Donna Miller-Ayton – Senior Planner – Urban Development Corporation Jamaica


Donna Miller-Ayton is a Climate Change and International Development Expert and Urban Planner, having worked for over 9 years as a Planner at the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) of Jamaica. Whilst having over 17 years experience in industry, working in planning agencies and organizations on sustainable development, environmental research and urban planning. She currently leads a team at the UDC in preparing Sustainable Development Plans for designated planning areas, formulating strategic objectives and leading research into developing policy and decision making in the corporation.


Can you explain what the Urban Development Corporation’s (UDC) role in Jamaica is? And what does your role entail as Senior Planner?

The Urban Development Corporation’s role in Jamaica is to be the nation’s main urban development agency and facilitator. This is achieved through the effective and efficient assignment and management of resources, to ensure the economic viability of the Corporation, sustainable national development, and the best quality of life for the citizens of Jamaica.

As a Senior Urban Planner assigned to the Development Planning Department, I am responsible for creating, implementing, and monitoring the UDC’s sustainable development plans and projects for its assets across the island. Additionally, I provide leadership, oversight, and advice on matters related to the sustainable development of urban spaces. This is done in the context of the creation and implementation of strategies that take into consideration the implications of a changing world that is being driven by global tipping points.

How does the UDC promote sustainability in Jamaica’s towns and cities? And what are some of its most successful initiatives?

Although not yet officially written in, the UDC now incorporates sustainability into its tagline, “making development happen sustainably”. This was done to affirm that we unreservedly embrace the concept and that our drive is to ensure that everything we do in our core business incorporates sustainability. All of the Corporation’s plans and projects are aligned to the Vision 2030 National Development Plan, which is in turn aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals and the other varying international development treaties that Jamaica is a party to.

Over the years, the Corporation has been successful in leading the development of Jamaica’s two major cities and towns in a manner that guarantees use by the existing population as well as future generations. This was achieved through the entrenchment of elements from the four pillars of sustainability (social, economic, cultural, and environmental) in all our development programs. Most recently, the Corporation commenced the Closed Harbour Beach Development (a worldclass recreational space with amenities that will be operated as a free access licensed public beach and multipurpose park), in the heart of Montego Bay. You might ask, why are we investing in this development along the coast at a time when sea-level rise associated with anthropogenic climate change and other correlating impacts are forcing developments to retreat from coasts around the world. We are cognizant of all the implications of doing this development. However, we are incorporating the relevant resilience measures to ensure that this investment as well as others that are being developed to benefit the citizens of Jamaica are not impacted by local and global environmental changes. In addition to environmental resilience, the development will improve the economic viability and enhance social equality in the city.

Kingston Waterfront

The UDC is also leading the redevelopment of Port Royal (a town that is located to the south of Kingston and the Kingston Harbour), through a joint government-mandated initiative. Port Royal has the only sunken city in Latin America and the Caribbean. To honor this unique treasure the government of Jamaica has applied for its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also, just outside the historic town line, the Port Authority of Jamaica constructed a floating cruise shipping Pier (which received its inaugural cruise ship on January 20, 2020), the main catalytic activity in the town. As the lead coordinating agency, this is exciting for the UDC, and may I plug here that the cultural heritage role in urban management has evolved from institutionalizing conservation efforts to placing heritage at the heart of sustainable development. Therefore, we are ensuring that the proposed activities promote the environmental and cultural heritage assets, exudes inclusivity, and are diverse in their offerings. Additionally, we are guiding the marketing of leisure activities that highlight the area’s unique heritage, culture, culinary, and natural resources, while fostering public and private investments.

Critical to note is that regardless of the global coronavirus pandemic, this project remains a priority project for the Corporation and the government.

Jamaica is world renowned for being a beach paradise destination, however which are the top urban areas that you would recommend any visitors to also spend time exploring? And why?

I am biased towards Port Antonio, being a Portlander therefore I would say Port Antonio first, then Kingston and Negril, in that order. I am recommending Port Antonio because of the myriad of places that is within close proximity to the town that can be explored. It is not your regular tourist destination (with mainly all-inclusive hotels), however, it gives the traveler the ideal space to relax and soak up the ambiance in a part of the country that is almost untouched.

In addition to its untouched beauty, it is often cited as the town where tourism started in Jamaica and has a rich history. The Titchfield Peninsula on which one of the first hotels in Jamaica was constructed, offers a glimpse into the past and provides a magnificent view of the twin harbours. You should also take time to indulge in the “jerk cuisine”, a staple in that part of the country and if you want a change from our pristine beaches, you should have a swim in one of the many rivers and enjoy rafting on the Rio Grande.

Bias aside, Jamaica is known for its cultural vitality and the capital city Kingston is always abuzz with activities. A visit to the capital city will provide rich offerings from our music, cuisine, language, dance, religion, art, and cultural heritage that incorporate and provide linkages to the designated heritage sites, churches, etc. in Port Royal. The juxtaposition of the city on the edge of the 7th largest natural harbour in the world provides an environment where picnics and conversations with locals can be had, bird watching, and recreational fishing can be done, or you can partake in the varying culinary offerings that are available at the now converted and world-famous Victoria Pier.

Kingston as the capital city is currently being redeveloped and shaped to exude all four pillars of sustainability; cultural vitality, economic health, environmental responsibility, and social equity. Additionally, the Kingston Waterfront is also one of UDC’s designated areas and has been so since 1968. It is a strategic development node that continues to morph and remains instrumental in providing a place that fosters, encourages, and facilitates the creative nature of Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora.

