THE Bahamas is not the first country to experience the dilemma presented by what in some places is called squatters’ settlements or slums or what we have come to call shanty towns. As immigrant populations grow around the world and where it is difficult for those immigrants to assimilate or afford standard housing, communities of substandard housing pop up.
Left uncontrolled as leaders rub their chins and scratch their heads about what to do about them, they blossom like garden weeds on steroids. But it is not the fault of the people who call that shanty town home, especially in New Providence and Abaco where, according to the Minister of Labour, the Attorney General and others, 90 percent of the land on which the substandard housing sits is Crown Land that was leased for agricultural purposes.
In other words, they say, it was not leased to the people who live there now nor are most of the residents of New Providence’s shanty towns squatters. They pay rent to someone and that someone or the someone to whom the land was leased and decided to turn it into a revenue generator is the person who should be held accountable.
Accountability is a serious issue that must be addressed and will be left for the administration and courts to decide.
The concept we want to raise and the conversation we want to generate is that shanty towns provide an unparalleled opportunity for The Bahamas to shine through design while demonstrating humanity.
In New Providence an opportunity is staring us in the face to transform select shanty towns into models of new urban development. The idea is not so far-fetched as it seems. From start to finish, it offers architects, planners and students an opportunity to create new physical space, building on the strengths and surprising character that pokes its head out of the most unlikely spots. Re-creating the space with adequate infrastructure and acceptable conditions that meet the stringent building code will also provide construction jobs, build pride in the residents who will occupy the new towns and who will have access to a park and green space where once rambling slipshod buildings stood. It will clear some of the clutter while allowing two or three storey construction with playgrounds and small shops to serve local residents’ needs.
This model has been tried and proven to work in other places. One of Colombia’s worst slums and highest crime areas was transformed with the result that crime declined as pride increased. There is probably no better example of transformation from slum to proud community than an area called Foggy Bottom in Washington, DC. It, too, was started by an emigrant, a German who purchased 130 acres along the Potomac more than 200 years ago. Over the years, the area deteriorated to the point where it was a slum staring the Beltway in the eye. Instead of razing all the buildings, architects built on what was there, allowing the organic nature of the origins and the contemporary design of the 1950s and ‘60s to marry. Today, that award-winning project is home to luxury condos along with the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts and other national treasures.
We do not deny that some substandard housing and lack of adequate infrastructure in our shanty towns is a problem. Lack of proper facilities, continued use of outdoor toilets, seeping sewage, makeshift roofs, illegal electrical usage with rigged wiring and cords running from the window of one structure to the kitchen of another are not acceptable. It is only a matter of time until there are more fires and families are left to contend with the tragic aftermath.
But we strongly believe that before we wholeheartedly displace large groups of people, a move that could easily be judged inhumane by any outside observer who sees the struggle of the poor trying to survive against the governing body, with their tax dollar paid cell phones and personal drivers saying, “Too bad, we need to clean this place up”, as unjust and unfair.
There is no denying the quandary government finds itself in and we sympathise with the dilemma. But we believe there is a better way than a total bulldozing to solve the problem. It is called imagination, ingenuity, funding and hope.