Fixing Port-of-Spain

My response to PM Dr Keith Rowley

Andrew Sage
16 min readNov 23, 2020


Photo by Renaldo Matamoro via Unsplash

A few days ago, Trinidad Express published a front-page featured article titled “LET’S DO IT”, detailing Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s new plan to rejuvenate Port-of-Spain. This would be the 17th plan since 1968 to develop and improve our capital city.

Port-of-Spain has been our capital since 1757. It’s our second-largest city and a regional hub of administration, retail, and banking. Over the centuries, it has expanded in every direction, terraforming the natural landscape. The city has cleared mangroves, reclaimed land from the sea, and diverted St Ann’s River, all in a quest for greater development.

Port-of-Spain (1885) via Wikimedia Commons

Its present layout persists from the efforts of colonial governance in the 18th and 19th centuries. Port-of-Spain is still home to many of our most iconic colonial structures, as well as many new buildings that define the skyline.

For the longest time, I have had a plethora of issues with our capital. Even as a boy, I dreaded running errands with my mother in Port-of-Spain. I’d hold my nose as she tugged me up and down the crumbling, littered sidewalks. When it rained, we would have to cower inside a store as nature washed through the streets, carrying rubbish and backstroking rats as it went. Our capital city has been a mess for a long, long time.

Port-of-Spain is a disaster.

Naturally, the article in the Express caught my eye. Here it is, if you can get past the paywall, but I’ll summarize.

The article does not paint a pretty picture. The town is rife with homelessness, broken infrastructure, severe flooding, dense traffic, depopulation, and crime. Past projects have largely failed.

Apparently — and this is news to me — One Woodbrook Place was meant to provide affordable urban living. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The new plan seeks to create a “city of festivals”. With a mix of public and private investment, the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago plans to develop infrastructure and promote tourism, culture, education, residence, and business. However, the Government’s role will be as a facilitator, not a leader. As the Government is low on funding, the private sector will be taking charge, with tax-based incentives.

The City of Festivals will be revitalized with, for starters, a mixed-use complex on Keate Street; a Steelband Theatre on George Street; development of the Salvatori site, former PowerGen site, and City Gate; development on Piccadilly Street; development of a holistic drainage system; and development of green spaces in Mucurapo.

Some work has already been done in the city. UDeCOTT has restored and upgraded the Red House, Killarney, Whitehall, Mille Fleur, Queen’s Royal College, and the President House over the past few years, and they look better than ever.

via NPR

I absolutely agree with the Prime Minister on some points. We definitely need to rehabilitate the capital city. However, I have a few issues with Dr Rowley’s approach.

My Concerns

How Many Attempts?

Isn’t it a bit strange that the past 16 attempts to revitalize our nation’s capital have failed? After half a century, Port-of-Spain STILL floods every rainy season? Sidewalks are STILL crumbling? Traffic is STILL an issue?

Has the Government or any independent body sought to examine why that might be? Is it an issue of poor administration? Poor funding? Poor planning? Or just mere incompetence?

This is our capital city. We can do much, much better. We need to seriously take a step back and rethink our approach to Port-of-Spain’s issues.

Public-Private Partnerships

A cursory glance at the past few decades of world history (looking at you Reagan and Thatcher), and Trinbagonian history, should caution you of the Trojan horse that is privatization.

We cannot afford to leave the fate of Port-of-Spain in private hands, where politicians and businesspersons can collaborate to cut corners and skim funds. We’ve seen time and time again how public-private partnerships have been plagued with mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, and waste. There is no transparency or accountability. We have no voice when the interests of shareholders supersede our own.

On the other hand, the state hasn’t done the best job either. They do not represent the people. They represent their own interests and ambitions, hyper-focused on the next election and whatever they can gain in the short term.

It seems that we’re moving in the direction of Port-of-Spain’s gentrification. Through its decades of mismanagement and neglect, the Government is allowing private interests to swoop in and further displace and disenfranchise the residents of our capital. Taking houses and businesses from desperate poor folks in Laventille for a pittance, forcing them to uproot their lives and their connection with the land. Do they have any real say in the matter? These are the consequences of faux-democracy; when the exploitation of capitalism and statism collide.

The Shallow & The Deep

Dr Rowley’s plans for Port-of-Spain seem incredibly superficial. Sure, the long list of projects sounds good on paper. But do they actually address the issues that plague Port-of-Spain on a deeper level?

Are we confronting the root of pollution, traffic, deteriorating infrastructure, flooding, inconsistent water access, depopulation, unemployment, homelessness, crime, and poverty?