Portland Twin Towers

It has been said that the Jamaican transportation system is very car dominated and this is often reflected in the design of its urban areas and reliance on cars. How do you see this trend adapting to the challenges of needing to create more sustainable transport networks in the future?

This is a correct observation for the majority of the cities in the global south. Along with global tipping points such as anthropogenic climate change, urban population increase, energy diversification, the fourth industrial revolution, and changing governance systems; automobile dependence is one of the challenges that affect cities. At a time when inaction on climate change mitigation and adaptation is still seen as the main global risk, the need to improve mobility without
the damaging effects associated with internal combustion engine vehicles has never been higher. Transportation networks that are dependent on automobiles that utilize fossil fuel have extremely high environmental, economic, and social costs that shape the way cities were/are built and how they expand.

Rapid urbanization (push factor – the decline of rural areas, pull factor – the attraction of urban areas, a combination of push and pull factors – circular and oscillating migration) is driving the dependence on the automobile. The absence of efficient, acceptable mass transit options to move commuters from origin to destination in response to urbanization has contributed to sprawl as well as factors such as land tenure change and the incorporation of peri-urban areas into cities.
Transformation of the transportation system and innovation in automobile development to sustainable options to limit/eliminate the use of fossil fuel and the development of policies to increase densities to discourage urban sprawl will assist in significantly reducing energy use and CO2 emissions. This should not be difficult if an initiative led by the respective Municipal Corporations and implemented in a contextual manner is utilized. This will also assist in meeting Jamaica’s obligations under the ratified Paris Agreement.

What do you think is the biggest challenge and opportunity facing Jamaica in becoming more sustainable?

Development is often undertaken in a sector-specific manner, focusing on alleviating a particular issue. Theoretically, development should be seen as being done in a manner that is holistic and sustainable; however, in practice, it has not always been the case due to sector fragmentation. Economic development is often focussed on GDP, growth rates, etc.; social development is focused on poverty, equity, inequality, access to basic services, etc.; while physical and environmental development takes into consideration infrastructure development, vulnerability to disasters, access to adequate water and sanitation and more recently the impacts of a changing climate. This fragmentation in many cases has assisted in creating silos of development that often discredits the complementary role that each should play to ensure cohesive and sustainable development.

In assessing climate change, for instance, we are yet to unpack the phenomenon and practically frame it as an overarching developmental problem and not a solely environmental issue. As a small island developing state, the geographical location of urban centres, cities, and towns in coastal zones, with exposed infrastructure, large populations, industries, tourist development, settlements, agricultural cultivation, mining, and recreational activities extremely increase our vulnerability. The primary challenge in Jamaica is to improve our developmental resilience, which is a dichotomy of vulnerability and adaptive capacity. To become sustainable, we should eliminate the conflicting timescales, substantive strategic and institutional uncertainty, institutional crowdedness, and void as well as fragmentation. Increased awareness and communication, debunking motives, and willingness to act as well as lack of resources will have to be addressed and in most cases, eliminated if we should meet our Vision 2030/SDG targets and become sustainable.

Natural beauty of Jamaica and Tourism are key to its development

What urban sustainable development programmes, initiatives and best practice do you think other countries can learn from Jamaica?

Jamaica is a signatory to the majority of international sustainable development policies, treaties, etc. To honor and align with the global timelines and direction, the country has taken steps to ensure that all our national development initiatives have the relevant aspects of sustainability incorporated. We were among the first country to start the preparation and implementation of a vision 2030 Plan, to guide our national development sustainably. Then we incorporated aspects to align the vision 2030 Plan to the indicators of the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A very important goal in Vison 2030 is goal 4, which indicates that Jamaica will seek to have a healthy natural environment. This will be instituted through objective 13 (Sustainable Management and Use of Environmental and Natural Resources), objective14 (Hazard Risk Reduction and Adaptation to Climate Change), and objective 15 (Sustainable Urban and Rural Development).

It is always great to create a policy to guide development; however, the policies were not only created, but the country has also taken the necessary steps to implement them. As part of the country’s quest to ensure sustainability, all the Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) with legislative responsibility for urban development, including the UDC is required to incorporate strategies to ensure that all re/development programs are sustainable. This strategy is not universal (especially in global south countries) and I want to encourage all the global south and north countries to immediately adopt this practice if the world is to get close to reaching the globally ratified SDGs. The development of all the different plans/policies to ensure sustainability (the energy policy, climate change policy, development orders with strategies aligned to sustainability) are just some of the best practices that can be replicated.

As was stated earlier, the UDC is now in the process of creating a Master Plan and an accompanying Town Management Plan to guide the redevelopment of Port Royal. As a requirement in realizing the national goals, the Corporation has grounded all of our proposals in the principles of urban sustainability. There/development Plan for Port Royal will seek to incorporate elements to address the current and expected global tipping points. It is envisioned that improved facilities to support walkability, alternative mobility options to reduce the use of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles will be implemented in the town. This will all be done through public/private sector partnerships that will be guided by consultations with the citizens of the community to garner their acceptance of these initiatives. This is a model that can be replicated contextually in countries worldwide.

Images: provided by Donna Miller

Richard Lambert

About Richard Lambert

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Richard Lambert, Coordinator of Liveable Ciiies Prorgam. He has been working for 11 years creating sustainable urban communities in London, UK and Internationally. Specialising in the development of urban green infrastructure and pedestrian walking related improvement projects, policies and strategies.