Ladies and gentlemen
I am extremely honoured and delighted to be provided with the opportunity to deliver the keynote address at this auspicious and timely event. I recall being afforded a similar privilege almost ten years ago, as the then Minister of Housing and Water, of addressing the inaugural session of the Caribbean Urban Forum, which was hosted in Georgetown, Guyana, in April 2011.
Since then, Guyana’s urban sector has undergone notable transformation, particularly in the development of housing, which has had a tremendous catalytic effect.
This Forum is taking place at a time when my country is undergoing a new wave of socio-economic change, which will transform the country’s physical setting, including the urban landscape, and present new developmental management challenges.
In this context, urban planning must be viewed as an opportune means to balance development with other socio-environmental objectives in a manner whereby the interests of all are considered, and this is important in the urbanisation and urban planning to consider the intrest of all.
The Caribbean Urban Forum 2021 is therefore taking place at a critical time for Guyana – a time in which there is a need for increased sensitisation and awareness among all stakeholders about how to manage Guyana’s impending change better.
But what are the implications of this transformation for us as politicians, urban planners, municipal managers, architects, environmentalists and other built environment practitioners?
Transforming Guyana would, in effect, mean that change in our physical landscape would have to be effectively and efficiently executed and guided by the application of proper planning principles, particularly in light of the declared commitment of my Government to sustainable development.
As such, I applaud the organisers of CUF 2021 for presenting a comprehensive agenda that includes consideration for sustainable urbanisation. This is a development consideration I deem relevant to all Caribbean countries grappling with the combined need to facilitate new forms of urban development and, at the same time, combating major challenges such as climate change.
Since the inaugural Conference, which produced two important outcomes, namely the discussion on the formation of the Caribbean Planners Association and the initial thinking on the Caribbean Urban Agenda, we have benefitted from similar meetings in Jamaica (2012 and 2018), Trinidad (2013 and 2019), Barbados (2014), Saint Lucia (2015), Suriname (2016) and Belize (2017) – which have produced equally laudable results.
For instance, at the Conference in Jamaica in 2012, the Caribbean Planners Association (CPA) was formed, and in 2015, the Saint Lucia Institute of Land Use Planners was launched at the Conference hosted by St. Lucia that year.
Mr. Chairman, while those conferences produced enormous advances, urbanisation remains a significant challenge for us in the Caribbean. This harsh reality was highlighted in the call for abstracts for this Conference, which rightfully noted that the Caribbean is one of the fastest urbanising regions in the world.
Available statistics confirm that the degree of urbanisation, measured by the per cent of the population in urban places, increased continuously from 78.82 per cent in 2011 to 80.87 per cent in 2019.
Even Guyana, which recorded a continuous reduction in the ratio of the urban population to the total population, from 29.4 per cent in 1992 to 26.4 per cent by 2011, has seen a reversal of this positive trend since 2015.
How we respond to urbanisation will undoubtedly determine the quality of life of our citizens and whether we achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I want to pause here urbanisation must be liked to the Sustainable Development Goals. There must be a common pathway through which urbanisation reflects the attainment of the SDG’s. While it is not unusual for us to look outside of the Caribbean for solutions, many of those solutions already exist right here at home.
In Guyana, for example, we have been successful in addressing urbanisation. The available statistics show that between 1992 and 2011, the degree of urbanisation reduced continuously. Our success during this period was by no means accidental, but was due to deliberate efforts by the Government of Guyana to embark on an ambitious housing programme, where over 100,000 house lots were distributed, and several housing schemes were developed as new growth poles, very important. The examination of new growth poles, the features of new growth poles and the opportunity that new groth poles offer us as urban and regional planners cannot be undersated. Each housing scheme was outfitted with social and economic infrastructure to anchor its beneficiaries.
Mr. Chairman, the housing programme was rooted in an organic National Development Strategy (NDS) that was aimed at:
- expanding the housing supply;
- ensuring that housing was more affordable;
- and improving access to housing for low-income families.
I want to pause here; imrpoving access to housing for low income families include access to financing for housing for low income families. This is an important part of trandsformation, this is an important part of of linking urbanisation and improvement in living conditions with health outcomes as outlined by Dr. Cummings.
The objectives of the NDS were bolstered by policies articulated in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) I & II. Under the Poverty Reduction Strategy, the Government pursued numerous interventions which sought to;
- divest land to eligible Guyanese;
- provide infrastructure for new housing schemes and improve existing infrastructure in squatter settlements;
- regularise squatter settlements;
- facilitate access to finance by low-income earners through amendments to the New Building Society Act and the Income Tax Act;
- facilitate community participation in sustainable settlements development and
- prepare development plans for new towns and upgrade existing towns, consistent with the framework for Urban Development, elaborated in the NDS (2001-2010).
