“The cultural capital of the Caribbean”: How Kingston, Jamaica, went from murder capital to creative capital

A mural depicting Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, reggae legend Bob Marley and his seven sons, on the wall of Marley's museum in Kingston. Image:AFP/Getty.

Last week, the LGBT community in the Jamaican capital held Kingston’s first ever gay pride celebration on the city’s streets. This was a notable event in a city often considered one of the most homophobic on earth.

But despite this progress, Kingston’s image is still problematic, as I discovered in the run-up to my recent visit to the Jamaican capital. When I told people where I was going, “It’s not safe there” was a common response. This wasn’t a one-off remark from an overprotective relative – it was a recurring theme. It was almost as if they expected me to get robbed the instant I set foot in Norman Manley Airport. 

Perceptions of a place always change once you get there. Upon my arrival in Kingston at three in the morning, a cordial taxi driver met me at the airport and whisked me to my destination. Of course, I arrived unscathed and with my every possession intact.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that Kingston is regularly featured in lists with off-putting titles such as “10 world cities with the highest murder rates”, or “The most violent cities in the world”. This negative image discourages tourists, inward investors, and other foreign talent from engaging with the city. 

In April 2014, Professor E. Nigel Harris, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, the oldest in Jamaica, gave an interview. In it, he admitted that “perceptions regarding the state of crime and violence in the country” have been causing a “general problem with attracting academics and students”.

Those who govern Kingston are well aware of its troubles: they understand that international perceptions of the city are hampering its prospects for future development and growth. Nevertheless, officials remain optimistic about the measures they are taking to amp up the positive side of Kingston. On the ground, things may not be quite as bad as they seem.

“The problems that create this negative reputation are not widespread,” says the city’s mayor, Angela Brown-Burke. “In fact they are confined to just certain areas. The vast majority is not like that.”

Local businesspeople seem to agree, albeit cautiously, with her assessment. “The rise of business hotels is a good indicator that a city is making progress,” says Christopher Issa, owner of the four-star Spanish Court Hotel in New Kingston, the city’s commercial district.

Issa opened his hotel in 2009. A year later, Kingston declared a state of emergency when attempts by the authorities to capture notorious drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke were followed by riots. The incident, which made global headlines and closed the capital’s airport, put a serious dent in Kingston’s image. 

But fast-forwarding six years, Issa says: “I think Kingston is in a better place now. Most of the crime in Jamaica is related to domestic violence, crimes of passion, or is drug- or politically-related. They happen mostly in the inner city areas and may not impact tourists as much, you know.”

He believes a lack in critical thinking is at the root of Kingston’s problems. “We can turn things around, once we put our minds to it. If we change the mind-set, the city will follow.”

Kingston has much to offer. Its rich history is full of influences from Spanish and British conquest, colonisation and slavery. But it also offers a thriving arts scene, world-famous music (it’s the home of reggae and birthplace of Bob Marley), and an emerging film industry.

“I’d love to have Kingston widely recognised as a creative city, with fashion, art and music of all kinds,” Brown-Burke says. “In fact, my goal is for Kingston to be recognised as the cultural capital of the Caribbean.”

Dr Hume Johnson, nation branding specialist and assistant professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, argues that Kingston is in the “throes of a cultural and creative renaissance”. This, she says, will “undermine its perception as a city of crime, homophobia and underdevelopment”.

But Johnson warns that there are still obstacles. “This cultural rebirth is taking place in the shadows,” she says. “Kingston remains under-valued, underappreciated and misunderstood.” 

Change won’t happen overnight. But over time, it should be possible to position Kingston, and Jamaica as a whole, “as a place of the arts, culture, history, entrepreneurship”. The result, Johnson says, will be “a planned and innovative urban centre where young people can find or create jobs – and people can feel safe to live and work.”

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.