Unsustainable living in uptown Kingston, Jamaica

Feature image via Canva Pro.

A version of this article was first published at Petchary. An edited version appears below with kind permission.

My husband and I are thinking about downsizing, looking for somewhere to live that is more manageable. Our quest for a new home in the parish of St. Andrew, Jamaica (most of which is called “uptown” by Kingston dwellers) has been a real eye-opener — or perhaps I should say, a jaw-dropper.

From the consumer point of view, it has been a deeply disappointing experience so far. Charming townhouse complexes and attractive apartments seen on the realtors’ websites are not quite the same, close up. We find ourselves staring at wide cracks in walls, peeling paint, limp palm trees, and stagnant swimming pools that look as if they are in their death throes, and these are relatively new developments, with relatively high price tags and fancy, faux, foreign names.

I suspect, however, that those cracks may be pointing to other, more deep-seated concerns about the rash of new “development” in St. Andrew. Tons and tons of concrete are being poured into relatively small spaces, with soil and vegetation that once supported just one or two buildings. What is this doing to the area's soil, especially with all the vegetation removed? Would the ground be able to support the weight of a block of 50 apartments, and how would this affect neighbouring properties? Don’t soils move? What if there is an earthquake? We are, after all, in an earthquake zone, as the occasional tremor reminds us. These are questions for geologists, engineers, or at the very least, for surveyors.

Can our already fragile environment, often subject to heavy rains, landslides, and other hazards, support such heavy developments? There is one road where the apartment buildings are packed in, cheek by jowl, in towers and turrets, no breathing space, no trees (which are collateral damage in almost every “development”) and with parking underneath the buildings. In the Jacks Hill area, the slopes are unstable at the best of times; yet, huge high-rise developments are either planned or already in the making.

I have more questions about sustainability, in the context of the environment and climate change. Almost all these new developments have no consideration for energy or water use. For example, most of the kitchens have dishwashers (maybe you have dinner parties every night), and the laundry rooms have dryers (in the tropics, where you can hang out the washing and it is dry in half an hour).

There are also water heaters – again, expensive electric ones. This is not to mention the fact that, with the increasingly high temperatures, air conditioning becomes a must, especially if the residence is poorly designed with small, almost prison-like windows, and surrounded by concrete. Those electricity bills must be high! Fossil fuels, here we come. Don’t we import enough already?

What happened to solar energy (we have plenty of sunshine, right)? What happened to rainwater harvesting, recycling, and other water-saving techniques? These are not incorporated into most of the new developments that we viewed, let alone the older ones. We have a solar water heater that is so effective you can burn yourself if you are not careful, so it’s a no-brainer to me — but clearly not to the developers. Couldn’t they at least invest in a solar water pump for the swimming pool (providing the pool is intact)?

As for water, are they just going to depend on the ubiquitous black water tanks and hope for the best? How is the water pressure on the upper floors of these monster buildings, given that we may well be looking at persistent, longer droughts in our future? It seems no thought has been given to sustainability. I wonder if some of these places will even be liveable in 10 or 20 years’ time.

In the context of disaster preparedness, if there is a hurricane, how will the residents of these apartment turrets, with their wonderful views of other turrets, fare? Do these complexes have disaster preparedness plans? In the case of floods or landslides, how will those living in townhouse complexes, encased in many yards of concrete tiles and perimeter walls, manage? Are there proper drainage systems? One thing I know for sure is that concrete cannot (and will not) absorb large volumes of water, and natural or man-made gullies that have been built over, or filled in so that a few more yards of space for building can be made, may still fill up in heavy rains – won’t they? Again, engineers would have to chime in. Perhaps my fears are unfounded, but we have had a sinking feeling — literally — when touring some of these properties.

Last but not least, one must consider the threat of fire in these high-density developments. Does the Jamaica Fire Brigade have ladders and equipment to reach the top floor?

My sense is that many of these buildings, put up in a great hurry, are filling the demand for a more comfortable and convenient lifestyle. I fully understand this need. However, I feel that we have already sacrificed so much: mature trees that have been removed and replaced by “landscaped” non-native trees; flowering shrubs that are few and far between, as there is no space for them; the accompanying biodiversity (don’t expect to see many birds!); friendly neighbours and neighbourhood networks and the enhanced security that results; relative peace and quiet when relaxing at home; and even fresh air; although Kingston’s air quality is poor, high-rises deprive their inhabitants and their neighbours of both air and light.

Is this sensible, sustainable living, or just feeding the desire for that elusive “lifestyle” that we see every day on Instagram, carefully protected by high walls, security guards and coils of razor wire?

Sometimes I think we should be careful what we wish for … and somehow, someday, we will need to reclaim our communities, even if they are changed beyond recognition.

If these issues and others regarding urbanisation in Jamaica concern you, you might like to follow Citizens Rights to the City, a grouping of 29 well-established citizens’ groups and neighbourhood associations, mostly in the parish of St. Andrew. You can also expect to hear much more from the non-profit organisation Island City Lab, in the future.

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