A bird’s eye view of Grand Cayman reveals the staggering impact of population growth on the island.

Two sets of aerial photographs, taken 60 years apart, starkly demonstrate the extent of the transformation that has taken place within a single generation.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Cayman would already be aware of how rapidly the island has developed since the 1950s.

Yet the images, perhaps, communicate the scale of this change in a way that is less obvious at ground level.

Wetlands, mangroves and dry forest have been replaced with canals, sub-divisions, hotels and condominiums.

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There is little doubt that this development has been a huge part of Cayman’s metamorphosis from ‘the islands that time forgot’ to the powerhouse economy of the Caribbean that it is today.

Those same images, however, also illustrate the cost of that development and raise questions about if, how and from where Cayman’s future growth should come.

Priorities

For Lisa Hurlston of the National Conservation Council, the answers to those questions must come from a national discussion about priorities.

Too much of Cayman’s past development, she believes, has been unplanned and ill-thought-out, without the context of a social, environmental or national development plan to add shape to the sprawl.

Looking at a set of aerial photographs, it is easy to see how and where things could have been done differently.

But at street level, development decisions have largely been driven, she believes, by the personal economic motives of thousands of different landowners.

“Land was king in the Cayman Islands and, to a certain extent, it still is,” she said.

Lisa Hurlston

People without a multitude of economic options can hardly be blamed for cashing in on their land.

But, with growing awareness of the extent and the consequences of biodiversity and habitat loss, she believes the community must collectively exert more control.

Any future growth, she believes, must balance economic priorities with environmental protection.

“Population dynamics are not necessarily bad, but they should serve more than simply the narrow purpose of pumping money into the economy without ensuring that the benefits are shared by the majority of people,” she said.

First steps

Hurlston is encouraged to see that  starting to happen with the Plan Cayman project – the first update to the island’s Development Plan since the 1990s and the first proper overhaul of the document since 1977. That process, which began last year, seeks to redraw the zoning map for the islands.

It also aims to evaluate infrastructure demands, including new schools, roads and potential public transport improvements required in the coming years.

However, the plan is currently an overarching framework that has yet to trickle down into definitive policies that can be applied and enforced by the Central Planning Authority and other decision makers.

Hurlston sees room for optimism in the increasing public awareness of the importance of the natural world.

Environmental activism has increased in recent years amid objections to development that intrudes on public space.

Protests over proposed developments at Barkers Beach and at Smith Cove, among other recent flash points, demonstrate a growing community value being placed by the people of Cayman on the environment.

“We are catching up with the rest of the world in terms of understanding that these resources have public benefits to them,” she said.

Nature has an economic value

It is not just a case of appreciating nature for its own sake – beaches, coral reefs, mangroves and even small patches of woodland provide spaces for recreation, buffers against storms and myriad ‘ecosystem services’ that have not always been factored into the mix.

It may soon be possible to put a dollar value on the importance of those natural assets, says Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment.

The DoE is partnering with a UK firm on a project to create the island’s first set of ‘natural capital accounts’.

The aim, says Ebanks-Petrie, is to audit our natural resources, determine the amount of reefs, mangroves and dry forest the island has left, and assess the values and benefits the community derives from them.

Ebanks-Petrie is keen to ensure the island’s biodiversity is maintained amid the economic growth.

A DoE study of aerial photography from the Lands and Survey Department, showed that more than 70% of the mangrove wetlands on the West Bay peninsula have been lost since the 1970s.

This aerial shot shows Cayman’s lush central mangrove forest. – Photo: Martin Keeley

New policies, introduced with the National Conservation Law, aim to better protect natural resources in the future.

“The whole idea of protected areas is that we do set aside some of our natural areas – hopefully those that are most important for the retention of biodiversity – and protect them so that they are able to continue providing free and important ecosystem services,” she said.

That has been an accepted principle in the marine environment for some time but the process is only just beginning on land.

Gina Ebanks-Petrie

Currently around 10% of Cayman’s land mass, around half of which is owned by the National Trust, is protected.

Ebanks-Petrie believes the reality of a ‘hard limit’ to the island’s population is something that must be given immediate and serious thought.

“We can’t ignore the fact that there are real physical limits to our growth,” she said.

“That is not just about how many buildings we can fit in the space, it is about how we can co-exist with nature and continue to benefit from the services it provides.”

Managed growth

It might seem counter-intuitive to be talking about the impacts of population growth at a time when the number of people on the island has dramatically dipped because of the consequences of COVID-19.

But realtor Kim Lund, of RE/MAX Cayman Islands, believes the island’s economic fundamentals are still strong and that future growth is a near certainty post-COVID.

“What we are likely to see from next year is a wave that will replace and even outstrip what we have lost,” he said.

If there is a limit to the number of people the island can support, Lund believes we are not there yet.

He said population growth was a product of Cayman’s success and would be difficult to restrain without jeopardising that.

Even amid the pandemic, he said, Cayman was in demand as a place to live and work, and he believes the recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 will depend, to some extent, on population growth.

“There is large demand for Cayman,” he said. “People come here to live and work because they are needed to fill positions that are being created by the expansion and development of the society. I see it as a good thing, provided it is managed.”

New development is helping support Cayman’s economy.

He said proper masterplanning would enable Cayman to grow with less impact on the environment.

Lund believes taller buildings, replacing older condominiums with more modern developments that take up less space, will be the future blueprint for Seven Mile Beach. He offered the example of Lacovia, whose owners last year voted to demolish their homes and construct three 10-storey buildings to replace the original condo.

Kim Lund

He said investment in roads and public transport infrastructure would likely be needed, but he believes Cayman can grow without “becoming Manhattan”.

He added, “The Cayman Islands is a successful tourism jurisdiction, a successful financial services jurisdiction. It is a desirable place to live, and with that, comes growth. Everyone knows it is coming, it is a matter of managing it and making sure it is dispersed. We have more than enough square mileage in Cayman to handle 100,000 people if it is managed properly.”

Planned communities

Rick Riyat, a surveyor with BCQS, said the rate of land-use change in Cayman over the past decades had been phenomenal.

Recent trends have seen the urban sprawl of developments on South Sound spread to Grand Harbour, while residential growth has continued in Spotts and Newlands.

If Grand Cayman continues to grow its population, he said, this would likely mean that the eastward creep of development will continue. Population growth doesn’t simply bring new residential and national infrastructure requirements, he said, it also drives commercial development.

“While we have seen a lot of residential development in those districts, you could say the commercial development has not kept up. When you have more homes, you need more nurseries, more supermarkets, more retail, so there is this cascading effect.”

He believes newer developments in Grand Harbour and in West Bay, which incorporate those kind of services alongside housing, will become the norm if Cayman grows.

“I think you might see more new communities or new towns emerging where there is less demand for people to drive into George Town or to Camana Bay to go to work, take their kids to school, or to eat.”

He said planned communities had the potential to help mitigate the environmental consequences of growth but they wouldn’t eliminate that completely.

Deciding the right balance should be for the people of Cayman to determine, he believes.

Hurlston agrees.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to a decision of what we want as a community,” she said.

  • For the month of October the Cayman Compass is examining the impact of population growth on Cayman’s past and investigating possibilities for the island’s future growth as part of our ongoing Cayman 2.0 series. See all the stories here.

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