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Urbanization series: Curaçao, the costs of a suburban society (3)

Written by Caspar Tromp

For almost a century now, Curaçao has a truly suburban culture. While people have rightfully enjoyed the tranquillity and quality of living in a spacious detached house with a nice garden and a car to comfortably transport you anywhere, this urbanization is deeply unsustainable. 

Of approximately Curaçao’s 158,000 population, 75% live in the outer suburbs of Willemstad while a mere 1,3% (around 2020 inhabitants) live in the inner-city, a stark decline from an approximate 10.000 inhabitants during the inner-city’s heydays. In other words: the population of historic Willemstad currently equals the number of passengers of a large cruise ship that regularly docks in Otrobanda! In addition, in 2011 there were 960 hotel bedrooms in the inner city. Although that number probably changed through the years with the closing and opening of (new) hotels, it indicates how disproportionately tourism has taken over the inner city. This trend will continue with the rise of house-sharing platforms such as Airbnb, which accounted for an estimated 35% of tourist stay-overs. If not managed properly with an eye for sustainability, liveability, and inclusiveness, tourism poses a serious threat.

Most remaining inhabitants of historic Willemstad live in Otrobanda, where 1.369 people lived in 2011 (down from 6.000 in 1970). Scharloo is the second most populous neighborhood with 523 inhabitants, almost exclusively living in the Fleur de Marie and Sint Jago areas as the previous mansions of the elite are turned into offices or still abandoned. In Pietermaai, only 81 people permanently lived there in 2011, down from 383 in 1981. The starkest population decline happened in Punda, where despite a high vacancy of buildings and floors less than 50 people currently reside, compared to over 2000 people during the 19th century. The inner city is socially also a vulnerable area with the poorest population on the island. This is another important theme to be further discussed in a future article.

Comparing densities in the region is difficult seen that Greater Willemstad’s urban boundaries are not clearly defined and density is calculated for the whole island, including natural areas. This lack of exact data might hold true as well to other Caribbean urban regions. I present here an attempt, with caution. If we roughly calculate that Greater Willemstad has a surface of 112km2 (including Schottegat area) with a population of 12.000, then it houses more or less 1.000 inhabitants per square kilometer. When comparing this to other Caribbean cities such as Castries (890/km2), Fort-de-France (1800/km2), St. Johns (3,100/km2), Havana (7,490/km2), Santo Domingo (8,500/km2), Willemstad’s density is low, especially with regards to metropolitan cities such as Havana and Santo Domingo. Comparing to other relevant cities, such as Rotterdam (3.043/km2), (Amsterdam (4.908/km2), Madrid (5.400/ km2), Bogotá (5.171/km2), Boston (5.547/km2) and Paris (21.616/km2), Willemstad’s density is similar to other small island nations in the Caribbean but falls significantly below larger cities. Note Paris’s exceptionally high density, especially seen that the city’s urban landscape features very few high-rise buildings.

The maintenance of extensive networks of infrastructure for relatively low-density suburbs is costly. This could be seen in the state of roads and the lack of public transport, sidewalks and bicycle lanes overall. The larger the infrastructure network, the more costly it is to maintain. The larger size of spacious detached homes with gardens lowers density, meaning that fewer people could inhabit a given space of land. An ever-expanding suburb swallows up more of the limited nature and puts a great toll on ecosystems, a serious threat for an island of a mere 444 km2. Although data on density show that the suburban fringes are becoming more populous and built up, 9% of Curaçao’s housing stock was uninhabited in 2011. Outer Willemstad is currently unstructured, with no clearly defined structure of neighborhoods. This has a strong negative impact on mobility. Because extensive low-density neighborhoods support few bus stops and a low bus frequency, only 8.900 persons took the bus to work and 9100 pupils to school in 2011. Distances are too long to walk, resulting in an overreliance on the car as a mode of transportation. This results in harmful greenhouse emissions, air pollution, traffic congestion, the clustering of shops and services along main roads, a need for large parking spaces, (deadly) traffic accidents and a lack of physical exercise. (Read more about this in the walkable story!) The construction of new large shopping malls in the suburbs also outcompete businesses in the inner city. Finally, suburbanization has been detrimental to public life and the spontaneities and random encounters that happen in truly vibrant cities. Lack of communal space, such as in suburbs and large apartment towers have the risk of creating loneliness, which is detrimental to our well-being. 

To counter this trend of suburbanization, it is important to shift from a “greenfield’ approach to a “greyfield” approach in urban planning. In greenfield developments, areas of nature (hence green) often outside the existing city are cleared for the construction of new suburban neighborhoods, hotels, shopping malls, etc. In greyfield development, urban planners look at existing urban areas (hence grey), often underused places such as abandoned industrial areas, parking lots or places with a potential for densification or simply smarter use of the land. Think of it as a sort of urban recycling, and you can see why this approach is more sustainable. A really dedicated approach would be even to draw red lines on the city’s border, deciding by law that development is only allowed within this line and that development outside this red line is prohibited. 

As space becomes limited with this approach, it is even more important to develop land socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Before proposing such an approach, it is worth looking at how urban planning is done since the advent of modernism in the early 20th century since it is not sustainable in its use of land.

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.


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