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As housing speeds up, recreation lags behind

As housing speeds up,  recreation lags behind

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Vincentians have long had a reputation in the Caribbean of being especially proud of their houses.And, as the nation develops and its residents become more affluent, people are investing more in their houses, building more costly and elaborate homes.{{more}}

Private developers have also cashed in on the trend, with some building residential communities, with particular characteristics — like the ones for retirees in Pembroke in Central Leeward, and Spring, in South Windward.

The Unity Labour Party (ULP) government has also invested significantly in making affordable housing available to citizens, including the no-, low-, and middle-income housing projects across the country.

But amidst the advancement in housing and the development of residential districts, one thing is noticeably absent: recreational facilities.

In most residential districts, apart from the occasional playing field, there are no public parks or greenery, designated, designed, and maintained for children to play and for adults to relax and socialise.

And even at government housing projects, where lands were allocated for recreational and commercial use, nothing has been built, years after residents moved in.

But recreational facilities in residential areas “is of high social importance,” says Fidel Rose, a civil engineer at the Housing and Land Development Corporation (HLDC), the agency responsible for implementing the government’s housing policy.

Rose told SEARCHLIGHT that the development and evolution of a community “depends on how we socialise”.

“These are some of the areas in which you foster socialisation … which could later on develop into working attitudes and everything else,” Rose observed.

Rose designed the Clare Valley low-income project and the no-income segment of the Byera project.

As a civil engineer, he said he would love to see “more importance stressed” on the availability of recreational areas in housing and urban developments.

Rose also spoke of the considerations when developing a housing district, like the one the government pioneered at Clare Valley.

“As it dictates ‘low-income’, your constraint is really having a functional house that could meet the financing of the ordinary, working man,” Rose said of the broad thinking that informed his design.

The development, he explained, encompasses three components: infrastructure — namely roads and drains, utilities, and the houses.

And the two projects that he was directly involved with — Clare Valley and Byera — have lands earmarked for commercial and recreational use.

In Clare Valley, there is “a fairly large lot [of] … fairly flat land” for those purposes, while four plots are reserved in the Peter’s Hope housing project.

Rose said he did not know why the lands for recreation and commercial activities have not been developed.

SEARCHLIGHT was unsuccessful in repeated attempts over several weeks to reach Morris Slater, manager of the HLDC. Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves told Parliament Wednesday that Slater was ill and out of the country.

And a HLDC staff member told SEARCHLIGHT that while the actual reason for the non-development of the commercial and recreational plots in the agency’s housing projects is not clear, “finance is a problem”.

Social benefits vs profit

Rose told SEARCHLIGHT of some of the things a civil engineer might consider in developing a recreational area for a residential community.

“The size of the lot will have some influence on the function,” he explained, adding that a recreational lot should be larger than a commercial or housing lot.

“Developing a recreational space is a project in itself,” he further said, adding that the client has to dictate what they want, conceptually.

“Is it a football park? Is it a basketball park? Is it an amusement park?”

The demographic of the residents will also be a consideration, Rose explained, noting also that money is also a major factor.

“It’s all about affordability,” he further said.

He suggested that an area can be paved and used for cricket, basketball, netball, and tennis — “so it is very economical in that way”.

But while some private developers are moving into the housing market, many of them do not allocate lands for recreational use.

“When you speak of private entities, in terms of social benefits, that is the least of their concerns,” Rose observed. Private developers, he said, are unlikely to invest in something “if they can’t see any monetary numeration from it”.

“There would be some talk about corporate responsibility, but how much of that is prioritised by the merchants and commercial entities in St Vincent?” he further said.

Rose further told SEARCHLIGHT he would advocate that the government takes into “high consideration”, mandating that developers allocate lands even for the planting of trees and some benches.

But businessman Gideon Browne, who is involved in housing development, told SEARCHLIGHT that while contractors are concerned about returns on their investments, that is not the only consideration regarding the decisions not to include recreational facilitaties in housing developments.

“First, if you have to put recreation and those sort of things, you have to get massive plots of lands — 20 acres, 30 acres,” he explained.

