In June, I had the opportunity to travel to Belize to help the Belize City Council (BCC) think through ways to prioritize people walking and biking. The American Planning Association sent a Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) of five urban planners to help BCC prepare a short and long term plan for the Yarborough neighborhood in Belize City. The CPAT team spent a week meeting with the government staff, stakeholders, community members, and the youth.
Any time you are doing a planning project in a new environment, there is always a learning curve. What are the cultural norms of this community? Who has the power? Who has influence? However, planning in another country was a new challenge and a great learning experience for me.
Five things that I learned:
- Check your US-ness at the door: While each city in the US has it is own vibe and flow, there is still an overarching US culture. When planning in another country, one has to be very careful not to bring the values, cultural norms, and assumptions from the US. One example is one of my colleagues on the team noticed that there were not any bike facilities and people did not wear bike helmets. I was asked my thoughts on recommending bike lanes and helmets and my response was they have a shared street/chaos culture that appears to work. In addition, changing behavior such as wearing helmets takes a significant amount of effort and energy.
- What works in US, may not work in another country: Things like bike lanes and traffic signals work in the US because we have a cultural norm of order and process. In Belize City, all the streets are shared streets. While it appears chaotic to an outsider, there is a rhythm and movement to how people move on the streets.
- What may not work in the US, may work in another country: Hell hath no fury like a resident that just lost on-street parking or a travel lane. In communities in the US, loss of parking or a travel lane becomes a stalling point for prioritizing people biking, walking, or using public transportation. However, in Belize the elected leadership and community are excited about the possibility of testing out prioritizing people biking and walking. As part of our recommendations, we will be providing the City with different options to test.
- You may be part of the problem: In talking with the youth, one thing that came across loud and clear is their feeling like everything in their city caters to tourist and the cruise ships. As we sat there listening, we quickly realized that we are the “tourist” they are talking about (not us specifically, but people from the US). As we began developing recommendations we had to change the paradigm from creating a tourist atmosphere to placemaking for residents that tourist could experience.
- When in doubt listen and ask questions: I came into the situation with very little knowledge of Belize other than the planning documents that were provided to us before our trip. I tried to avoid making assumptions by spending time listening and asking questions.
Nspiregreen has a mission to facilitate the empowerment and transformation of every community on the planet. With these lessons learned, we hope to continue to work with communities like Belize City and others.
Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.