Many Jamaicans may find it extraordinary that their capital would feature in a list of 50 cities in the world, that were notable for how they would redefine the modern metropolis. But, in 2016, The Guardian began its ‘Story of cities’ and featured at #9 ‘Kingston, Jamaica – a city born of ‘wickedness’ and disaster‘. When one looks at the plan and layout of the intended new capital, that would replace Port Royal in that role after its devastating earthquake in 1693 and fire in 1703, one sees a new new order that was radically different from the place that had earned the title “the richest and wickedest city in the world”.

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Michael Hay’s map of Kingston from 1740. Illustration: Library of Congress

The grid pattern, akin to that becoming popular in the eastern seabord cities of the United States of America, was also a part of a scheme to reinforce the defensibility of the new location.

Fast forward to the 20th century.

Those of us who grew up in downtown Kingston may well recall the orderliness of the city space, well shown in the iconic picture of the streets leading down to the harbour in the 1950s.

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There is a striking balance of scale of buildings, mixture of built spaces in stone, concrete and plants, and in those days the city was not choked with vehicles and people were able to walk on well-designed sidewalks.

The capital city has much changed and expanded in all directions, with vehicles dominating and (it seems) people pushed to no better than second place in many of the considerations of the layout and use of land. But, that is a consequence, not a cause. Kingston and environs was never meant to be an area where well over 1 million people live and work, and that unintended outcome lies at the heart of what went wrong with the capital. As the adage goes, failure to plan is planning to fail. That has been the legacy of Kingston, but also that of all of Jamaica’s urban areas, where massive influxes of people, squatting, sprawl and random development have driven the shape and use of the island.

Jamaica isn’t alone in seeing that sort of situation arise, not least as economic pressures pull and push migration and capitals become a massive magnet. It takes more than good intentions to stop mass internal migration, but it only become worse when a blind eye is turned to how many poor people will solve their basic need for shelter and make ‘homes’ wherever and with whatever they can.

Economic and social forces drive much of what happens with any national landscape, but so too does politics–in the sense of how those in power choose to control access to land and reward or deny based on political allegiences. It’s hard to assess how that aspect has driven ‘development’ in Jamaica, but we know that the notion of political ‘garrisons’ is not just a metaphor for voting blocs but something that is, literally, concrete (or in the Jamaican context, zinc, breeze blocks and wood). That political manouevering has allowed our landscape to deteriorate into an ever-increasing set of ghettos is perhaps one of the most shameful legacies of our democratic processes.

Turning back the clock on such random developments is not easy. As with any task, the longer it takes to start to correct the process, the harder it becomes, as the things we dislike take deeper roots and inevitably set in train a new set of complex processes. The fact that people’s welfare is at the heart of what needs to be changed makes it more difficult because any negative consequence to any individual can be amplified as a slight against a group, or be made to appear like a vindictive action.

I’ve only seen a few signs that Jamaican politicians truly want to address these problems, and the poltiical capital involved makes it completely understandable why they would not want to go far down that road: they stand to lose much.

But, like many things about where Jamaica has reached, we stand at yet another crossroad. Fear drives a lot of critical decisions in Jamaica. F.D. Roosevelt’s first Inauguration remarks in 1933, just at The Great Depression was reaching its lowest point, are especially poignant and relevant for Jamaica (my stress): “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” The first part of FDR’s remarks are well-known, and often cited, but it’s the second part (the solution) that is often most challenging for politicians, for whom frankness is often wanting.

So, on the matter of what to do about how this island looks and feels, which way will we turn?

I mused yesterday about some of the thing I think we need to grapple with:

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