Why the world needs ‘blue urbanism’ — now

The sea wall along Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

Last week, the United Nations wrapped up its first-ever Ocean Conference with a global call to action. From plastics to overfishing, nations pledged to do their part to deliver a global goal to protect life under water — one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that went into effect last year.

Cities were not mentioned in the ocean manifesto. That’s despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 km of a coastline — and the majority of those people live in urban areas.

For Asad Mohammed, an urban planner who directs the Caribbean Network for Urban and Land Management (blueSpace) at the University of the West Indies’ Trinidad campus, that omission is a major oversight. Nearly all of his region’s cities are coastal, and in his estimation they are deeply intertwined with the sea. That viewpoint has sparked an idea called “blue urbanism” as a counterpoint to “green urbanism” — the latter being the idea that smart urban planning can benefit natural systems on land.

Last year, Barbados advocated for the inclusion of “blue space” in the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s new 20-year vision on sustainable urbanization. The Caribbean nation was ultimately unsuccessful, but the region’s urbanists realized that their cities face a unique set of future challenges derived from their proximity to the ocean.

[See: The Caribbean seeks to assert its identity in the New Urban Agenda]

In turn, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and one of Mohammed’s colleagues at the University of the West Indies authored a companion paper, the Blue Urban Agenda, that focuses on how Caribbean cities should adapt to climate change. The agenda debuted last month at the annual Caribbean Urban Forum, held this year in Belize.

Citiscope’s Gregory Scruggs recently spoke with Mohammed via videoconference from his office in Trinidad. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Gregory Scruggs: Why should Caribbean cities consider their blue space — the ocean, coastline and waterways — when planning urban areas?

Asad Mohammed: Most of our countries have more marine than territorial space, but [the marine area] is defined as land under our planning control mechanisms. Therefore, coastal management has been something that we have had to focus on in the Caribbean for a very long time, because of the integral interrelationship between terrestrial space and blue space.

Asad Mohammed

Activities that take place on the land have immediate, very often negative, impact on coastal and nearshore resources. The built-environment development producing land-based pollution that causes erosion is a classic example of that.

There is actually a very strong trend in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States [OECS] countries around ocean governance. Part of the problem with ocean governance is very basic issues of demarcation, measurement and mapping. Sometimes we lack the very fundamental tools to better understand and manage nearshore or coastal areas, and we have very weak mechanisms monitoring onshore activities.

We cannot simply think of our spaces as terrestrial space, but we must look at the interface between the urban spaces and the coastal areas.

Q: Current global discussions talk about a rural-urban continuum, insisting that you can never speak of the city without also speaking of its hinterlands. In the blue-urbanism context, can one say you can’t speak of a city if you don’t also include the marine space?

A: It is a two-way relationship between the impacts of terrestrial development on the coastal space and the impact of the coastal space on urban areas, especially the resource linkages between them. One is the quality of coastal resources — water, fishing and coral — that are impacted upon by what takes place on the land.

Water-based pollution is a classic example. We pour untreated sewage or runoff from agricultural waste into the water. That’s an example of a negative impact in countries that depend on coastal resources as the predominant form of economic activity, either tourism or fisheries.

[See: Will Habitat III note the unique urbanization of small island states?]

The other example is that the coastal resources impact on the land side. In many Caribbean cities, you will see longstanding settlements occupying marginal areas that are now being inundated but previously were flat, marshy lands. In Trinidad, we have Corbeaux Town and Sea Lots [near Port of Spain, the capital], and in the San Fernando area around the train line and waterfront.

These areas have historically experienced natural disasters and storm surges, but that’s being exacerbated by climate change with sea-level rise.

Q: Which countries or cities are adopting the most innovative “blue urbanism” approaches to climate change adaptation and resilience?

“What we need to do a lot better is the coastal zone management and planning, which is the interface between the terrestrial and the marine.”

A: There’s some naivety about the full range of options, because the relocation option is very expensive. Setbacks and retreats are not possible in areas that are already built out. Many of the soft adaptations are not available. You have to deal with hard adaptations, because when you have very expensive investments already made, you think about how to protect them.

Bridgetown, Barbados, has done a good job in integrating coastal protection while enhancing civic space in the city and the tourism product. Coastal protections have been converted into the coastal seawall, which has a running and walking track upon it. That’s a good example of taking a highly organized area with very little room to manoeuvre and using hard solutions to create a very useful interface.

Les Cayes in southwest Haiti was devastated by the [October 2016] hurricane, but long before that it was evident that there were very little drainage or planning solutions for the city. They were very vulnerable to a river on both sides because of a watershed that was very denuded. The most recent hurricane exposed how vulnerable those communities are without massive coastal protection works.

In many coastal areas, you are highly dependent on aquifers for urban water supply in the coastal zone, so inundation with sea-level rise is a critical problem. When you see mangroves growing very far inland, it gives you an indication that brackish water has gone much further inland in some coastal areas that historically were areas where you sourced fresh water. That affects crops and freshwater fishing.

