Building Urban Resilience in the Caribbean: Policies, Practices and Prospects

Building Urban Resilience in the Caribbean: Policies, Practices and Prospects


By Professor Michelle Mycoo, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine and Coordinating Lead Author of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Working Group II, Small Islands

Caribbean cities face urban issues that warrant transformative solutions for inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable urban development. Urban planning policymakers and practitioners, as they launch a multi-pronged approach to address rapid urbanization, increasingly high levels of urban population, and rising demands for land, housing, and basic urban services, are confronted by past colonization, current climate change, and the socio-economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. These unprecedented challenges require a bold, innovative reimagining of what the urban future will look like in a Caribbean Small Island Developing State (SIDS) context. A new urban orthodoxy is central to achieving transformative urbanization, the key ingredients of which are enabling processes aimed at improved urban governance, citizen activism, strengthening a pro-marginalized perspective geared toward inclusivity, fiscal autonomy of urban agencies, effective climate change adaptation and mitigation in cities, and efficient use of information communication technology to improve the science-policy-practice interface.

Urban Issues and Challenges

Unlike some parts of the Global South, urbanization levels in Latin America and the Caribbean are as high as 80%, which equates with countries of the Global North.  In the Caribbean, 72% of the population lives in urban areas, and it is projected this may be 80% by 2050 (Donovan and Turner-Jones, 2017; UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), Population Division, 2018). Currently, over 70% of the population of the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic lives in urban settlements. The Region’s urban population is growing two to three times faster than the current average in South America, and projections up to 2050 indicate that this will be the trend over the next three decades (Donovan and Turner-Jones, 2017). Due to these urban demographic trends, Caribbean urban planning policymakers and practitioners face multiple urban challenges in meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11, which focuses on creating inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities.


The formal housing sector in the Caribbean cannot meet housing demand, and fewer affordable houses are being built for low-income households (McHardy and Donovan, 2016). The key drivers behind the housing deficit are rapid urbanization, land tenure challenges, limited access to affordable serviced land, complex land titling procedures, the private sector’s unwillingness to build low-income housing, limited rental housing, and the high cost of delays in receiving building permits (Rajack and Frojmovic, 2016).

Informal Urbanism

The housing deficit is partly responsible for the growth in informal housing in urban and peri-urban locations. Approximately 20% of Jamaica’s and Trinidad’s population live in squatter settlements (Government of Jamaica, 2014 and Government of Trinidad and Tobago, 2020). Inflated urban land values and high engineering costs of serviced land have made it impossible for poor households to own land.  Many poor urban households that experience exclusion from the formal housing market have resorted to the illegal occupation of mainly state land. Interestingly, the 2011 census for six Caribbean SIDS revealed high home ownership, which may reflect a very active informal sector is providing a large percentage of housing (McHardy and Donovan, 2016). The proliferation of squatter settlements is likely to increase with rapid urbanization rates projected for the Caribbean.

Five common challenges that impact on informal settlements throughout the Caribbean are weak governance, socio-economic vulnerability and diversity, vulnerability to hazards, weak regulatory capacity, and data gaps, which limit the capacity to formulate and implement solutions (UN-Habitat, 2020). Poor tenure records, haphazard settlement structures, and low-quality infrastructure make squatter regularization complex and expensive. These challenges can derail Caribbean SIDS efforts to meet SDG 11 by 2030.

Sub-standard housing and a lack of infrastructure to support the health and well-being of inhabitants are characteristic of unplanned urban settlements in the Caribbean. State provision of lifeline infrastructure is often inadequate in these settlements because of their illegal status. In Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad, thousands of urban squatters are living without lifeline infrastructure such as water, electricity, roads, and sewerage facilities (Rajack and Frojmovic, 2016). Informal settlements have no formal planning approval and therefore do not benefit from site development standards, building codes, and engineering standards, which serve to protect public health and safety. High costs are incurred in building infrastructure as part of informal settlement upgrading in these vulnerable locations. Also, households living in informal settlements experience high economic losses resulting from damage to household assets caused by tropical cyclones and associated flood and wind impacts. Further, unauthorized occupation of topographically challenging hilly areas undermines the role of ecosystems in providing services such as watershed management, erosion control, and flood mitigation and is a drain on national economies. The political will to curb encroachment in environmentally sensitive areas is sometimes lacking because squatters provide votes to the ruling political parties.

