I used to do
battle with the Prime Minister, Mr Manley, with the head of the
UDC (and of Portmore Land Development Ltd.,) Mr Moses Matalon, and
his advisers, who then included Dr. Vin Lawrence of Jentech. We
precipitated a crisis in the building of Portmore because we insisted
that no more houses should be built there without greater protection
from earthquake risk and hurricane and dig this because
there were not enough open spaces, playing fields, schools and places
where people could take emergency shelter..
Earthquake risk, oddly enough, is a serious factor in the proposed
new housing scheme, because the whole of the backdrop to Hope Gardens
is unstable, shaley soil and the area itself is part of a landslide
brought down by an earthquake probably in 1692. Earthquakes
are dangerous animals, especially in Jamaica and nobody knows this
better than Mr Douglas, who with the rest of the NRCA, argued long
and tenaciously in the seventies to prevent people being exposed
to unreasonable risk at Portmore.
The government may be short of money, but it cannot be so short
that it can compromise its own principles, embodied in Agenda 21,
signed by Mr Patterson and witnessed by Mr Douglas. It cannot be
so short of principle that it can degrade and defy its own development
order, just to raise a little cash for the budget.
When the cash is gone, where will the children play?