Vespucci, in a letter to Lorenzo di Pier in 1503, and published in 1503–04 under the title ‘Mundus Novus’, makes the first explicit mention in print of the hypothesis that the lands discovered to the west were not the edges of Asia, as asserted by Columbus, but rather a New World. Thereafter, settlements followed an absolute code of urban space development constituted by the ‘Orders for Discovery and Settlement,’ a collection of papers, published in 1573, of official instructions issued to founders of settlements from 1513 onwards.
Settlements therefore embodied a plan which determined how the territory was to be exploited under the administrative and political authority of urban power. The result was a hierarchical organization of space; a gradual progression outwards from the ‘ciudad’ and reaching across the mud flats riddled with huckster’s huts, beached boats, mangrove, silk cotton trees, and battalions of blue back crabs scurrying sideways across the veranda of white great houses under the silent surveillance of squadrons of Corbeaux circling like drones over Benghazi.
The orders were obeyed unflinchingly. Each square or rectangular lot, even those built in the turquoise seawater with Blue Limestone carted from the hills of Laventille to establish Sea Lots in 1831, had a function assigned to it, while inversely each function was given a place, like the gallows on the foot of Charlotte Street next to Picton’s home. Thus a high degree of segregation was superimposed upon a homogeneous space to introduce a social structure by political power— that is, by violence in service of economic ends. Geometrical space was chained to plunder.
Through gaps in the Port-au-Prince grid in 1825, Haitians were compelled to pay $21B in ‘reparations’ to slaveholders in France to preserve the independence of Haiti. Contrariwise, in New York, gaps in the grid introduced in 1810, served only the production and accumulation of capital on the spot as the imperial relationship with England ended with American independence in 1776.
Cities remain crucibles of conflict. What is lost is some notion of the city as a kind of body politics through which we can rebuild, not just ‘the city’ but human relations and ourselves. We must revisit our notions of ‘the city’ as a thing and embrace the urban as a process. Processes are more fundamental than things. Processes are always mediated through the things they produce, sustain and dissolve. The city is not a thing that could be engineered to control, contain, modify or amplify social processes. The antidote to this misapprehension is to return to the level of social processes as being fundamental to the construction of the things that contain them. The urban must be understood as the production of heterogeneous spatio-temporal forms embedded within different kinds of social action. This is the only way to consider the agency of the excluded who can never be entirely controlled, and all sorts of liberatory and emancipatory possibilities that they are capable of producing.
The production of space in Port of Spain displays planned periods of segregation that amount to systematic disinvestment that is made possible through inequitable policies and practices, including urban renewal and exclusionary zoning. The process known as ‘white flight’ further exacerbated spatial and economic inequities by moving a large portion of the tax base to suburbia, leading to disinvestment in schools and other services, and deterioration of many, once-vibrant urban communities.
Racial disparities around Covid-19 mortality rates once appeared mysterious. As the miasma lifted, it became apparent that mortality rates could be partly explained by exposure to toxic waste, continuous flooding, polluted air, dirty water, and the clumping of other burdens in ‘sacrifice zones’ which create conditions that make people particularly susceptible to the severe effects of COVID-19. Racism kills. It is a public health issue that has been implicated in the racial gap in mortality and in health outcomes.
Disinvestment in environmental justice has contributed to polluted air and rivers foaming with residues and poisons that require treatment before discharge, fewer hospitals, jobs without paid sick leave, and jam-packed living in ghettoes that make social distancing impractical. These factors along with mass transit and choked offices — have disproportionate contributing effects on persons on the margins. COVID-19 has rushed into being a future that necessitates an overall strengthening of environmental and health protections and more specifically, new laws that require the evaluation of the cumulative impacts faced by persons living in environmentally overburdened areas before siting any new factories where the overlooked reside.
In New Jersey, ‘The Cumulative Impacts Bill’ would require companies applying for new permits or permit expansions in vulnerable areas, to determine whether a new factory would contribute to adverse cumulative environmental or public health stressors in the overburdened community that are higher than those borne by choice communities. If such permits would further burden these vulnerable communities, which the bill defines as having higher rates of low-income residents and people of colour, the Department of Environmental Protection would be required to reject them. The bill will not radically alter the Newark factoryscape but it allows the state to modify permits during renewals and to make black lives matter.