Puerto Rico should coordinate actions to address the proliferation of vacant and blighted properties, some of which may have contributed to community insecurity.
In some areas, problems arise from areas with vacant and deteriorated properties whose owners died or left the island. In other areas, this infrastructure is in industrial complexes that ceased operations more than a decade ago.
In this scenario, further aggravated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, we welcome that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will bring specialized personnel this week to conduct workshops on revitalizing abandoned areas.
The workshops, held in coordination with the Center for Creative Land Recycling (CCLR), include the expertise of planners, environmentalists, among other experts who will guide government representatives, volunteers from non-profits, businessmen and citizens in sessions scheduled yesterday in San Juan, today in Ponce and tomorrow in Mayagüez.
The EPA, through its Brownfields program, provides grants and technical support to municipal governments, as well as non-governmental organizations, to inspect and safely clean abandoned areas and to rehabilitate them. The federal agency considers aspects such as potential pollution, especially in former industrial areas, in order to promote their recovery for new uses. $2.7 million have been allocated to the island in two years through the program, which includes training in environmental conservation jobs.
The federal program is based on the premise that the development of abandoned structures and land improves local economies and boosts job creation. The EPA has identified 152” Brownfield” sites in the 78 municipalities. The potential for new developments is key to the island´s reconstruction.
At the state government level, the Autonomous Municipalities Act of 1991 has been amended to facilitate the creation of municipal land banks. This change seeks to encourage the acquisition of abandoned property to bring revenues to local governments. It also represents an option to provide social housing which is crucial to stimulate repopulation.
Meanwhile, the 2002 Urban Centers Revitalization Act promotes the appropriate, strategic and intelligent use of land and it´s based on promoting quality of life. It also recognizes the risk of physical and environmental deterioration of urban centers. Experts stress that the statute serves to guide positive urban transformations through new development plans, assisted with funding for sustainable renovation projects.
Among other local initiatives, this law has led to rehabilitation in Bayamón, Caguas, and Carolina, which could serve as a model for other towns.
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has identified at least 15,000 structures to be demolished as part of the reconstruction efforts.
Concepts regarding regulation that were included in statutes such as the one mentioned above, as well as in federal programs that could bring significant packages, are keys to the island´s improvement.
Transformation must guarantee due process of law and public transparency by identifying hindrances and proceeding with demolitions or related actions that should not result in family dislocation.
A renewed urban planning, in tune with the needs of each municipality population, with adequate housing, easy access to shops, medical offices, as well as green areas, with well-lit sidewalks and safe roads, will create spaces for the positive evolution of Puerto Rico.
The participation of government officials, as well as businessmen, students and other citizens, in the guidelines and training to revitalize depressed and abandoned areas represents a positive step towards achieving the island´s transformation.