First published Sunday Express, Section 2, September 21, 1997, Pages 2 – 3. Archived here for prosperity.
Save our Savannah – Queen’s Park Savannah
The Savannah is the centre of attention in the week of Carnival, but unless you’re an ardent jogger or use it as a roundabout, it goes completely unnoticed for most of the year.
Queen’s Park is the last savannah of this size – approximately 260 acres – in this country. All the others, like the Arima Savannah, were encroached upon by the growth of the towns around them, and eventually lost huge chunks of their area to industrial or government concerns. The Queen’s Park Savannah, as the last untouched one of its kind, provides both a historical and ecological resource and is currently in danger of what many people see as violation.
At the media launch last month for the Carnival 1998 celebrations at the office of Dr Daphne Phillips, Minister of Community Development Culture and Women’s Affairs, it was announced that a paved roadway would be constructed westwards from the exit of the Savannah stage to Marli Street to facilitate the flow of bands during the Carnival 1998 season. For the remainder of the year the roadway would double as courts for netball, volleyball, basketball or tennis.
This reasonable-sounding suggestion is being met by a united voice of protest from representatives of the Town and Country Planning Division, the Ministry of Agriculture, Citizens for Conservation, the Rugby / Football Union, the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board of Control, Royalians Rugby Football Club, the Savannah Committee and even members of the Carnival Bandleaders’ Association.
Most of the protest echoes the sentiment of the 1989 report of the Savannah Committee, appointed that year by Lincoln Myers, a minister in the Ministry of the Environment. It consisted of a wide cross-section of people from organizations including the Ministries of Agriculture and Sports, Culture and Youth Affairs; the Chaguaramas Development Authority; the Institute of Architects; the Chamber of Commerce; the Port of Spain Corporation; Citizens for Conservation; and the Town and Country Planning Division.
The primary mandate of that committee was to examine and make recommendations for the restoration, improvement and preservation of the Savannah, with particular reference to limiting access and use by vehicles and improving its use for recreation and leisure by citizens.
But there is another important aspect of the Savannah: it is one of the largest water catchment areas in Port of Spain. The WASA pumphouses located in the Savannah cap wells that draw water directly from the aquifer and supply the General hospital and Woodbrook. When the Arena Dam is closed to clean up the pollution caused by contaminants in the Caroni River, WASA relies on the Savannah aquifer to make up the shortfall.
The Savannah is a gravel aquifer (an underground basin in which water collects.) There are two basic types of aquifers: gravel and sand. With sand aquifers, water seeps through the topsoil and impurities are slowly filtered out. However, in a gravel aquifer, the filter is virtually non-existent, allowing any surface pollutants to find their way into the water.
If a road is built across to Marli Street, with the associated traffic, vendors, and pollution, as with the other illegal roadway at the entrance to the stage, contamination of the aquifer will increase.
Additionally, there’s a flooding problem, which is caused by improper drainage and compacting of the topsoil. Increased hard surfacing will reduce the absorbency of the topsoil, further aggravating the flooding. There is a 60-foot height difference between the top of the Savannah – the zoo side – and the south side. If the natural run-off of water along Queen’s Park West is redirected by the road, flooding will occur on Marli Street and in Newtown.
At a meeting on August 28th at Stollmeyer’s Castle, members of the 1989 Savannah Committee expressed the opinion that if the project goes ahead, “it will be the end of the Savannah”.
Those at the meeting also agreed that any suggestion of building tennis, netball, volleyball or basketball courts on the proposed road is absurd. Courts in this country have to be built on a north-south axis because of the sun, and a netball court is 108 feet long; that means that 108 feet would be the minimum width of the road. Additionally, the surface of a netball court is hardly suitable for music trucks and steelbands to exit the Savannah.
Christine Millar of Citizens for Conservation summed up the position of the Savannah this way: “The Savannah is sacrosanct, the heart, lungs and soul of the city, and as such it should be preserved and protected.”