I pause here to recognise the work of Mr. Rawl Edenbrow, the entire team of the CH&PA, Merna Pit and all those practisioners who worked tirelessly on the implementation of this plan and the transition that took place.
Those national policies were backed by significant fiscal support from our Government between 1992 and 2015 and were supplemented by an operational manual for housing that emphasised all the critical dimensions of sustainable development, including; social development, economic development, environmental preservation, good governance etc.
In summary, the NDS, PRSPs, and the operational manual for housing development guaranteed that new housing schemes were enhanced with economic infrastructure to create jobs and equipped with social facilities to ensure that beneficiaries had access to high-quality social goods and services, such as health care, water and sanitation, education, and recreation.
Due to our efforts, Guyana did not only witness a reduction in rural-urban migration and the lowering of its urban footprints between 1992 and 2015 but saw accelerated development in rural areas and the attainment of several MDGs as well.
Mr. Chairman, apart from sparking my interest in urban planning, the success of our efforts to promote balanced development spurred my decision to pursue a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of the West Indies. In my thesis, I proposed an Integrated Land Management Model for Guyana, which I believe can address the trends and challenges of urbanisation within the Caribbean and beyond.
One chapter of my thesis was dedicated to the issue of creating sustainable housing schemes while optimising the use of our natural resources and preserving our environment.
Mr. Chairman, over the next five years, my Government will be distributing 50,000 house lots to Guyanese, based on a model that has successfully produced human settlements that are safe, resilient, and sustainable.
The Need For Visionary And Transformational Leadership
The need for visionary and transformational leadership is critical at this point.This urban transformation that we are all enthusiastic about does not happen independently; it requires visionary and transformational leadership, and that is what the Government under my leadership as President is all about that ois what the governmentment of many of our Caribbean country’s are pursuing a new vision, a bold iniatitive, transformational thinking, and I am seeing this more and more from our practisioners.
Mr. Assad Mohammed himself has spent years of his life in this field, and it is time for us to outline a few bold intiativies that we must pursue together as a Region.
In Guyana we have a vision of:
- A modernised city with a vibrant waterfront;
- New, non-coastal, urban development like the planned Silica City along the Soesdyke-Linden highway. I want to pause here because Silica City is not only going to be a new urban center but it is an important support to Georgetown because of the challenge Climate Change poses to us and the rising sea levels. This is an area that should be of great interest to planners all across the Region. Mr. Edenbrow himself is working on a tram that would layout this development.
- Transformation of depressed rural areas into new urban growth centres, through the attraction of investment, and aided by a facility like the Wales Development Authority. I pause here again; the oil and gas sector will bring with it many opportunities in industrialisation and in manufacturing, two areas that are critical in job creation but two areas that also bring with it tremendous challenge in planning in terms of the environment, in terms of settlements and access to waterfront areas. So the Wales Development Authority would be a zone for industrial development and manufacturing. It will be the zone where the pipeline, the gas pipeline will terminate and the gas powered energy plant will be built. So again, this offers tremendous opportunity for regional planners, a new area of development. I would like also to see the University of the West Indies and the University of Guyana whom I will engage to be part of this transformational agenda in these areas I’m highlighting.
- The development of hinterland urban centres;
- Improved infrastructure in newly emerging urban settlement nodes, like Parika and the Diamond/Grove districts;
- and, Improved capacity and functional efficiency of urban transport corridors. One of the objectives of the urban plan is to reduce the traveling time, increase the efficiency of the transport system to reduce the wastage of manhours just to give you an idea, 20 years ago it took you from the West Coast, Vreed-En-Hoop as point of reference to Georgetown just about 30 minutes. Today you can be sitting in the traffic for three hours. Just calculate the man hours and productive hours that we lose. So the functional efficiency of urban transport corridors is critical to the development of our country and development of new areas.
These are merely a few examples of our comprehensive vision for urban transformation in Guyana. I am sure that other Caribbean cities may have their own urban development visions in response to their unique circumstances and challenges. In this regard, I wish to make mention of Paramaribo, Suriname – an interesting city that faces many urban challenges similar to those of Guyana’s capital city Georgetown.
In pursuit of our own vision for urban development, we here in Guyana intend to expand the range of E-Services. An upcoming major project that will realise this initiative is the Single Window Approval System, allowing for the electronic transmission of building permit applications, approvals, and issuances.
This effort will be supplemented with investment in transport infrastructure to improve connectivity and support the agro-industrial, light manufacturing, commercial and tourism sectors.
I wish to pause here to recognize this fact. In urban planning we have to also realise that our decision and our policies have a direct impact on countries competitiveness. If I will give you the example of Guyana, we have the difficulty in delays of processing permits, building approvals that sometimes can take as long as eight months to one year. This cannot be healthy for a competitive environment. This canot be healthy in support of investors’ confidence so our policies also must reflect this reality.
