Public access to waterfront in Port of Spain, Trinidad

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Cross-posted from Spacing Ottawa, by Michael Frojmovic

For those not familiar with local fare in Trinidad & Tobago, a mix of dried channa (chickpea), roasted peanuts and splitpeas is certainly one of the world’s great beer snacks. Accompanied by a cold Carib beer and a demi-caraffe of water served up in the air-conditioned lounge of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, they help nurse a tired pedestrian through the 15 minutes it takes to recover from an 30-minute evening walk through Port of Spain. Walking in Trinidad after sunset is not a common practice. If you travel on foot from New Town, through Woodbrook, to the Hyatt, you’ll face long stretches of empty streets, punctuated by the odd vagrant, without even a single honk from taxi drivers. Even as the sun sets, the humidity remains oppressive.

My own destination was Port of Spain’s newest waterfront development; specifically, the publicly accessible waterfront promenade.  A waterfront city, Port of Spain was designed – much as numerous Canadian and American cities – with its back turned to the water. From a pedestrian’s point of view, the waterfront was separated by walled-in port facilities, and a major 6-lane arterial roadway (Wrightson Road) which functions as a highway.

The development of waterfront properties in and around Port of Spain over the past 25 years has been characterized by either exclusivity – achieved through a combination of land reclamation and the construction of unaffordable residential development – as in the case of Westmoorings – or commercial development that simply ignored the waterfront completely – as in Movietown/PriceSmart and the Marriott Hotel. In fact, the Marriot’s frontage is a parking lot and highway access. Until very recently, the waterfront remained obscured to the public.

The public’s enjoyment of public space in Trinidad also faces the additional challenge of fear and insecurity caused by increasing rates of violent crime. In a country with a population of 1.3 million, Trinidad experiences over 500 murders a year, the majority of which are concentrated in Port of Spain. While statistics on theft and assaults are less clear, the old adage about mad dogs and Englishmen now corresponds just as well to the concept of wandering the streets of downtown at night.

Considering the challenging context, the new waterfront development is an exceptionally successful public space. It is defined by a comfortable 100 metre-long promenade, lined with high-density commercial buildings that relate well to the ground level.  The exclusivity of the commercial buildings stands cheek-by-jowl with affordable amenities like the Breakfast Shed food court and a public water-taxi providing regular access to the country’s second largest city, San Fernando.

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In the classic sense of “public” space, the waterfront has become a place for the full diversity of humanity to meet and congregate. The suit-and-tie crowd from the Hyatt and people from all walks of life are as close together as they ever get in Trinidad. At various points, the full life cycle of romance can be observed: Young lovers, a wedding reception and families with young children.

As a further measure of equality, visitors to the promenade enjoy the same tremendous vistas – both by day and by night – as the guests of the Hyatt. To the west, the Chacachacare islands of Trinidad and coastal mountains of Venezuela; to the east, the glittering lights of Point Lisas Industrial Park and the West Coast of Trinidad down to San Fernando, and in front, as far as the eye can see, the calm waters of the Gulf of Paria.

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The promenade is clearly more than an afterthought. For starters, garbage bins and landscaping are being actively maintained: a sure sign of a serious investment. The architectural coherence of the waterfront development can be measured both in terms of its relationship to the adjoining high-density buildings, as well as to the Brian Lara Promenade – another great public space redevelopment success story in Trinidad – which runs perpendicular to the waterfront promenade. Continuous movement and motion create a sense of engagement, defined by a regular flow of commercial ships, passenger ferries, and oil rigs in the background, while in the foreground, a well-placed fountain offers a coordinated movement of water and light.

While there are still some major structural limitations – the waterfront and downtown are bifurcated by Wrightson Road, and the promenade ends abruptly at the port facility – these can be addressed over time.

As I came back from my waterfront stroll, approaching the Hyatt hotel, I saw a chain across the boardwalk and “men and women in black” with earpieces, hovering silently. A chat with one of the security staff clarified the role of the chain. The Hyatt corporation is concerned about the liability along “its” stretch of the boardwalk, lest members of the public fall off the ledge into the murky waters below. While stopping at the chain isn’t mandatory, you can’t help but notice that the rest of the boardwalk on the Hyatt side of the chain is absolutely bereft of people; a subtle reminder of the tenuous line that separates welcoming public space from exclusive private amenity.

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The Port of Spain International Waterfront Centre Located at #1 Wrightson Road includes two 26-story office towers, a 22-story Hyatt Regency Hotel, and the Caribbean region’s largest conference centre. The first phase of the integrated development project, managed by the Urban Development Company of Trinidad & Tobago (UDECoTT) including the waterfront landscaping, was completed in advance of the April 2009 Summit of the Americas.

-Michel Frojmovic is an Ottawa-based urban planning and policy consultant. He splits his time between assignments in Canada and the Caribbean. He is the owner of Acacia Consulting & Research (acaciaconsulting.ca).

- Photo credits architecturecaribbean

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