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Urban Protected Areas in the Caribbean: Potential Role in Building Resilience of Urban Systems to Climate Change

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 @ 10:04 PM

Introducing Urban Protected Areas
The defining feature of an Urban Protected Area is that it is located in close proximity to a large population centre. The Best Practice Protected Areas Guidelines (No. 22) describes urban protected areas in the following manner:
“Urban protected areas are protected areas situated in or at the edge of larger population centres. They meet IUCN’s definition of a protected area and can be in any of its six Management Categories. In governance terms, most of them are the responsibility of national, state or provincial, or local governments; others are managed by NGOs or businesses; and some are collaborative or community efforts. They do not include conventional urban parks with lawns, flowerbeds and sports fields” (Trzyna, 2014).

Although urban protected areas are not considered as constituting a separate management category, their relationship to urban areas makes them distinctive in a number of ways, mainly: (1) they receive a relatively large number of visitors; (2) the management institution has to relate to a wider range of stakeholders on a fairly frequent basis (such as urban decision makers, educational institutions, media personnel); (3) they are disproportionately affected by crime, vandalism, littering, dumping, and light and noise pollution; (4) they are threatened by urban sprawl; and (5) they are disproportionally affected by threats such as frequent fires and invasive alien species.

Although it is often acknowledged that urban protected areas provide opportunities for recreation, their range of contributions to the health of urban dwellers and the development of urban communities is often not fully appreciated by urban residents.

Urban Protected Areas in the Caribbean
Most of the larger urban areas in the Insular Caribbean are located in coastal areas, and urban protected areas are found both upstream and downstream of urban areas. As with the global situation, urban protected areas in the Caribbean provide a range of ecosystem services, and directly support human livelihoods, health, and well being. However, they are adversely impacted by encroachment, resource harvesting, and pollution from the urban space.

Urban protected areas in the Caribbean are often located in geographic spaces that add complexity to their management. For example:
Montego Bay Marine Park, Jamaica – The marine protected area (MPA) is bordered on one side by the City of Montego Bay, the third largest city in Jamaica, population 110,000 (2010 census). In addition to receiving the surface runoff from the city, at least three watersheds drain into the MPA. The city is located within a bay, and as the western regional centre, the city contains infrastructure such as a transshipment port, oil storage facility, cruise ship facility, and other urban infrastructure. The MPA management institution has no authority to regulate the operation of any of the afore-mentioned infrastructure or services. Nor does it have any role in the management of the watersheds that drain into the park. However, the ecosystems within the park make significant contributions to the local economy, not to mention the contribution to the general well-being of the residents of the city.
Pointe Sable Environmental Protection Area, Saint Lucia – The protected area is located adjacent to the town of Vieux Fort, with the surrounding district of Vieux Fort Quarter having a population of approximately 16,000. The site contains most of the natural resources that form the tourism product in the area, the main beach is heavily used by locals, and the area receives runoff from the town channeled by storm drains. Other livelihood support to the local economy includes mangrove harvesting for charcoal production from within the protected area. There is no intention to halt all extractive uses, as the protected area was designated to support both biodiversity conservation and community livelihoods (Gardner, 2009).
Piñones Forest Reserve, Puerto Rico – The forest reserve is located within the greater San Juan area, a city of approximately 395,000 (2010 census). The site is part of an extensive mangrove forest within the San Juan Bay Estuary. Given its proximity to the city, and the location of the San Juan Bay Estuary at the bottom of a watershed that is mainly urban in character, the reserve is impacted by recreational uses, extractive uses, and pollution and other urban edge effects.
Blue and John Crown Mountains National Park, Jamaica – The park is located adjacent to the Kingston Metropolitan Area, with a population of approximately 1.3 million. The park also sits astride the upper reaches of the Blue and John Crow Mountains, and crosses the boundaries of four local government jurisdictions.

As the above examples show, urban protected areas in the Caribbean are often impacted by initiatives and actions over which the management agencies have no control. In many cases there are multiple institutions with regulatory authority, severely constraining the establishment and sustainability of collaborative management arrangements.

In rare cases, a protected area may be large enough to encompass one or more settlements. This is the case with the Portland Bight Protected Area, Jamaica. The park boundary encompasses nineteen residential communities directly on the coast, and thirty towns or settlements further inland, with a (1991) population of approximately 48, 600 (Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, 1999). In addition to all the commercial activities associated with small towns, the site contains a bauxite processing plant, two major ports, a power plant, limestone quarries, and large acreages of farmland. In this scenario, the complexity extends beyond site management considerations, to issues of urban and regional planning, and more broadly, to national development planning.

