Understanding land use planning
MELISSA BRAY ALEXIOU
Published: Sep 23, 2013
Downtown Nassau embodies all of the elements for a beautiful cosmopolitan city: harbor frontage, history and architectural splendors. Yet its revitalization stymies, not for lack of effort by the Downtown Nassau Partnership, but from years of poor planning and inadequate maintenance. As the government seeks to reignite investment in the Family Islands, it must be cognizant of the shortcomings created by ad-hoc development so brazenly portrayed on New Providence.
The Bahamas courts foreign direct investment often in the form of land development projects. In fact, the 2013/2014 budget communication acknowledges that foreign investment projects are expected to continue to support construction activity. A point reiterated by Prime Minister Perry Christie in his address to Parliament, where he championed the thousands of prospective jobs stemming from development proposals on Eleuthera, Exuma and the Exuma Cays, Mayaguana, Cat Island and others.
Unfortunately, such land development proposals can linger on the cusp of approval for months or years frustrating both the developer and jobseekers. Delays emanate from inconsistent government policies that arise in part from the absence of a cohesive national development strategy. The Bahamas struggles to proactively build its future and to facilitate those projects that meet national and island-specific goals.
Land use planning is a mechanism and vital component to guide and sustain the future development of The Bahamas. By integrating existing environmental and socio-economic conditions with national development goals, The Bahamas can facilitate project-specific investment that aligns with a vision for progressive growth.
The Planning and Subdivision Act as a catalyst
Enacted in 2010, a primary objective of the Planning and Subdivision Act is to “provide for land use planning based on a development control system led by policy, land use designations, and zoning”. The 2010 act provides a refreshing legislative update that aligns Bahamian policy with modern planning principles. The planning process has evolved from a fragmented ad hoc approach to a macro-vision for community connectivity.
According to the 2010 act, a land use plan is a policy document that shows existing and future planned land uses including lands to be protected from development. While intentionally vague so as not be restrictive, a more appropriate definition is provided by Canadian Institute of Planners whereby planning “means the scientific, aesthetic, orderly dispositions of land, resources, facilities, and services with a view to secure the physical, economic and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities”.
A land use plan considers the physical, social and economic environment of a particular geographic area – i.e., the South Ocean property or Abaco. Most importantly, a land use plan is often a spatial (map) representation comprising several layers of data held in geographic information system (GIS) that allows for qualitative and quantitative analysis.
By integrating various land use designations in layers, such as environmental reserves, Crown land, utility infrastructure, planned commercial and residential areas, visual analysis of existing and proposed development becomes readily identifiable. Development thus becomes sustainable by being able to identify existing infrastructure and natural resource capabilities against future demand.
New Providence: A case study
New Providence mimics the global trend in urbanization with its proportion of the population increasing from 54 percent in 1953 to 70 percent in 2010. Such a high concentration of the population in the capital begets a natural accrual of public, economic and infrastructure resources further incentivizing relocation from the Family Islands. Yet, despite the perceived employment opportunities, poor planning has exacerbated the woes accompanying urbanization, namely crime and social stratification.
The World Bank acknowledges that demographic transitions are particularly difficult for small to medium-sized cities. In turn, insufficient infrastructure investment compounds the major urban challenges identified by the World Bank as climate change, resource scarcity, slum growth, poverty and safety concerns.
New Providence is all too familiar with these challenges as heavy rains exacerbate the drainage woes of Pinewood Gardens, shantytowns proliferate unabated and crime remains near record levels. Moreover, New Providence portrays the shortcomings of conventional zoning policy where building uses seldom account for adjacent land uses or public spaces. The fire at Strachan’s Auto that threatened nearby homes exemplifies this danger.
But New Providence has been the subject of several concentrated land use studies. The revitalization of downtown Nassau has been mapped by ESDA and the recently implemented and completed road improvement project proposed some 20 years ago. But like the Family Islands, infrastructure costs are a significant capital burden depending on the investment of others or through proposed mechanisms like private-public partnerships.
A land use planning revolution
The 2010 act stipulates that land use plans shall be prepared for each island of The Bahamas and be available for public viewing. A comprehensive plan that entails the needs of a community while safeguarding natural resources provides a vision for the future possibilities of development.
Public participation is a crucial part of the specific island plans and may encourage positive developer relations. A land use plan previewed by the public may circumvent future issues of Crown land allotment if such uses are known to follow the goals of a national development policy.
In 2008, Planning Abaco, a land use plan for Abaco, was developed by Andrews University with the participation of Bahamian students, in collaboration with several local Bahamian firms. More recently, Harvard University has partnered with the government and the Bahamas National Trust to form Sustainable Exuma, an ongoing education and research directive to generate land use plans for Exuma. Both plans follow the premise of sustainable development with a strong emphasis on environmental consideration and public space, but both are yet to be implemented.
At present, much of the concern surrounding Resorts World Bimini and the proposed expansion stems from the lack of an overall land use plan for Bimini and public consultation. While the public is assured that EDSA is drafting a master plan, it is curious that a land use plan is being developed in conjunction with construction.
It is also prudent to remember that numerous places in New Providence developed at a time when the environmental impacts were not assessed and many projects would never have been approved today. Yet, today policymakers cannot feign ignorance to the economic consequences of environmental degradation resulting from poor planning.
Integrated land use planning is integral to facilitating an actual commitment to sustainable development in The Bahamas.
• Melissa Bray Alexiou is the director of Waypoint Consulting Ltd., a project management and environmental consulting firm in Nassau, The Bahamas. For more information, visit www.waypointconsultingbahamas.com.