Urban Infrastructure

Many Caribbean cities suffer from inadequate infrastructure due to limited spending targeted at clearing a pre-existing backlog of facilities, repairing old infrastructure, and providing new infrastructure to promote smart city growth. Urban infrastructure, designed in the post-independence era, still exists in capital cities and is unable to cope with rising demand. For many islands, potable water supply coverage exceeds 90%, but infrastructure provision, management, and institutional frameworks to close the supply-demand gap are lacking because water management institutions and arrangements have not altered substantially for over 60 years (Cashman, 2021; Mycoo, 2018). As a result of infrastructural deficits, large segments of the urban population have limited access to sewerage disposal facilities as well as reliable and efficient transportation services. Unreliable and inadequate infrastructural services such as water and sewerage treatment cause public health risks and damage critical natural resources such as rivers, aquifers, coastal waters, and coral reefs.

Climate Change

Climate change impacts on Caribbean urban settlements are already being felt and require innovative solutions to protect people, infrastructure, and economic assets. An average of 84% of the Caribbean’s population lives within 25 kilometers of the coast and 33% lives in low elevation coastal zones (LECZ) which comprise areas less than 10 meters above sea level. Currently, coastal capitals, ports, airports and road infrastructure, housing, and industries are concentrated in the coastal zone, but based on sea level rise projections, it is predicted that in the Caribbean, almost all port and harbor facilities will suffer inundation in the future (Cashman and Nagdee, 2017). Among the islands’ capital cities, Nassau, an atoll island (Bahamas) with 83% of its population living in the LECZ, is the most highly exposed to risks of sea level rise and flooding. Tropical cyclones have already caused, and will continue to result in, significant losses and damages to people, housing, infrastructure, and ecosystems in Caribbean urban settlements in the LECZ (Mycoo et al., 2022).

Policies and Practices to Build Urban Resiliency in SIDS

A good mix of policies and practices exist in Caribbean SIDS to address the challenges faced in staying on track with SDG 11, promoting a New Urban Agenda and climate change adaptation, and building urban resiliency.

Safe, Inclusive, Sustainable and Resilient Housing and Urban Spaces

Many initiatives are ongoing to make urban housing and spaces safe, inclusive, sustainable, and resilient, in keeping with SDG 11 and climate adaptation. Apart from urban planning policies and guidelines for planning of spaces and designing buildings, increasingly there has been a focus on putting citizens at the epicenter of urban planning and management. Improved access to basic urban housing and services has been a goal of Caribbean governments, but challenges remain. Low-cost public housing provision, informal settlement upgrading, employment and youth training programs, social services such health, education and recreation continue to account for significant government investment. Yet, for many islands, tropical cyclones and flooding have significant economic impacts resulting in a diversion of funds from development initiatives to post-disaster recovery plans. Losses and damages to urban housing and infrastructure account for large portions of national budgets and worsening indebtedness, derailing efforts to stay on track to meet the SDGs by 2030.

The Caribbean’s long history of centralized decision-making has marginalized citizens from having a voice in planning their urban spaces, but increasingly, efforts are being made by urban planning agencies to involve the citizenry in plan preparation and policy development such as public consultations (Potter and Pugh, 2018). Citizens’ activism is key to ensure the sustainability of a positive change in a city. Such participation can improve the quality of urban policy and projects and provide support for shared visions; it is also a central element in monitoring the implementation of strategies, as it can ensure more sensitivity not just to the previously defined targets, but also to the evolution of what citizens expect from their shared space. Gender-based planning needs to receive far greater attention than it has in the past if equity in decision-making is to improve. Some agencies have begun to mainstream gender-based issues in urban design of public spaces and state built urban housing.