A five-acre plot, he said, is large enough to build about 20 houses. “It is hardly that you can get a recreation area out of that…”

But that development is mostly for retirees and potential clients do not enquire about recreational facilities, Browne said. Additionally, such amenities will have a direct impact on the price of the houses.

“You have to be able to [price] the house in order to recover the cost. You can have a small recreational thing with a swing and so forth, but only that, because the land that you have is not enough to put like a recreation park.”

Playing fields, courts — parks?

National Sports Council (NSC) statistics say that SVG — which has a population of about 110,000 — has 56 playing fields and 63 hard courts. Some of these facilities have electricity, floodlights, potable water, bleachers/pavilions, or a combination of some or all of these installed.

But the need for more or different recreational areas exists, notwithstanding these sporting facilities.

And Ian Allen, a former national cricketer, who is assistant superintendent at the NSC, said most of the nation’s playing fields and hard courts are open for public use; the lights at lighted facilities are turned on “only when there are competitions with permission” from the NSC.

Further, organisers of the competitions must sign an agreement with the Council that they will pay the electricity bill.

But Allen said while the electricity is “pretty expensive, it is manageable.”

“If you know how to manage it and you get sponsor to deal with that,” he added.

He said that sport could be an alternative to citizens who watch television during the hours after dinner and before bed.

Commenting on the infrequency with which lights are turned on at sporting facilities, Allen said:

“That’s basically a challenge in terms of recreation in that anytime anybody wants to use the facility, they have to come up with some kind of agreement in terms of how they are going to pay for the lights.”

He, however, said the NSC would like to turn on regularly the lights at sports facilities to facilitate citizens.

“[But] based on the financial constraints, we are not in a position to do that,” he said.

A large portion of the Council’s budget is spent on the upkeep of facilities, including on the cutting of grass, pesticides, weedicides, and the maintenance of pitches and outfields.

And Allen said he has observed a growing awareness among Vincentians about the importance of fitness and exercise.

“On an average evening down at Arnos Vale, the facility is being congested with not just national players … but also you see the fitness fanatics and other users of the facilities…” he said.

“To me, that’s an encouraging sight … I find some men start to take their fitness very serious these days. And that’s good,” he said, adding that it would be good if the NSC “could provide that sort of service throughout the country”.

When SEARCHLIGHT visited the Arnos Vale Sporting Complex around 5 p.m. one Tuesday, there were the immediately recognisable faces of national athletes from various sporting disciplines.

But scores of “ordinary” citizens were also engaged in one exercise routine or the other, most notably speed walking and jogging.

Among them was a young couple from Belair, who had been married for 11 months.

The couple, who asked not to be identified in this article, said they exercise at Arnos Vale because it is clean, in good condition and the surface is even, unlike the playing field in Belair.

And while the couple stopped off at Arnos Vale on their way home from work in Kingstown, they said they would “more than likely” exercise in Belair, if the conditions there were better.

Meanwhile, Leon Ambris, a technician in his 40s, was getting some laps in before meeting with the three other gentlemen he exercises with about three times a week.

He lives in Arnos Vale and said the Sporting Complex there is “the most appropriate place you have in Arnos Vale” to exercise.

“Exercising, for me, is to keep fit and stay alive, I guess. We need plenty more facilities. Not only facilities like this, we need gyms and things like that, where people can go and exercise,” he said.

But amidst the absence, or poor conditions of recreational facilities in many residential districts, Vincentians who try to stay active may in fact be extending their lives.

Ministry of Health figures say that lifestyle diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, are among the leading causes of death for residents of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Health officials further advise that 30 minutes exercise, three times a week, along with proper dieting, reduces the likelihood of developing these ailments.

And Allen, of the Sports Council, said the number of persons exercising is “a good sign, notwithstanding the fact that we cannot get the leisure of using the lights…”

But he also believes that corporate SVG could play a role in helping to pay the cost of lighting sports facilities for a specified period during the night to facilitate leisure sports activities.

“… if you could have corporate citizens coming on board, for instance, donating a few [pieces of] equipment in some communities and staying close to the management committee in that particular area, that will help a lot.

“… You know how important sports [is] in our lives — not just fitness but making people into a particular person. I mean, I could speak in that regard,” the former national cricketer said. (kentonchance@searchlight.vc)

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