ADJACENT to the country’s capital city, to the east of Port of Spain, lies an area that some have classified as a hotspot: from the hills of Laventille at its top; through Beetham Gardens in the middle and Sea Lots at its south.
It’s an area usually classified with high crime rates and unemployment.
Fourteen years ago, a company of the same name—the East Port of Spain Development Company (EPOS), was set up to regenerate the area.
The company was established at about the same time the capital’s Waterfront was being developed—a part of former prime minister Patrick Manning’s ambitious, modern vision for Port of Spain.
A limited liability company now under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, the work of EPOS has been specific—to develop and redevelop a zone in east Port of Spain, bounded by Charlotte Street, Lady Young Road and the Eastern Main Road and including Morvant, Never Dirty and Caledonia. The objective of the company is to improve the economic, social and physical environment of those areas.
There was no overnight fix for the area and despite its mandate, the company isn’t flush with money to achieve its goals.
With a staff of 21, located in Laventille along the Eastern Main Road, its disbursements from the State are relatively small.
In 2020, it was allocated $15 million.
Chief executive Dr Deborah Austin, an urban planner by profession, has had to make do.
She’s had projects to cater for the needs of the community: building steps to provide better access to hills; installing guttering along roofs of houses to capture rain water to meet the needs of residents and last week, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for a transport hub—essentially a shelter for people waiting for public transportation from the area.
Last week, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced that the Government wanted to revitalise the city which he said is in state of decay. It is the 17th plan—between 1968 and 2015, there were 16 others—to revitalise Port of Spain. This plan was presented by NLBA Architects and is to be undertaken by the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UDeCOTT) in conjunction with the Ministry of Planning and Development. The plan envisages a mix of public and private investments, the creation of green spaces and a steelband theatre on George Street.
The revitalisation of Port of Spain, said Dr Rowley, is a vital project in the Government’s thrust to foster and stimulate integrated national growth.
On a much smaller scale, Austin’s work will dovetail with UDeCOTT’s overall regeneration plan.
Does it speed up the time for her organisation’s delivery?
Possibly, she acknowledged.
As an urban planner, she is cognisant that it will take time to bring about city change.
Her mandate, she explained, was not to impose a plan.
She has to have buy-in from the communities she serves. She started building relationships with the key members of the communities, looking for avenues to educate them into entrepreneurship and improving their overall living conditions.
“So given that mandate that we have, we set about first of all trying to understand the area because we felt we couldn’t start planning for something that we didn’t understand,” she said.
To put it in further perspective, she observed that in the Book of Trinidad, in the 1700s the city was described as a large, overcrowded, unsanitary slum developing over the river and behind the bridge.
“The problems that we have didn’t happen overnight. We’re talking a few hundred years. And if that is the case, we can’t expect to solve them overnight or in 14 years, or in 20 years. It’s going to take a while to resolve those problems and that’s why it requires a very clear, comprehensive development strategy that is multifaceted because the problems themselves are multifaceted,” she said.
She observed that the area boasts the country’s first housing development in Gonzales, one of a few Martello towers still around the world, and Cabildo, which is the seat of the Spanish government, was actually at the bottom of Piccadilly Street.
But the communities are challenged.
“We know about deficiencies and the physical infrastructure has deteriorated over the years. The topography of the area’s also challenging. So we have the hills and some parts are very steep, very rugged, very difficult to navigate and we have some areas that lead out towards the sea, that are very flat, which are susceptible to flooding.
“We have high levels of unemployment in some of the communities. When we started doing our work, we were realising that some communities have unemployment three times the national average, some children were dropping out of secondary school and then, of course, what the area tends to be known for its high levels of crime,” she said.
As for working in communities with gang members?
To Austin, they are people.
“We come across all different types of people. People are people. I don’t know who is a member of a gang, because I’ve never seen an ID card that says, ‘I’m a gang member’. I’ve never seen a label, so I don’t know who you are, I deal with you as a member of the community.
“We are not looking at community leaders, we are looking at representatives of the community. And we stay within the confines of the law, and we expect people to treat us with that level of respect in terms of what we’re doing,” she said.
She observed that about 50 per cent of the company’s staff, come from the communities that the company serves.
Dr Austin said that at one point, the area accounted for 30 per cent of the serious crimes in T&T.
“That is no longer the case. The more recent data is showing us that those levels of crime have fallen. We can’t say that the work that we’re doing is producing the results but we are seeing some declines,” she said.
To understand the community, she said, the members were invited to discuss their own vision.
“We wanted to know their living challenges. We wanted them to tell us what do they see as their problems, and what was their vision for their community. And then we started doing a series of consultations in the communities, going out to people, talking to them about what they would like to see, and we use that information to start coming up with a development plan and a development strategy for the transformation of it,” she said.
She said the finalised plan will be presented to the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Pennelope Beckles in the coming weeks.
“The concept of the urban regeneration has been with us since 2007. From the time we started putting the company together. Our approach has always been multifaceted; so we are doing some physical infrastructure projects that will improve the physical infrastructure deficiencies. We are also doing a number of social and economic programmes.
She explained that one avenue to build capacity was in construction in the area and the company employs small contractors from the area who do jobs in the area.
Furthermore, because of the location of the projects, large contractors aren’t interested.
“We have a register of contractors, many of whom are from the area, some are from outside of the area. And I am sure our contractors register has exceeded 300.
She explained that getting them registered was a process.
“When we started doing work, we asked them to register and as you walked through the registration forms, you see some of the gaps in competencies. So we would score them. And we had an evaluation,” she said.
She said launching a training programme became necessary.
“We trained over 75 contractors in various aspects of tendering and procurement and managing their business, so that they are now better positioned to tender for projects and be successful. And we have hired many of them. And we have a requirement because we know that unemployment is high in some of these communities, we require the contractors to hire 75 per cent of the unskilled labour from within the communities.
“So we are trying to keep the money and work within the communities. In doing that, we are also fulfilling two parts of our developmental mandate. One is to develop the infrastructure in the area, but the other side is a human development side of it. So, giving them the opportunity to work and to learn and to improve, builds their skills, builds the capacity of the contracting firms as well,” she said.
Dr Austin says the revised plan for EPOS envisions the community as “a network of healthy, safe, economically vibrant and sustainable communities that are connected to each other and integrated into Port of Spain and the rest of Trinidad.
“Our work is comprehensive, it is strategic, it is evidence-based. We collect information from the national census, from other sources and we have to do our own surveys. And so, that’s the vision that we have for regeneration, it’s a challenge we know it’s possible,” she said.