A representative of the Cricket Board reported that they are very unhappy about and emphatically opposed to the road, which will bisect one of their cricket pitches. Year after year they have to rebuild their pitches and clean their outfields because of the damage wrought by Carnival parking, litter, steelbands, trucks and other vehicles driving indiscriminately across the Savannah. He feels that the people who use the Savannah for two days at Carnival do so at the expense of the thousands of others who use it for the other 363 days of the year.
A Royalians spokesman explained that for over 25 years they have used their rugby pitch in the area immediately west of the old paddock. They do not want to move. The proposed road to Marli Street will bisect their pitch, a portion of which was already damaged and rendered unusable by the road laid across it last Carnival.
Royalians are emphatically opposed to the new road. Furthermore, they want their rugby field restored. They insist that all sporting clubs and associations must protect their rights to grounds in the Savannah.
Even a member of the Carnival Bandleaders’ Association stated that the issue was not getting bands off the stage, but getting bands onto the stage and exercising the necessary crowd control to speed up that process. In their opinion, the proposed road is not the solution to Carnival’s multiple problems.
Among the recommendations made by the Savannah Committee in its 55-page report in 1989 was that Carnival be given a permanent home other than the Savannah. They also recommended that the relevant authorities institute a system of parking controls, prohibit all fetes in the Savannah, re-grass the Savannah, widen the pitchwalk or provide a joggers’ track and establish a Savannah constabulary. These and other recommendations were presented to the government of the day and each successive government with the same result: nothing has been done.
Members of the various organizations who attended the August 28 meeting have joined together to form the Save Our Savannah Committee, intended to raise public awareness of the plight of the Savannah. National Carnival Commission (NCC) chairman Carlos John confirmed that the NCC and the committee have come to an oral agreement that no roadway will be constructed until a report prepared by the committee is presented in October.
Culture Minister Phillips was continually unavailable up to press time.
The Committee plans to set up a Savannah website as a way of continuing its fight for the “heart, lungs and soul of Port of Spain”. Concerned citizens can offer comments and show their support for the preservation of the Savannah by signing the book at Stollmeyer’s Castle from Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on weekends 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
HISTORY OF THE SAVANNAH
In 1817 the parcel of land known as Paradise Estate was sold by the heirs of Madame Peschier to the governing body of the day, the Cabildo, for 6,000 Pounds Sterling as a recreation ground for the citizens of Port of Spain. Seven years later, the Cabildo transferred Paradise Estate for 10,363 Pounds Sterling to the Colonial Government and what is now known as the Queen’s Park Savannah was laid out.
In 1882 the Queen’s Park ordinance was passed to regulate the use of the Savannah. Historical accounts mention that besides cricket and horse racing, athletics, football, hockey, polo and until 1936, golf were played in the Savannah.
In 1947, a little over four acres was leased to the Trinidad Turf Club. Three years later, the Grand Stand was erected by the Turf Club, the use of the Savannah extended to official and cultural events and the Carnival parade of the bands took a route through the Savannah.
In 1989, Lincoln Myers commissioned a Savannah Committee to make recommendations for the restoration, improvement and preservation of the Queen’s Park Savannah.
In 1994, the Grand Stand and its environs were put under the jurisdiction of the NCC on the departure of the Trinidad Turf Club to their new Santa Rosa facilities.
Since 1995, the Ministry of Agriculture has replaced some trees and installed cluster gardens, lights and signs.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
There is no single authority with the final say for the Queen’s Park Savannah.
Instead, there is a bureaucratic morass which involves the Ministry of Works, the Port of Spain Corporation, Botanic Gardens Division, Port of Spain Health Officer, the Ministry of Sports, WASA, NCC and the Ministry of Culture that has resulted in an environmental free-for-all and a proliferation of ad hoc structures in violation of Town and country Planning codes.
The Savannah legislation of 1882 provides for the appointment of an official called the Superintendent of Public Gardens, Grounds and Pasture, with sweeping powers as to the usage of the Savannah. In recent history, the post was held by staff attached to the Botanical Gardens Division of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Botanical Gardens Division currently functions as a de facto Savannah Authority.