What is the solution? Keep reading.

via Wikimedia Commons

I know it can be hard for the vast majority of people to even find time for themselves, let alone ponder problems and solutions on a societal level. We’re stuck in the rat race, unable to engage meaningfully in politics. We’re trapped in the media cycle, merely reacting to situations as they arise.

Not to mention, a combination of forces have collaborated to limit our imagination. From a young age, shuffled through the education system, we’re forced into a box. Our collective potential is limited by the institutions of society.

We can do more than just react. We can explore more than just the false binary of state or private solutions. We can be proactive in realizing the potential of our beautiful isle. I’m here to provide just one perspective.

I’m not going to mince words. The revitalization of our city has to move beyond the present social order. No amount of building projects can substitute meaningful social relations. The roots of our crisis today don’t merely lie in poor design, bad logistics, and neglected neighbourhoods, but in the social system that has produced these problems in the first place. Mending Port-of-Spain would mean fundamentally transforming our society from its irrational present form.

I want us all to have a voice.

I want to stimulate our imagination.

I want us to start anew.

My Proposal: A New Dawn

In my blog post On Emancipation, I spoke about the importance of liberating ourselves from mental slavery. Although we are ostensibly post-colonial, we retain so much of our colonial roots, highly detrimental to the health of our society. It’s time to reboot.

The theme of my proposal to revitalize Port-of-Spain is A New Dawn.

Let’s begin.

Reorganize Society

My proposal is reliant on a fundamental, grassroots transformation of our society. The diffusion of power from the state and capital to the people.

From the ancient Greek polis to the communal organizations of indigenous societies, it has been made clear that civic participation requires freedom. Not just political freedom, but economic freedom, which can only truly be attained when people’s needs have been met and people own and directly participate in all the institutions of society.

Reorganization based on cooperation, where every creed and race can find an equal place. Where wealth cannot weigh your voice. Where we shed the false dichotomy of privatization or nationalization and focus on localization and the democratization of our governance.

Rethink How We Live

Humans are social creatures. Mutual aid is a law of nature. We can refuse to exist in a stratified and divided society and connect with our families, friends, classmates, co-workers, and neighbours. We can unify to create the spaces we want to see.

Unions don’t have to be limited to mere workplace reforms. Through councils and affinity groups, grounded on the basis of consent and consensus, we can make a positive difference.

via Modern Afro-Caribbean Art Gallery

We can use our renewed social organizations to democratize and localize our governance. We can work together to develop our ideas and advance our capital city and our country.

We need each other. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes an island to lift society to greater heights.

Rethink How We Work

I realize there’s a certain stereotype of the average Trinidadian; that we are “lazy” and “dispassionate”. We’re taught to believe that people just want to mooch off others. In reality, we are exhausted by our daily commutes, encumbered by stress, and disinterested in our careers.

Many Trinidadians spend hours every morning and every evening commuting between home, school, and work. We have to understand that leisure is a human necessity. We should not be forced to squeeze our domestic labour, emotional labour, and leisure into the two days we have at the end of the week.

The working class is not lazy. The working class keeps this country running. Yet we are subject to a system that is inherently unjust. We are subject to a system that underpays its most essential workers. We are subject to a system that requires a stratum of cheap, exploitable labour. A perpetual underclass.

Poverty can be eradicated.

Our approach to solving poverty is fundamentally flawed. Tackling the issue of poverty through job creation or entrepreneurship is ridiculous, as we’ve invented a whole slew of futile, useless, and repetitive occupations that are professionally unsatisfying, time-consuming, and spiritually emptying. Truth is, people want to believe they’re contributing meaningfully to their society. Our system denies them that right.

So how do we solve poverty? The answer is blatantly obvious.

We do not need to work as much as we do.

via Jacobin Medina

Everyone deserves a decent standard of living, regardless of who they are or how much they contribute. Thanks to technological innovations, productivity has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Yet we still work 8+ hours a day, 5+ days a week. We still haven’t freed ourselves with what should have been liberating technology.

To what end?

Do we even know? The decimation of our social and civic lives? The fragmentation of our families? The destruction of our climate? The desolation of our psyches?

We need to rethink what it means to work and what we should prioritize.

The labour rights that we enjoy today are the result of our ancestors’ refusal to accept exploitation. It’s time we pushed things further. It’s time we got rid of these useless jobs. It’s time we stopped sitting in stores and offices, pretending to work, when we are capable of so much more. We need to reexamine what labour is necessary, and what’s just fluff. Our workdays and workweeks should be shorter and more flexible.

