Weak public consultation approach draws questions about plans to ‘revitalise’ beloved Trinidad park

Screenshot of Nelson Mandela Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad, taken from Google Earth.

Over the past few weeks, the Trinidad and Tobago Society of Planners (TTSP) and the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Architects (TTIA) have been drawing public attention to the government's urban revitalisation plans for major cities in the context of the lip service both bodies maintain the state is paying to public consultation—issues that are now coming to the fore via the Port of Spain City Corporation’s proposal to “revitalise” Nelson Mandela Park (formerly called King George V Park), a green space listed on the country's Heritage Asset Register as a historic site deemed worthy of preservation.

Residents of Trinidad's capital city are both confused and distraught over the Corporation's plans, which allegedly include replacing the existent grass with 3G AstroTurf, so that the site could, according to Port of Spain mayor Joel Martinez, utilise its potential as “a public wellness and sports hub in the heart of our capital city.” He said that the park was currently under-utilised and that the improvements would allow the City Corporation to “generate additional revenue.” However, sporting and other recreational activities have been limited because of different lockdown restrictions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is said to be a public-private partnership initiative, but the proposal document is not publicly available, although a Tender Notice for “upgrade works to playing field at Nelson Mandela Park for the Port of Spain Corporation” is listed on the website of the Ministry of Finance. Although the notice is dated July 28, 2017, the virtual consultation was only held on July 26, 2021, leaving citizens just six days to submit their views on a proposal they cannot publicly access. Actions like this, according to the joint TTSP and TTIA articles, contribute to the process being “undemocratic,” “deficient,” and demonstrating “a lack of transparency and decision-making in the interests of the public.”

Twitter user Maria Rivas-McMillan agreed:

Keith Rowley is the country's prime minister.

Although the Corporation has facilitated what it calls a “public consultation” on the matter, activist Afra Raymond also called its transparency into question:

I am somehow unable to find any details of this 18-page proposal to AstroTurf the Nelson Mandela Park on either the POS City Corporation's FB page or its website, perhaps someone forgot to post it?

Apparently, we have until Sunday 1st August 2021 to make comments, irony is always such a strong part of history, you see?

On August 1, Trinidad and Tobago, the first country in the world to declare the date a national holiday, celebrates Emancipation Day.

On Facebook, Lara Quentrall-Thomas took up the mantle, asking:

Does anyone have any details of the 18-page proposal to AstroTurf the Nelson Mandela Park? It is not on either the POS City Corporation's FB page or its website.

Apparently we have until Sunday 1st August 2021 to make comments!
We cannot allow this to happen. Trinidad has enough unused and under maintained sports facilities already.

Former Port of Spain mayor Louis Lee Sing, who was instrumental in getting the park up to its current state during his tenure, has been quite outspoken against the proposal, calling it “a waste of resources”—a position which many social media users have echoed. In an interview with the Trinidad Express, Lee Sing added that any public consultation should have included representatives from the country's Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA):

These are the agencies people want to hear from. There are so many questions for them to be pushing this nonsense about this AstroTurf. If you go up to Marvin Lee Stadium, the AstroTurf is in a mess, so why are we going to dig up the grass that has worked for us for hundreds of years […]? If it is a park then it should remain as a park with trees and grass and benches and play surfaces for everyone to participate and enjoy.

Another concern of Lee Sing's is that, by changing the park into a recreation facility—Mayor Martinez has reportedly suggested that anyone wanting to use the site must make online bookings—it will de-democratise access. After a community playing field, located in the community of Bagatelle in northwest Trinidad, was transformed into a multi-million dollar sporting complex which residents have to pay to access, use of the space dropped off considerably.

Netizens, meanwhile, were busy weighing in on everything from the lack of durability and high cost of AstroTurf to the impact of its carbon footprint. In the Port of Spain City Corporation's public consultation notice Facebook thread, commenters were overwhelmingly against the proposal, with many of them advising that all the park needed was proper maintenance.

One Facebook user, Dale Ramirez, asked for a link to the proposal to be provided ahead of the virtual meeting so that he could be prepared to participate, but his request was never acknowledged, nor project details provided on the thread. Ashley Johnson, meanwhile, made the point that the virtual consultation should have been properly advertised, and TikTok user justdaleyo posted a video advising members of the public to email their concerns to the Port of Spain City Corporation.

As the TTSP and TTIA have said, when it comes to public consultations, “slide shows, presentations, press releases, and press conferences are not enough”:

True consultation involves stakeholder participation from visioning, straight through to working out solutions.

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