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Mundane Environmentalism: Sustainable development through regulations

Local News 20 May, 2024 1 Comments Follow News

Mundane Environmentalism: Sustainable development through regulations

Author: Hannah Bodden.

When examining sustainable development, the spotlight often shines on flashy developments that emphasise their ‘net-zero construction,’ ‘biophilic design,’ and ‘environmentally friendly operation’. But, true sustainable development often has much more to do with mundane planning regulations; laws that can make environmentalism the rule, as opposed to the exception. Recent weather events, such as the strong Nor’wester in February, have made it clear that planning reform is desperately needed, and that our current building practices are misaligned to the current climate.

As developments rise across Cayman, outpacing each other in size and height, steps must be taken to ensure the islands’ do not become dominated by unsustainable economic practices. Driven by our reputation as an enclave of wealth and luxury, Cayman has rapidly transitioned into a centre of global finance and tourism, confirming our brand to the world, and ignoring local needs for the promise of economic growth. Growth attracts growth, with global real estate agencies attracting international investment, thereby furthering the islands’ development.

On the surface, the rapid growth has had positive impacts on all three islands, with Caymanians reporting the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. The tourism industry in particular has experienced strong returns, largely due to the ever-increasing investment. However, the positive financial outcomes fail to consider the long-term consequences of our current growth. The unfettered development is not sustainable, economic or otherwise, and can inflict serious problems for the long-term financial, social, and environmental security of Cayman. Clearly the time has come for the government to act in favour of Cayman’s longevity, and act to either cease all new constructions, or more realistically, develop and enforce new, sustainable planning legislation.

The lack of development oversite on Grand Cayman is painfully clear. New buildings, particularly along Seven Mile Beach, almost completely fill their properties, eliminating opportunities for landscape design that could help the land cope under changing environmental conditions. Currently, the 2022 revision of the Development and Planning Regulations, requires developers to submit a site plan that includes “the location of the proposed building, the location of buildings on the site and on adjacent land, the front, rear, and side setbacks, the dimensions for relevant lots, the fronting roads giving their names and widths, the existing and proposed site levels, the water and sanitary drainage systems, and; the north point.” However, the regulation does not call for consideration on how a proposed development might react to the effects of climate change, something that in our current world would be strongly advisable.

As the Islands becomes more susceptible to increased severe weather, sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) should be considered a priority, particularly to avoid spillover effects such property damage and rising insurance costs. Despite the inclusion of a statement encouraging developers to consider “sanitary drainage systems,” the planning board fails to illustrate specific ways which developers should create long-term plans for water management as the climate becomes more unstable. Prime examples of this lack of consideration may be observed with several new developments being built along the coast. With swaths of impermeable landscaping in the tiny corners of space not taken up by buildings, flood risk is often increased due to lack of natural drainage. If Cayman wants to build itself a stable future, then planning policies must be changed to limit the size of buildings on lots and enforce natural landscaping techniques to manage drainage.

True sustainable development extends to all stages of a project. Recently, largely due to the frequency of approvals from the Planning Committee, there seems to have been an increase in land that has been cleared for development only to sit idle for several months, or even years. With land cleared and filled, natural porosity is eliminated, increasing local flood risk after heavy storms and putting those who live nearby at greater risk to water damage.

Whether they pertain to financial difficulties or legal entanglements, the reasons for leaving sites empty after clearing are numerous, and although not necessarily an active act of malice, this practice nonetheless has negative impacts for those living nearby. If a developer chooses to build at a certain time, they should prove that they are able to fully cover finances of their project. Clearing land eliminates biodiversity and natural drainage from storms and floods. With our already limited land, it would not be wise to continue approving projects by developers that may not truly have the funding for the potential of profit, all the while permanently destroying green spaces.

Cayman’s development has been historically governed by quick profits. Although this has brought prosperity to some, the increasing effects of climate change have brought to light it’s fundamental problems. If economic growth is to be maintained, then the government must make fundamental changes to our planning codes, proving to the Caymanian people that their Islands are still a home, rather than a billionaire’s playground.

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Elizabeth Sherman

21 May, 2024

Excellent article!