Climate change adds yet another level of complexity to management of urban protected areas. In addition to the usual threats from urban areas, under climate change scenarios, it is anticipated that urban green space, conservation areas, and urban protected areas will be lost or severely impacted from two sources. First, there is the loss of areas resulting from sea level rise or damage from storms and other extreme events. Second, loss of areas resulting from the relocation of housing and infrastructure from threatened coastal cities to small inland towns or rural areas.

It will therefore be useful to identify ways in which natural areas can build climate resilience of urban areas. There is a large body of work that supports the concept that urban dwellers benefit physically and psychologically from interacting with urban green space. It has even been suggested that health benefits increase with increasing biological complexity of the green space (Fuller et al, 2007). The role of natural areas in climate change mitigation and adaptation in urban areas has been articulated, and experiments to evaluate the contributions of natural areas to climate resilience of urban areas are being conducted in many cities.

Building Resilience to Climate Change
Discussions of resilience traditionally focus on whether a system is able to absorb shock and renew itself without human intervention. Under climate change scenarios, it is usually assumed that shocks will occur at a frequency, and produce enough damage, that self-renewal of the system is constrained. As such, examination of climate resilience usually encompasses climate adaptation measures.

Cities are special environments, composed of built, social, and natural systems, and climate resilience must therefore incorporate all those elements. Resilient City offers the following definition of resilience for urban areas:
A Resilient City is one that has developed capacities to help absorb future shocks and stresses to its social, economic, and technical systems and infrastructures so as to still be able to maintain essentially the same functions, structures, systems, and identity“.

Natural areas have been used in many ways to reduce the stresses to the social and economic systems and infrastructure of urban areas. In addition to providing recreational opportunities for urban residents, one of the traditional ways in which natural areas has been used in urban planning is to provide “Green Fences” around urban areas. Green fences are used to delimit urban growth, thereby softening the transition from urban to sub-urban land uses. Natural areas are also used in urban planning as a mechanism for separating and maintaining distinct identifies of communities.

In the context of climate change, urban protected areas offer several possibilities for enhancing the resilience of urban areas to climate change:
(a) Reducing the impact of flooding or avalanches associated with extreme rain or storm events – usually achieved by reducing the rate and volume of surface runoff, reducing erosion, and, in the case of wetlands, absorbing the excess flows.
(b) Improving the health and well being of urban residents, particularly as other urban green spaces are lost.
(c) Buffering coastal infrastructure from damage by wind and wave action during extreme natural events such as storms.
(d) Maintaining community health and economic well being by protecting community livelihoods. In times of economic hardship people usually increase their reliance on natural resources (for example, by fishing, hunting, harvesting fuel wood). It has been suggested that in many Caribbean countries, small settlements may expand by absorbing persons migrating from rural areas or threatened coastal cities, and establishment of urban protected areas is one mechanism to enhance the capacity of those settlements to provide social and economic benefits to the urban residents.

In order to realize the above benefits of urban protected areas, economic and land use planning processes must place protected areas more centrally in the development process. This would include landscape planning (Depieti and Estrella, 2011) to ensure that the larger landscape is used in a way that does not degrade natural areas, thereby maintaining the continued flow of ecosystem good and services to adjacent communities.

• Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation. (1999). Portland Bight Protected Area, Jamaica: Management Plan 1999-2004. Natural Resources Conservation Authority, Kingston, Jamaica.
• Depietri, Y. and Estrella, M. (2011). Managing Watersheds for Urban Resilience: Policy Brief. Presented at the Global Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction. May 12, 2011, Geneva, Switzerland.
• Fuller, R. A., Irvine, K. N., Devine-Wright, P., Warren, P. H., and Gaston, K. J. (2007). Psychological Benefits of Greenspace Increase with Biodiversity. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0149.
• Gardner, L. (2009). Management Plan for the Pointe Sable Environmental Protection Area 2009-2014. Government of Saint Lucia.
• Trzyna, T. (2014). Urban Protected Areas: Profiles and best practice guidelines. Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines Series No. 22, Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Note from the Editor
Lloyd Gardner is an environmental planning consultant, a Director of Ecotech Inc. Limited, and currently serves on the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas as the Regional Vice Chair Caribbean. This article is the written version of a PowerPoint presentation given during the Sixth World Parks Congress, Sydney, Australia, November 12-19, 2014.

Information Sources on Urban Protected Areas and Urban Natural Areas
• IUCN WCPA Urban Specialist Group:
• Urban Protected Areas Network:
• The Nature of Cities:

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