How This Canal Community in Puerto Rico Evaded Gentrification

Cano at Israel y Bitumul
Cano at Israel y Bitumul | Courtesy of Emily Simonson
Mariela Santos

Gentrification, the improvement of an urban area that causes its lower-income residents to be priced out of their own community, is an issue in many places including in Puerto Rico. Depending on the case, results differ on if and how a community is able to fend off changes caused by gentrification while recognizing that improvements may be needed. The community project at the Caño Martín Peña in San Juan, is a notable example of how coming together has helped them escape gentrification while working to uplift themselves. Their efforts have garnered so much positive attention that they were awarded the United Nations World Habitat Award in 2016.

The Caño Martín Peña explained

The Caño Martín Peña is an informal community of approximately 26,000 residents occupying nearly four miles of land along the canal in the San Juan Bay National Estuary in Puerto Rico. The canal was severely polluted, including with sewage, causing multiple public health problems for the thousands of residents. Low-income housing on location in the mangrove wetlands around the canal date back to the early 20th century.

The community’s involvement in sustainable projects

Largely unattended for years, community residents proactively decided to do something about the condition of the canal but with the idea in mind that they didn’t want to be driven out of the area once it improved. As a result, residents created a plan over a span of two years that the Puerto Rican government eventually adopted, and an inclusive project called Enlace was set up to carry out the plan. In order to avoid gentrification, a community land trust was formed that resulted in a group of 2,000 families owning 200 acres of land. Major initiatives of the project involve addressing citizen participation, environmental justice, community entrepreneurship, gardening and food security, among other critical social issues.

Low-income communities in Puerto Rico are especially sensitive because of the effects of the national debt crisis, but the Caño Martín Peña community has largely taken its fate into its own hands.

Israel y Bitumul garden

Moving forward

The canal community has made positive strides but there is still more work to be done and concerns that need to be addressed. At the same time, other communities might be able to utilize the Caño Martín Peña project as an example to follow. On some level, that may already be in the works since the project has made headlines, and there’s a Belgian urban anthropologist who is studying the community. Uniting for a cause, especially when so many voices have a say isn’t easy, but this Puerto Rican community has shown that it can be done.

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