Additionally, the Government will partner with the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector to help it decentralise its operations away from Georgetown to places like Tuschen, Linden, Essequibo and Berbice. This move will expand available economic opportunities, create more jobs and provide essential incomes for thousands of families in areas outside of the capital.
Further, the Wales Development Authority will be able to distinguish itself as “the industrial centre of the Caribbean”. It will be established on the West Bank of the county of Demerara to bolster industrial, manufacturing and warehousing activities, and generate not only much-needed employment across the different enterprises that will fall under its purview, but indirect employment as well, and when I speak of employment here I am not only speaking of employment within Guyana but employment opportunities for citizens of CARICOM itself and further afield, of course.
This brings me to the issue of urban resilience. While we pursue our different paths along the road of development, with sustainability as the overarching goal, it is imperative that we consider building urban resilience. This is not only about resilience as a natural or physical environmental construct, but is also about having a resilient policy environment, one allied to the right array of policies that guide decision-making.
Therefore, in regard to this matter, I wish to emphasise my Government’s commitment to developing suitable urban development policies that will influence key considerations when undertaking planning and expansion to foster better urban resilience in an era of rapid change and transformation of urban areas.
My Government’s comprehensive national housing strategy seeks to effectively address issues of housing provision and informal urban settlement, inclusive of a policy position of zero-tolerance for informal settlements in vulnerable urban areas.
As countries all grapple with planning and managing their urban environments, it must be acknowledged that those efforts may not be well sustained over the long term or may be doomed to failure without requisite technical and professional capacity. Therefore, it is crucial that the necessary capacity is developed to effectively and efficiently manage urban change at all levels of urban planning and governance.
I urge that more attention be given to professional training and capacity building in urban planning and environmental management. On this point, I wish to acknowledge the work of the Geography Department of the Faculty of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Guyana, in the execution of its Master’s programme in Urban and Regional Planning. I extend similar accolades to the regional institutions, such as the University of the West Indies and the University of Technology, Jamaica, for their long-standing contribution to land use and built-up environment development and design education in the Caribbean.
My Government is fully supportive of training and educating a new cadre of professionals that will be masterfully equipped with the essential skills and competencies to deal with our complex urban challenges.
The recently launched Guyana Online Academy of Learning, a free online 20,000 scholarships initiative, is tangible proof of my Government’s commitment to attaining this objective. I look forward to working with the University of Guyana on building this capacity in Guyana.
Opportunity for professional networking
I acknowledge that urban education is not static, and that is because of its dynamism. Therefore, the urban development must continually engage in grooming professional growth and the sharing, exchange, and cross-fertilisation of ideas and best practices in urban planning and development. I pause here to say that this is why this forum is so essential and important. The sharing of ideas, expierneices, cross fertilisation, technological transfer, building of capacity and networking cannot be understated.
So, I highly applaud the work of all those behind the Caribbean Urban Forum for moulding it into a major regional urban planning and networking event that has grown in prominence and eminence over the last ten years. I wish the Forum continued success and would like to assure the organisers of my continued support for this event in the future.
Relevance of the Caribbean Urban Forum to Agencies of Government cannot be understated, having pursued [perused] the Call for Papers and the CUF Agenda, I am convinced that key government agencies involved in urban planning matters stand to benefit tremendously from a conference of this nature. I, therefore, encourage professional staff of key agencies like the Central Housing and Planning Authority, the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission and the Ministry of Public Works to participate in this notable regional event, which focuses on urban development and design.
Mr. Chairman, I am confident that the presentations over the next few days will enrich the literature by capturing the nature of Caribbean urbanisation. I am equally confident that they will provide practical solutions to address the traditional problems associated with that type of urbanisation.
Apart from addressing those challenges, the presentations should also offer guidance on how urbanisation should be tackled to address global imperatives like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in ending poverty and hunger, providing clean water and sanitation, and establishing sustainable cities and communities. While we should draw on the experiences of those outside of the Caribbean, the success stories in the regions should be studied.
In my humble view, if we confront the many challenges created by urbanisation in an innovative way, we will be able to achieve many of the SDGs. For example, if we were to create growth poles in rural areas to generate social and economic services that match those in urban centres, farmers may be encouraged to remain in rural communities to promote agricultural activities that may serve to end hunger.
I look forward to being updated on the outcome of this Conference, particularly on the practical solutions offered to address the long-standing problems created by urbanisation and the new challenges.
Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for the opportunity to join this impressive group of urban planners, academics, policymakers, and other professionals at this auspicious Conference. I wish the organisers and participants much success.
I thank you.