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COLUMNS BY JOHN MAXWELL :
WHERE WILL THE CHILDREN PLAY?

 

Where will the children play?
By John Maxwell

Dreams, Dreams
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 Calabar’s 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.

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DREAMS, DREAMS…

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 Junor’s “Oaklands” estate on the Constant Spring Road. We would thus achieve two things, bringing the fun park and the animals nearer to more of Kingston’s 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 beautification.

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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 won’t 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 housing development.

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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 people’s housing … these days.

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?

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LINKS
Photo of Proposed Site (800x600) |
1966 Survey Map | Objection sent to the Minister of Housing and Development | Rebuttal of Estech's EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) | Objection made to NRCA (Natural Resources Conservation Authority) | Common Sense: Where will the children play? | Common Sense: The battle of Hope Gardens | Common Sense: An offer they couldn't refuse | Common Sense: No mek dem tek it! | Common Sense: Hoping against Hope | Common Sense: Transparency and Hope | News: The Struggle Continues | Press Release from Birdlife of Jamaica | Memo from Mona Heights Citizens' Association | Letter from Stuart Lacy of WildLife Jamaica | Letter from Gloria Escoffery | Letter from Daphne & Peter Abrahams | Satire by 'Cher' | An Opposing Viewpoint from The Gleaner | Protest Letters | The Principals | Add your $0.02