Ahead of Habitat III, the Caribbean makes case for a region of cities

The fifth Caribbean Urban Forum comes at an important time.

GROS ISLET, ST. LUCIA — While the Caribbean’s public image for the lucrative tourist industry consists of sandy beaches, blue ocean and lush landscapes, the socio-economic reality for the countries along the Caribbean basin is far more complex.

A constellation of small islands and low-lying coastal countries, the Caribbean faces unique development challenges: natural disasters such as hurricanes, the slow threat of sea-level rise, vulnerability to global climate change, the need for economic diversification and many others.

This week in St. Lucia, urban planners and land-management specialists from across the region are gathering for the fifth annual Caribbean Urban Forum. Their aim is to make sure another item — sustainable urbanization — is on that agenda as well, particularly ahead of next year’s Habitat III conference.

In 2011, planning professionals in the region celebrated the birth of the Caribbean Planners Association (CPA), a membership and education organization structured on the model of counterparts like the American Planning Association and Canadian Institute of Planners, both of which advised the CPA’s charter members on its formation. With national chapters in over a half-dozen countries, the CPA is slowly gaining steam in order to sensitize national governments and CARICOM, the regional political and economic union, that the region is increasingly urban.

To that end, the CPA drafted a Caribbean Urban Agenda, which has been endorsed by CARICOM. Asad Mohammed is the director of the Caribbean Network for Urban and Land Management (CNULM, also known as BlueSpace Caribbean), which is home to the CPA secretariat. He has played an instrumental role in both the founding of the planners association and the preparation of the agenda. “The first step is awareness of the dimension of urban issues in the Caribbean,” he says.

Observers outside the planning community agree. “I would think that Caribbean governments would be hard-pressed to disagree that the region has become increasingly urbanized. The mix of government policies on housing, poverty and even sustainable development would suggest that there is indeed a recognition of this,” says Shantal Munro-Knight, executive director of the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.

The challenge thus far for Caribbean planners has been converting endorsement of their agenda to actual policy changes. “We continue to look for traction of the urban agenda in national policies within the regional level,” Mohammed says. “Over the last few years, we’ve been trying to build a regional agenda and get endorsement — and show its importance to a range of other sectoral issues.”

By and large, for example, the Caribbean lacks national urban policies, although Mohammed points to the National Spatial Development Strategy of Trinidad and Tobago, which he helped author, as the closest thing in the region to that benchmark.

UN-Habitat cites national urban policies as a key policy tool for achieving sustainable urbanization. Yet even without national urban policies, many Caribbean countries have national development plans, which include significant components around land use and physical planning. That kind of work will be on display this week at the Caribbean Urban Forum.

Common position

This year’s forum is also exceptionally significant on the world stage because it comes at the beginning of the Habitat III process, as countries, regions and civil society actors mobilize on behalf of specific issues or geographic areas that relate to the broad themes of housing and sustainable urbanization.

To that end, forum organizers hope to come up with the workings of a Caribbean position paper as an outcome of the three-day conference — or something close to it.

“Let me not overstretch our expectations,” Mohammed cautions. “What I’m hoping is that we’ll have a discussion of the issues. Maybe an agreement on some ways forward to concretize national and concerted regional positions down into the final Habitat III negotiations.”

Mohammed points to the August meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Ministers of Housing and Urbanization (known by its Spanish acronym MINURVI) as a key opportunity. MINURVI is currently chaired by Jamaica, which will host the annual meeting in Montego Bay.

With the momentum generated at the Caribbean Urban Forum and this high-level meeting taking place on home turf, Caribbean planners hope to push for a broader recognition of their issues within the position statement that will be adopted by Latin America and the Caribbean at the Habitat III regional meeting in Mexico. That event is tentatively scheduled for February.

While Latin America and the Caribbean are often lumped together as a single region for the purposes of global development discussions, the Caribbean community also hopes to carve out a space for itself within that entity in recognition of the region’s unique geography, history, culture and political systems.

“One of the things I’m hoping that will be a specific outcome of Caribbean Urban Forum 5 would be a discussion and agreement on the importance of full participation by Caribbean community in the regional discussion,” Mohammed says.

As vital partners to galvanize politicians and diplomats to engage with the Habitat process, he points to the presence of CARICOM, UN-Habitat, the U. N. Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which is based in St. Lucia.

“Hopefully we can agree on some specific steps and activities that can achieve some sort of unity within the U. N. process,” Mohammed says. “At least that will come out of it — some specific steps and maybe to identify what are the critical resources.  We need specific additional regional resources to support both technical and policy dialogues.”

Growing regional recognition

The Caribbean’s track record of participation in major global events like Habitat III is mixed, often a result of fiscal challenges.

“Caribbean governments have missed very important global moments in the past whether due to financial constraints or their own analysis of priority,” Munro-Knight says. “Certainly there were few heads of states and representatives at Samoa,” she continues, referring to the third international conference on what are formally known as Small Island Developing States, which took place in 2014.

In 2012, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sent her official plane to collect delegates from several Caribbean countries to allow them to participate in Rio+20, the conference that birthed the ongoing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) process. However, Caribbean member states at the United Nations have been supportive of all 17 proposed SDGs, including Goal 11, the urban SDG.

“There is growing recognition of this applicability [of the urban SDG]; at a recent high-level official meeting, there was a paper presented on urban settlements,” Munro-Knight says. “However, I would suggest that perhaps there needs [to be] greater sensitization, certainly in the context of other priorities including climate change — there needs to be greater attention to this.”

As for Habitat III, Munro-Knight says mobilization is taking place. “Even though the conversation is somewhat muted and perhaps within limited communities, there has been greater conversations,” she says. She points to the Barbados Ministry of Housing and Lands, which is hosting a national consultation on housing in preparation for Habitat III later this month.

Ideally, the Caribbean Urban Forum will provide plenty of material for the region’s planners to make the case to national governments that these issues matter. Already, the fact of the forum’s longevity has turned heads.

“In the context of limited human and financial resources, to do something consistently and build on this over five years is an accomplishment,” Mohammed says. He adds, laughing, “To do anything in the Caribbean for five years is an achievement.”

Related: How Trinidad’s capital is boosting steeldrum bands and revitalizing neighborhoods 

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