How do you improve a neighbourhood without causing land prices to rise? Residents along a polluted waterway in San Juan set up a community land trust to help save their homes, as well as the environment
For years a graffiti message has appeared throughout San Juan, Puerto Ricos capital, as an urgent demand: Dragado ya! (meaning dredging now!).
Even passersby who have never set foot in the eight barrios making up the Cao Martn Pea community a large informal settlement along 3.75 miles of canal in the central city know the message points to the dire need to dredge the waterway, which has become so clogged with refuse that those driving by with the windows down can immediately smell the stagnant waters.
This previously neglected area was originally established on mangrove wetlands and lacks adequate water drainage systems, so even mild rain storms led to flooding that backed up sewage and polluted waters, causing health and environmental problems for its 26,000 residents.
Desperate to alleviate these issues, the local community started organising themselves to demand the dredging of the canal, but feared the rising land values and displacement of families that such neighbourhood improvement tends to bring.
Residents spent two years collectively drawing up plans for the future of the area, ultimately creating a formal development and land use plan which was then adopted by the Puerto Rico planning board. With the help of national and city government support, local residents and organisations set up a collaborative project called Enlace to help implement the plan to improve the canal and its adjacent communities in an inclusive way.
A crucial part of this involved the establishment of a community land trust, to inoculate against gentrification through collective ownership of land. The 2,000 families of el Cao as the area is locally known now collectively own 200 acres of land that cannot be sold.
As part of the wider Enlace project, residents are involved in decision-making in the social and environmental transformation of their area, and are able to feel more secure about their future as landowners.
Citizen participation and critical awareness has been fomented through various programmes: addressing and improving environmental justice, affordable housing, food security, violence prevention, local entrepreneurship, youth leadership and adult literacy.