[See: 200 cities to use new tool to improve disaster-related resilience this year]

The solutions are very complex. Building sea defences, complex sluice gates and water control is a very expensive investment. But in many parts of the Caribbean, we have reached the stage where we have to be thinking in that way, because the easy areas of adaptation around urban areas are very much gone.

Q: In green urbanism, compact cities prevent urban sprawl, which can mean larger natural landscapes. Do these theories also hold true in a blue-urbanism context, as far as impacts on the ocean?

A: They do. In fact, low density makes it more difficult to provide proper infrastructure, for example, to collect and treat sewage. Land-based runoff and pollution increases with lower densities. Collection and treatment of wastewater, proper drainage mechanisms, control of coastal erosion, proper defense systems to protect against sea level rise and inundation — those things are more possible in a fairly dense urban area, hence the Barbados case. Compact cities are easier to defend, and it will cost less. The arguments for green urbanism are the same for blue urbanism.

Q: Tourism is the goose that laid the golden egg for many Caribbean economies. But it’s also the economic force that has encouraged sprawling strip development along coastlines with hotels and resorts. How can tourism be tamed in such a way that it does not have an overly adverse impact on the coastal environment?

A: Certain towns have the ability to have a tourism product that is urban based: the Malecón in Havana, Cartagena, Bridgetown, downtown St. George’s [Grenada], Willemstad [Curaçao]. Certainly not in downtown Kingston or downtown Port of Spain. In that sense, management of public urban space and urban infrastructure in the coastal zone can benefit both coastal protection and enhance urban product accessibility.

Q: Should Caribbean leaders be pushing urban tourism, at least from a lodging perspective, in order to prevent some of these more intensive sprawling uses?

“In the Caribbean context, coastal zone management should be the area where we are the experts, because our livelihoods depend so much on that particular area.”

A: Caye Caulker, Belize, is a classic example. It is a tremendous resource now trying to reel back development. Obviously there’s an attractive resource that tourists like, but if it crosses that margin into becoming unattractive, then it has lost everything.

There needs to be a differentiation about what is better suited for coastal ecotourism, in which the natural environment is very important — long beaches, coconut groves, mangrove areas, vistas, unspoiled areas, which people can experience without there necessarily being an all-inclusive Sandals Resort on the beach.

[See: Steeldrum salvation for Port of Spain’s neighborhoods]

For example, the “no man’s land” area of Tobago is a pristine beach along a lagoon only reached by boat. Sandals wants to build a massive resort with 1,000 rooms over the mangrove. I would say that is inappropriate.

Q: Are land use and planning rules and regulations strong enough in the Caribbean to make sure that the Sandals-type projects don’t run amok without at least some rigorous due diligence?

A: Generally, they’re not. You have three types of planning regimes. First, the terrestrial regimes, like town and country planning departments, which normally stop at the high-water mark. In some jurisdictions, there is also coastal planning — Barbados, again, is a good example. Trinidad still has none. Then you have your offshore management up to the economic boundary and territorial waters.

What we need to do a lot better is the coastal zone management and planning, which is the interface between the terrestrial and the marine. While there have been some improvements, that is generally a weak area. But if you were to think about the Caribbean context, coastal zone management should be the area where we are the experts, because our livelihoods depend so much on that particular area.

The U. N. Oceans Conference is important, and the Inter-American Development Bank, along with my colleague Michelle Mycoo at the University of the West Indies, has done a good job with the Blue Urban Agenda. We need to look at some of the old requirements of urban coastal zone planning, tourism planning and how we extend the comprehensive planning which we have in the terrestrial part of the coastal zone onto the coastal area.

Q: If money starts to flow from the Green Climate Fund, is the Caribbean ready with shovel-ready projects that will address the needs that you are describing? If donor countries turn on the tap, can the Caribbean climate-proof its cities in the next 20 to 30 years?

A: Some countries are more prepared than others. Surprisingly, some of the smaller countries like St. Lucia and Antigua have been participating in the climate change discussions and have been trying to access climate-adaptation funding.

A little more work needs to be done on what I would consider the broker institutions for the smaller countries, where national capability will always be limited. The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, the Organization of the Eastern Caribbean States, and CARICOM [the 20-country Caribbean Community] all have a role to play.

[See: In the Philippines, a model for confronting climate change and nearly every disaster you can think of]

But I don’t think Trinidad is ready. Jamaica is a little more advanced, but I’m still not sure that it’s ready. Barbados is more advanced than many of the countries, because they’ve got a longstanding Coastal Zone Management Unit, and they’re now in the process of rethinking coastal zone management and planning with an IDB-funded loan.

But let’s think about Haiti, Guyana, Suriname, Belize — the issues are very complex in those countries. You have one group of countries that can access development bank funding through either the IDB or Caribbean Development Bank, but countries like Haiti can’t. It’s not a simple case of one-size-fits-all here.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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