Research suggests that a shorter workweek leads to greater fulfilment, improved health, and reduced emissions. There is no positive correlation between productivity and the number of hours worked per day. In fact, four-hour workdays are far more efficient.

Of course, this would require serious organization on our part to unite and create the change we want to see. I believe in us to free ourselves, care for each other, and refuse to burn out the candle of our lives on fruitless routines.

Eradicate Crime

Crime is the most obvious symptom of social crisis, maintained by the anti-social system we live under. Our violent, punitive approach to crime has failed. Our increasingly militarized police service has failed. We are wasting resources waging endless internal wars.

Instead of ignoring decades of research in sociology and criminology, we should examine how we can work in the long-term to eradicate crime. Most crimes are committed between people who know each other, not strangers. Our profoundly sick society has produced victims who victimize others.

Many so-called crimes are by-products of the society we wish to change. Most theft is the result of poverty. Victimless crimes like drug use are only criminalized thanks to the international impact of the USA’s propaganda campaign during its failed War on Drugs. Countries like Portugal have moved to decriminalize drug possession with highly positive results.

The normalization of sexual violence and domestic abuse must be confronted in our culture, first and foremost, as we move towards a society that cares. Mental issues and addictions should be treated with radical empathy.

via Popular Resistance

As for gang violence, gangs are born out of very specific socioeconomic conditions and are maintained by those same systems. Involvement in gang activity is fluid and our approach to gangs must be too.

Heightened gang suppression just intensifies gang bonds and heightened incarceration just increases criminal involvement. Intimidation and threats of arrest don’t work for young people living in unstable circumstances and acting on impulse. They’re surrounded by domestic, police, and gang violence. They’re harassed and profiled. Their economic opportunities are scarce, due to the circumstances of their birth, and many don’t even feel as though they’ll live for long anyway, so they focus on gaining infamy.

Clearly, these are people who need our help. Our empathy. Our care. Don’t lose sight of their humanity. As the past few years of TTPS activity has indicated, violence doesn’t break the cycle of violence. They don’t need more threats and punishment in their lives. We need to overcome our primal desire for violent retribution.

Instead of constant state assault and economic exploitation by the private interests that funnel drugs and guns through their streets, these people need assistance in organizing to uplift their communities. People turn to gangs for a sense of protection from the insecurity and victimization of their circumstances. Circumstances we can change.

Social programs can work, but they’re not enough without a serious transformation in how we approach politics, work, school, community, and especially violence. All people need stability, positive support, and the freedom to pursue self-actualization.

We need to incorporate restorative justice. We need to expand the reach of good counsel and space for healing and growth. We already tried the violent route. It’s time to move towards peaceful coexistence.

Reapproach Housing

Homelessness has been a severe issue in Port-of-Spain for a long time. But in conjunction with intervention, counselling, and social aide to assist reintegration into society, the solution is surprisingly simple.

Guarantee housing.

It is deplorable that, much like serfs on feudal land, we are forced to spend much of our hard-earned income on keeping a roof over our heads. As if housing is a mere luxury. It’s amazing how we’ve normalized landlordism and evictions, as though it is right for individuals to tyrannize and monopolize human necessities. Housing should be owned solely by its occupants. I wish that wasn’t a controversial take.

There are so many innovative and exciting ways to affordably and sustainably provide housing.

Via HomeEdit &

Shipping container homes can be easily built to provide a dignified existence for those in need of housing. They can be insulated, stacked, and configured in all sorts of unique designs.

These modular villages are built with human need in mind. They’re walkable, diverse, adaptable, dense, and communal. via COhouse and ArchDaily

Modular co-housing can also allow students, artists, young couples, and others to live comfortably and build community while adapting to the natural changes that come with life.

Prioritize Humans

The dominant city planning philosophy of the past half-century has been car-centric, but believe it or not, cities are for humans. Our capital city should reflect that.

This may sound crazy — after all, Trinidad & Tobago has over one million registered vehicles on its roads — but I propose that we ban cars entirely in Downtown Port-of-Spain, providing parking spaces at the former Salvatori building site and elsewhere for those entering the city. Car-free cities aren’t new. In fact, they’re becoming increasingly popular in Europe and Asia as a means of addressing congestion and increasing quality of life.

via That’s So Tampa

Adapting Port-of-Spain to prioritize pedestrians shouldn’t be challenging. Our streets are already quite narrow. Of course, we should keep space for emergency services, but banning cars can provide more opportunities for interaction and commerce.