Informal Urbanism and Sustainable Urban Settlements

Attempts have been made by Caribbean governments to address informal urbanism, fully cognizant that housing production cannot keep pace with the demand for low-cost housing among poor and marginalized households. Jamaica has developed a National Squatter Management Policy and Implementation Programme to ameliorate impacts resulting from a proliferation of informal urban settlements (Mullings et al., 2018). Between 2011 and 2018, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) supported Trinidad and Tobago’s Neighbourhood Upgrading Progamme aimed at improving access to basic infrastructure, housing subsidies, and regularized tenure for 3,300 households, of which more than half the recipients were female-headed households (Mycoo and Bharath, 2021). Efforts do not focus on constructing houses or eviction from lands, but on in-situ regularization, infrastructure provision, and delivery of social services. The tendency to treat these settlements as enclaves has long been superseded by a more holistic approach aimed at integrating not just informal settlements with those that are formal, but also the informal economy (UN-Habitat, 2020).

Integrating Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation into Urban Planning

Mainstreaming climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies into urban plans has become a priority of Caribbean urban planning and environmental management agencies. Risk assessment prior to any upgrading is an integral part of informal settlement upgrading methodology in several countries. Spatial plans articulate land use zoning proposals aimed at environmental conservation and natural hazard risk reduction to safeguard urban populations. Site development standards have been modified to tackle storm surges, rising sea levels, flooding, and coastal erosion. Additionally, building codes have been revised to deal with heat stress, flooding, and more intense tropical cyclones. Climate change calls for a transformation of urban planning as it reinforces the need for a long-term approach and for enforcement of land use, site development, and building regulations. An effective climate strategy implies increasing urban resilience through more than a mere control of land use change, and addressing the infrastructure needs and the way in which land should be used, in terms of resource consumption and flows (Mycoo and Donovan, 2017). It requires updated data on the urban reality, a changed culture and infrastructure for data sharing, and the means to implement changes that often imply a cost to public administrations.

A major challenge remains how best to facilitate adaptation of informal settlements to climate change (Mycoo et al., 2022). As informal urbanism occurs outside the existing regulatory framework, and therefore does not benefit from planning standards, households living in unapproved urban settlements are neither safe nor resilient to climate change. Investments are needed both in formal and informal urban settlements, but the most vulnerable parts of the city are usually informal settlements, as they occupy flood plains and unstable slopes. This is one of the most important sustainability challenges of our cities, and will have a clear impact on budgets, as the cost of disaster remediation can be much higher than prevention (IADB, 2015). With the increasing intensity of tropical cyclones in the Caribbean, building back better using relevant site development guidelines and building codes is warranted. Building codes and safer housing designs in less hazard prone locations calls for innovative solutions from urban planners, engineers, and architects with a holistic perspective. A community-based approach to planning and establishment of appropriate planning and engineering standards before initiating upgrading is equally important.

Caribbean SIDS have been attempting to leverage adaptation financing provided by donor and international financing institutions, although access to these funds is a convoluted process (Robinson and Dornan, 2017). Nevertheless, several projects have been funded, especially those entailing more commonly used hard protection responses such as seawalls and other coastal defense measures (Mycoo and Donovan, 2017; Mycoo et al., 2022). Soft adaptation responses are also attracting loans from funding agencies, and these include land reclamation and ecosystem-based adaptation such as re-afforestation, watershed management, mangrove replanting, and coral reef restoration to protect both upper watersheds and coastal areas. Planned retreat of buildings and settlements from the coastline as a response to sea level rise is a last resort given limited land in SIDS.

