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Give us space!

There has been much public discussion regarding the recent industrial fire in St. Thomas, covering such topics as government’s response to the incident, the strengths and weaknesses of the public alerts, information sharing, zoning, short term and long-term effects of the smoke’s contents.

One comment made in the media even suggested that in light of the recent developments, some communities should be relocated up wind of industrial developments.

However, there are a number of factors, which in my opinion, residents living in communities sharing space with industrial businesses should consider. These factors when considered as part of an overall residential preparedness plan, may be of assistance to them in the future.

First, let us look at the distribution pattern of residential areas and industrial sites. If one were to examine the distribution of space between commercial and residential development in the areas of Newton, Six Roads, Wildey, the Pine, Grazettes, Spring Garden and the Harbour, Lower Estate and Warrens, the first question that would have to be asked would be, who was there first?

We must also consider that Barbados, like so many islands in the region, has a very limited land space that must accommodate its entire infrastructure. This includes public facilities such as schools and medical centres, airports and seaports, roads and recreational spaces. This infrastructure must be capable of expansion to meet the continuing needs of an ever developing society.

Secondly, the islands of the Caribbean share natural hazard risk profiles that should also be factored into residential and industrial developmental planning. These profiles, which also exist in the island regions of the Pacific, should, in my opinion, also play a role in the decision making process when hazard risk planning is conducted.

The natural hazard risk profile includes volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and flooding. These natural hazard profiles also influence residential development, when considered against the background of continual industrial developmental expansion, also dictates how the available physical space will be shared.

Businesses always plan for public accessibility in order to remain viable. Supermarkets, gas stations and retail businesses are perfect examples of the co-existent pattern of sharing space. As residential communities expand, so too, do the retail outlets that the same residences demand easy access to. Shopping malls and gas stations locate themselves near cities, highways and communities. Education and medical services follow a similar pattern of space sharing.

Government facilities, including courts and law enforcement buildings, by virtue of their mandate also follow suit. Then, there are the manufacturing entities, which in the initial stage, require large flat areas on which to establish their facilities, but at the same time must also have ready access to the same retail and government services that are also required by the home owner.

The problem as seen by environmental and urban planners is: How can both groups be accommodated on a small land mass, while maintaining the delicate balance of environmental protection, residential safety and health preparedness, and economic viability at the same time?

This is a question which continues to plague some of the most developed countries in the world. The issue of how best to serve two masters continues to be the primary subject of city and urban planners. The problem is not as simple as many armchair analysts may purport to solve through the platform of talk radio and town meetings.

This is because as businesses relocate due to complaints, residential planners then in turn design new communities which encroach on the same boundaries that the businesses, based on environmental stipulations, have established for themselves.

There is also the argument of relocating communities due to possible environmental impact from a scenario like the St. Thomas fire. How does one relocate an entire community due to industrial development up wind of that location only to be relocated nearer a natural hazard, like shoreline flooding from storm surge activity?

Would the risk to residents be lower if they were relocated near the base of a volcano, which many would say is not likely to erupt for at least another 100 years, only to have the same crater erupt 20 years later? Case in point; there are many armchair experts who said that the Montserrat volcano would not have erupted as it did in 1995 forcing residents to flee the island and the government to rebuild the city on the other side of the island.

The solution to industrial business and residential co-existence on the same limited land space is a multifaceted one; for it includes both groups having access to the same social amenities established for support. It includes easy access by the consumer to the goods and services offered, while at the same time maintaining a safe distance from each other.

It also includes establishing preparedness and public education systems that will allow both groups to function under effective safety and health guidelines and regulations.

One of the most effective ways of preparing any community for any emergency is effective public education, regardless of the hazard type. Unfortunately, while many may say that there are public education programmes currently in place that address this issue, there are also others like myself, who will say that these programmes are not as effective as they should be in preparing a community.

In recent times, authorities have been using the medium of the town hall forum to present a message to the public, however, as was seen recently, town hall meetings only seem to be an appropriate method of informing the public about the dangers of industrial disasters, after the fact.

The concept of the town hall meeting as a public education forum needs to be revisited, and better utilised if the issue of residential and industrial coexistence is to be effectively resolved and managed.

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