Walkable, car-free cities can address the country’s obesity rates and reduce emissions and accidents. To account for the increased foot traffic, we can provide easy access to recycling and trash bins.

With the social model of disability in mind, we will need transit services throughout the city. In fact, Port-of-Spain used to have electric tramways in the early 20th century. We can bring solar-powered trams, rentable scooters, and bike lanes to our capital to provide easy transport over longer distances. City Gate could become a hub of transit and tourism, incorporating all the cultures that make Trinidad unique.

via CTV News Ottowa

We should get rid of the overhead power and telephone lines that obscure our beautiful Caribbean skies and instead line our streets with trees. Street trees provide shade, keep things cool, absorb noise, clean the air, and look beautiful. We can even plant a few fruit trees to provide free produce.

Speaking of fruit, Central Market could flourish with a redesign. Picture this: the entrance, arched with two gorgeous poui trees. Walls adorned with gorgeous murals by local artists. Stained glass roofing. Tents and stalls organized with a cacophony of colours and patterns. Paths paved with a mosaic of brick and stone. Warm lights, hung from the ceiling, inviting late-night events for tourists and locals alike.

There is a science to the creation of a good street, and a beautiful city. We know it when we see it in action. Order, balance, symmetry, and variety. A blend of classical and creative architecture. Communal spaces and local flavour. Visible life, human and natural.

I can already envision a thriving, diverse space to live, work, shop, recreate, and educate.

Make It Green

As climate change accelerates, we need to design our capital with its consequences — and solutions — in mind. Think carbon neutral or carbon negative.

via Inhabitat

We need renewable energy. The solar farm initiative is a good start, but we should push things further. Our highways could be lined with vertical wind turbines that turn our speeding motorists into energy producers. The unused PowerGen site could be a hub of wind, solar, and hydrogen energy.

The Prime Minister plans to overhaul the drainage system of our oft-flooding city. My plan requires human- and eco-friendly roads. Let’s kill two birds with one stone. Porous asphalt roads can help address flooding, keep the city cool, and provide easier access to water and carbon dioxide for the surrounding greenery.

We need to heat-proof our city. Cities have a higher heatmap than their surrounding areas and air conditioning actually makes things worse, so they cannot be relied on as a long-term solution. Our tropical island will be greatly affected by climate change, but with reflective roofs and garden roofs, we can help mitigate rising heat levels.

via Clean Malaysia & Carbon InQ

Moss or vegetal benches and transit stops can provide comfort, aesthetic, and function as they suck pollution from the air. They can even incorporate water misters to keep people cool.

In the spirit of greater greenery, we can take a page from Cuba’s book and develop sustainable urban agriculture for our communities, forging food autonomy, building resilience, and developing an environmental ethos.

The deterioration of our planet cannot be ignored. Our social projects must be visionary and thorough in their approach. We don’t have to wait for the rest of the world. We can lead by example, innovating and developing a greener, more hopeful future. Let’s imagine our capital city differently. More in tune with nature and with people.

Rename The City

Lastly, though this may seem insignificant, I think we should begin anew with a new name for our capital city.

Our colonized island has changed hands many times, but it has retained the footprint of each of its colonizers. If we want to go in a fresh direction, a new name can play a major role in bolstering our resolve.

Most people call it “Town” anyway, so perhaps we can explore ways to incorporate our callaloo culture in our capital city. Perhaps we could pay homage to the original inhabitants with Cairitown (a callback to Cairiani, the original name of the island) or credit our great cultural export with Socatown (a reference to our West African and East Indian heritage). Whatever we decide on, I believe shedding our colonial shackles will help us soar.

Those who care about our beautiful island need to rise up.

We need to reject the notion that imagination has no place in politics. There’s so much more I could’ve explored in this article. The role of schools. The role of the arts. The role of sports. We can birth a true Renaissance. I’m ready to celebrate the revitalization of our culture and the liberation of our people. Are you prepared to bring forth A New Dawn? To live more lovingly, communally, and sustainably? We can relate to each other as kinfolk again.

via Luc Schuiten

We can work together to expand our freedom and wellbeing, for the benefit of ourselves as individuals and for the flourishing of wider society. It’s time to take back our lives and futures. Join my newsletter, share this article and spread the word.

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Andrew Sage

I’m a writer of words, an artist of arts, and a thinker of thoughts. Founder of Saint Who and Andrewism. Follow me on Twitter @_saintdrew.