The small carbon footprints of Caribbean SIDs do not detract from them being among the most exposed and vulnerable states to climate risks. With global warming likely to exceed the Paris Agreement to cap temperatures at 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Region’s governments have decided to pursue a multi-sector strategy that incorporates mitigation strategies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation measures include solar energy for public lighting in cities, curbing urban sprawl through improved urban planning aimed at lowering commuting, and incentives for more energy efficient public and private transportation.  Barbados has been at the forefront of solar energy use, and other Caribbean SIDS are increasingly utilizing solar energy. Some countries are building cooler, better ventilated buildings by incorporating colonial and indigenous architectural styles of vaulted ceilings, jalousie windows, open courtyards, and verandas. Urban squares are an integral component of the grid-iron layout of colonial cities built by the Spanish, and these green open spaces temper the effect of urban heat with higher temperatures associated with global warming. Green infrastructure consisting of waterways, coastal esplanades, and urban landscaping also play a major role in mitigating the warming trends in Caribbean SIDS.

Urban Finance and Fiscal Autonomy

Caribbean urban authorities often lack fiscal independence to implement projects that are central to improving the quality of life of urban residents. Oftentimes, taxes collected from municipal governments, including property taxes, are transferred to central government funds. Urban development corporations and local planning authorities require fiscal autonomy to undertake mid and long-term planning targeted at fulfilling strategic goals of improved access to a better quality of urban services. The goal should be not just to recover the cost of the service provided, but also to spend more on future improvements and investments in the quality of service and reliability of the networks, a long-term goal that is needed in cities that have problems in their current infrastructure coverage areas (IADB, 2015).

Information Communication Technology

High-resolution satellite data offers many possibilities to perform urban planning functions. Satellite remote sensing is a powerful tool for timely and cost-effective development of information in a wide number of applications. GIS technology, smart maps, Google Earth, and drones can be put to effective use in spatial analysis, synthesis, and visualization not only in spatial planning, but transportation planning, natural hazard risk management, and building climate change resilience. Additionally, more urban planners should employ 3D modelling because it allows them to test various scenarios and expedite the urban planning process. It is cost effective and provides more accurate data for evaluation and decision-making. Participatory mapping can also facilitate community engagement in environmental risk assessment, vulnerability assessments, and climate change adaptation. Landsat data, now freely available on the Internet and cloud mapping, also hold tremendous potential to improve spatial planning and environmental management in Caribbean countries.


At no other time in the Caribbean’s history has visionary urban planning and management been so needed as now, to confront the challenges brought on by the pandemic, climate change, unequal socio-economic development, and environmental degradation as a product of colonialism, and subsequently anthropogenic pressures. Projections on urban population growth suggest the Caribbean faces an urban future as urbanization continues to grow rapidly. The health, safety, and well-being of the population in the LECZ will be threatened by climate change and some atoll islands may become uninhabitable, forcing residents to relocate, resettle or migrate.

Many possibilities exist to harness innovative ideas among the urban planning community of practitioners. New and affordable technologies provide tools to enhance urban planning and management. A new urban orthodoxy is central to achieving transformative urbanization. The key ingredients of transformative urbanization are enabling processes aimed at improved urban governance, citizen activism, strengthening a pro-marginalized perspective geared toward inclusivity, fiscal autonomy of urban agencies, effective climate change adaptation and mitigation in cities, and efficient use of information communication technology to improve the science-policy-practice interface. A blue-print for success does not exist for all Caribbean countries, as urban planning solutions are place-specific, but there are many intersectional options to be explored in confronting negative externalities associated with urban agglomeration and harvesting the benefits of urbanization.

Building urban resilience in the Caribbean is urgent as the loss and damage from extreme events such as tropical cyclones, floods, and sea level rise are mounting. The window of opportunity for strengthening urban resilience is closing unless global greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced and kept within 1.5º Celsius above pre-industrial levels, governance reform is enabled, and barriers to accessing adaptation financing are removed.

This article was written for Perry World House’s 2022 Global Shifts Colloquium, ‘Islands on the Climate Front Line: Risk and Resilience,’ and made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The views expressed are solely the author’s and do not reflect those of Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania, or the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Source: SDG Knowledge Hub


27 July 2022