Saturday, April 20, 2024

International consulting firm presents study on Ambergris Caye development and advises sustainable growth


A comprehensive multi-sector and multi-scale diagnosis of the sustainable development of Ambergris Caye, particularly the northern part of the island, is being developed by the international company IDOM Consulting, Engineering, Architecture SAU with the partnership of the Inter-American Development Bank. This project seeks to develop an action and zoning plan for the balanced development of the island, considering the vulnerability to natural resources and the safest way to continue growing without affecting Ambergris Caye’s carrying capacity. The analysis presents the current conditions of San Pedro and recommends a sustainable plan spanning to 2045 to have the most negligible impact on the natural resources sustaining the island’s economy.
The IDOM team presented in early July in San Pedro at the Sunbreeze Hotel conference room. They hoped to see as many islanders as possible to discuss their findings and consult with the attendees. However, only two islanders involved in the tourism industry attended the gathering. The diagnostic conclusions indicate that the urban growth of Ambergris Caye is 3.1% every year, with the main areas showing rapid development in northern Ambergris Caye and the Secret Beach area. With an estimated population approaching 20,000 as per IDOM’s project, planning for future development on Ambergris Caye is crucial. The urban footprint is estimated to span around 1,800 acres, with the growth identified more than eight miles down the coastline and extending seven miles on the west side from the town core.
Changes to the island landscape to accommodate development
Areas south of San Pedro Town cleared for development were noted in the study to have contributed to the fillings of lagoons and mangroves. IDOM shared that, along with the Worldwide Wildlife Fund, it has confirmed that such actions have degraded 7% of mangroves between 1980 and 2023. The two institutions said this translates to about 19 acres per day. According to their studies, these changes have affected 3% of the Ambergris Caye corals. Mangroves filter toxins in the water, serve as a nursery for juvenile marine species, and absorb large amounts of carbon. These water plants are considered essential in fighting climate change. As more mangroves are removed from around Ambergris Caye for development, the IDOM team projects that it will lead to warmer and toxic waters, which can further affect the barrier reef. The other issue will be the decline in marine products due to destroying their natural nursing grounds. This, in return, can directly affect the fishing industry. Mangroves also protect the coastline from erosion, flooding, and hurricanes. Thus, the local government, the San Pedro Town Council, is urged to adhere to sustainable developments to safeguard the island’s livelihoods.
IDOM’s research revealed that over 20 acres of beachfront has been cleared in areas like Secret Beach for tourism development in almost a decade. IDOM notes that vegetation cover has been reduced by approximately 2,470 acres from 1997 to 2023 in this area. This same has been noticed around the downtown area, where for example, by 2022, 37.8 acres of vegetation had been cleared for housing and other projects in the Ellis Subdivision. As a result, the rangeland increased its surface area by 73% after removing mangroves and other vegetation types. Other locations near the marina area have seen 12 acres cleared for logistics and industrial purposes.
Quality of housing and infrastructure
Another item highlighted in the report was unplanned peri urban space (settlements adjacent to the urban areas). According to the study by IDOM, Ambergris Caye has one of the highest percentages of unplanned periurban areas in the region, topping the list with 236%. The study made a comparison with other cities like Bridgetown, Barbados, Belize City, Santa Marta, Colombia, AM de Florianopolis,
Brazil, Cartagena, Colombia, Parana, and Bahia Blanca in Argentina, only Puerto Montt, Chile compares with San Pedro with 131% of unplanned peri urban areas. In San Pedro, these areas are subdivisions around downtown.
Regarding houses, IDOM’s study shows that 5.8% of homes are in low-quality neighborhoods, with the quality of life showing a very low indicator of public space. They found that only 13% of the island population lives within walking distance of public space. Meanwhile, only 8% of the road network on the island is paved. This is expected to increase as 8.5 miles of road are currently being paved through the subdivisions of Marina Drive, DFC, San Pablo, San Marcos, San Pedrito, San Juan, Boca del Rio, and San Mateo. The current paved roads are in the downtown area, with the network connecting the north route up to Belizean Shores Resort and extending south by Mahogany Bay Resort.
Another aspect of the study points out the lack of public transportation in San Pedro. Golf carts are the primary mode of land transportation used by locals and tourists alike. As a result, and a lack of control, traffic congestion has become an issue in downtown San Pedro which has narrow streets. The mobility issues observed by the IDOM team also highlighted the lack of bicycle infrastructure, adequate sidewalks, and pedestrian spaces. There is also an issue with organization in the parking areas for vehicles.
Green Areas and existing public services
Ambergris Caye is under the red mark as the island’s urbanization continues to clear green areas. IDOM’s study observes that there are no regulations to guide developers. In most places, trees are removed for concrete buildings. IDOM personnel advised that keeping green areas is essential for the local environment and the island’s wildlife while contributing to reducing climate change and air quality.

Sewage ponds

Public services include sewage, potable water, electricity, and rubbish collection. It is known after the studies that 83% of the island population has access to potable water and only 29% to sewage. Some residents living around the subdivisions surrounding the town core, like San Mateo, do not have access to the sewage system. Septic systems often leak into the waterways, adding to the issue of improper waste disposal.
Growth scenarios
IDOM presentations showed that if the island continues to develop on its current course, it will significantly impact protected areas and the native ecosystems surrounding Ambergris Caye. These actions will also give way to growth without considering the island’s carrying capacity and degrade the natural, cultural, and social environment in the long run. If a sustainable vision is implemented, there will be more resiliency, with integrated development within ecosystems, and urban growth would mean considering at-risk areas and further protecting them.
The Importance of Tourism
Tourism is the leading industry in Ambergris Caye and contributes as much as 45% to the national Gross Domestic Product. The discussions IDOM presenters emphasized with the participants was the way forward in tourism product development. IDOM believes another airport may be needed to alleviate the pressure on the current John Greif II Municipal Airport downtown as the island grows and tourism increases. They suggested diversifying the attractions and including new options like Bacalar Chico terrestrial portion, island archaeological sites, and other possible national parks. There was also the suggestion to include all-inclusive choices to maximize seasonal overnight stays.
Considering these plans proposed for Ambergris Caye, the objective is to prioritize the area’s most vulnerable and speed up the creation of a robust master plan for the northern part of the island. During the visit to San Pedro, the IDOM team led by architect Camila Londoño, Juliana Bolaños, and Roberto Baca met with the San Pedro Town Council. They reviewed their presentation inside Mayor Gualberto’ Wally’ Nuñez’s office. At the end of that session, Nuñez’s office said that they would start working on the island’s master plan and that they were happy to have a highly qualified team of global experts, IDOM, delivering results.
It is yet to be known if such a master plan has begun and if the professional recommendations from IDOM will be considered or implemented.

Full report: AmbergrisCaye_IDOM_WorkshopsJuly

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