We must design for Jamaica, our environment and climate | Commentary

As a practising landscape architect in Jamaica since 1983, I am repeatedly amazed that the sprawling, new middle-income housing developments spreading throughout the county, if landscaped, are covered with small ornamental shrubs (usually vigorously pruned into some fanciful shape), some decorative palms, and barely a tree in sight. If a tree is allowed to remain, it is again pruned and stunted into some kind of lollypop shape, as seen in illustrations in childrens’ books.

In the meantime, the inhabitants of these developments remain in their houses, sheltering from the sweltering summer heat, using their fans or air conditioning units – if they are lucky enough to possess one, and to be able to afford to run it – and complain about the crazy, expensive JPS bill they just received.

Furthermore, play equipment is often installed at great expense in the limited public space within the development. It is usually made of metal or plastic for durability, and as there is little or no shade, it can barely be touched as it becomes so hot during the day. By the time it is cool enough for a child to play on, it is nearly night and the smaller children, who would actually enjoy it, have already gone to bed.

Then, there is the problem of landscape maintenance. If you trim everything into an unnatural shape, then the maintenance cost of keeping it looking like a Disneyland postcard is extremely high, as I’m sure homeowner committees around the country experience and complain about during their regular meetings. Furthermore, if you only plant ornamentals that struggle to compete against pests and diseases commonly found in Jamaica, then you are saddling yourself with (the need for) constant spraying with treatments of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, which are imported, bad for the environment and, again, eye-wateringly expensive.

This kind of landscaping is completely nonsensical and unsustainable.

I am not advocating that there is no place for a more decorative landscape design in key positions within a development, and obviously, if some people enjoy tending ornamental varieties in their own gardens, then that is great. But surely, the landscaping of large developments must offset the fact that hard surfaces and the surface water run-off have increased multifold, and thousands of trees have been felled to make way for ‘progress’. Trees must be replanted and there is no substitute!

I am aware of the arguments that when the hurricane comes, the trees will fall, and that criminals will hide behind them, and the security camea’s view is obscured. But surely, with selective pruning and smart landscape design and placement of trees, many of these concerns can be mitigated. Most importantly, a much more sustainable environment will be created, in which it is desirable and pleasant to live. We must embrace the natural environment. We need to nurture it and try to promote it, making pleasant and sustainable places to live, which enhance our physical and mental well-being.

We must plant trees and provide usable recreational space, not try to imitate something we saw overseas in a completely different climate zone. We must design for Jamaica, and our environment and climate.

Similar trends in architecture

Unfortunately, many of our architects and designers also often do not take into account the Jamaican environment and the climatic conditions in which we live, and seem, in fact, quite oblivious to them. They often design buildings that would probably be better placed in the temperate climates of the North.

They have scant regard for prevailing winds, ventilation, orientation, water and sunlight; factors that used to be so important to designers of our older, traditional, historical buildings.

We somehow now feel we can ignore our natural environment, or at least offset any problems that may arise using expensive, new-found technologies. Architects and designers are employed and guided by their clients, who frequently have seen something they liked elsewhere that they want to imitate in some way. These clients, unfortunately, can often not be convinced that it may not be suitable or sustainable in our Jamaican situation.

Solutions?

As landscape architects, when permitted, we do try to mitigate the damage done by developments that ignore our natural environment. The pressure put upon the limited, open green communal spaces provided within each development to meet the recreational needs of the owners by providing amenities (such as a pool with pool deck, possibly a jacuzzi, a barbeque area and gazebo, a gym, hard play courts, open playing field, children’s play equipment, etc) is extreme, and, again, leaves a large portion of the so-called ‘green area’ not green at all, but paved. This leaves little room to provide trees to cool the environment, and certainly can never counterbalance the destruction caused by a housing development without meaningful tree cover. Again, I do not advocate that developments must be stopped; however, they need to be sensitive to the landscape and be enveloped with trees providing cool spaces that are pleasant to live in.

Planning regulations regarding not only the amount of green space each development must incorporate, should perhaps go further and maybe outline the minimum number of trees per acre that would be desirable, as this may guide developers to a better solution.

I also believe every person should endeavour to play a role in creating a better environment for the future.

We should all plant a tree, nurture it and let it spread, providing shade, retaining water and improving our living environment. Only then, if we all act now and try to protect our island’s beautiful landscape, do we have a hope of preserving it for future generations to come.

Mary-Anne Twyman is a practising landscape architect and member of the Central American & Caribbean Association of Landscape Architects. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com

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