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Urbanization series: Curaçao's suburbanization takes over urban and rural life (2)

Written by Caspar Tromp

For most of its history, historic Willemstad was the only urbanized area on the island. Curaçao’s interior was strictly rural. While during the Spanish and the beginning of the Dutch colonial period small Amerindian Arawak villages were still the primary rural settlements on the island, soon rural settlements came to be structured around plantations. For its small size, Curaçao impressively counted over a hundred colonial country houses, many of which still dot the landscape. Those that served as a plantation or for salt extraction housed numerous small huts where the slaves lived, built according to African or indigenous traditions.  In the mid-19th century, some humble villages started to arise around churches which were founded by bishop Niewindt. Those plantations and villages were for centuries connected by dust roads which have persisted into modern times, forming today the main arteries of the island today. All roads ultimately led to Willemstad. Due to the island’s dry climate, most plantations never produced for large scale export, but rather to sustain the local population and Willemstad, which was the place where most works took place seen its position as an important regional trade center.

Life in the countryside was particularly hard however, forcibly working in the hot sun for the plantation. People looked up to those large rural mansions with ample green and space, a true symbol of status. Thus, when the city expanded during the booming oil years of the 20th century with the spirit of the “American Dream”, citizens slowly left the inner-city and plantations for a nice house with a garden and a car. It had given a greater sense of empowerment and liberty to its people who more and more shunned its crowded and old-fashioned inner city. 

The inner city remained, however, the most important residential, commercial and political area of the island until the social tensions of 30 di Mei 1969. During this revolt, it was partly destroyed and many remaining inhabitants finally moved to the suburbs. Subsequent impoverishment, deterioration and the dominance of the car in the streets further undermined the liveability of historic Willemstad until large parts were even considered dangerous “no-go areas”.

The rural areas of the island particularly transformed during the suburbanization, especially around the Schottegat area. This was always the densest rural area due to its important roads and a higher concentration of plantation houses. When the refinery was built during the early 20th century, the island’s economy boomed and the population expanded. Julianadorp and Emmastad were the first planned suburbs to be built. With a tropical Indonesian design reflecting the colonial status of The Netherlands at that time, these were built for the wealthy high officials of the refinery, often Dutch expats. Closely to the north-west of the refinery, the humbler Buena Vista grew rather organically often using the same traditions with which the older slave houses were built, and housed the laborers. Neighborhoods of small bungalows for the humble laborers were also built by Shell, as Suffisant in the ’50s. Cas Cora was even pre-fabricated in The Netherlands, from where the building materials were shipped and built on the island. These suburbs were carefully planned and standardized according to modernist ideals (see story modernism). However, the different suburban “oil villages” were also strictly racially and socially differentiated, a conscious governmental policy of the time. As suburban Curaçao gradually expanded, former villages and plantations sites were absorbed. 

The suburban expansion continued rather indiscriminately. Nowadays in suburban Curaçao, there are no clear neighborhood centers or hierarchies common in other places around the world, where you can typically find a public square surrounded by a church, a school, community centers, public services, shops, bars, and restaurants. This is also rather absent for perhaps the only true remaining rural villages on the island in Bandabou. Functions are mostly spatially spread-out and focussed on car accessibility around main roads. While pre-car society was characterized by its spatial and even social proximity, the communal life shifted towards the more private family life with the advent of the car.

This story is part of the ‘Urbanization’ series on Willemstad written by Caspar Tromp. In this six-part series, Caspar takes us on a journey to learn about how urban life in Willemstad has developed over the past decades.


  1. Janga, L. (2006). Neighbourhood development in Curacao. Modus: Statistische Magazine, 14 (1). Central Bureau of Statistics Curacao

  2. Nationaal Archief (2020). Ontwikkeling Huisvesting van Curaçao door de Shell. Retrieved from: https://www.nationaalarchief.cw/collectie/exposities/oliedorpen [Accessed at 26 January 2020]

  3. Noord, van S. (2017). Kas di Shon: plantagehuizen op Curaçao, vroeger en nu. LM Publishers, 5-263.

  4. Transforming Urban Curacao. Community and Expert-Based visioning for localizing the New Urban Agenda. 2019. United Nations Office for Project Services, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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