In the heart of Suriname’s capital, the Paramaribo historic center is a storyteller. Joining UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2002, this urban gem boasts a unique architecture dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, a combination of Dutch construction techniques and indigenous South American materials and crafts. Once upon a time, a vibrant cultural and social life bloomed in its streets. Many stories could be told about its heritage and the masses that were drawn to the area. But then severe urban, social and economic deterioration set in.
“Paramaribo is very unique as a city in Latin America and the Caribbean in that its old cultural center was built almost completely in wood. Most cities in the region are stone or brick, but this city was constructed entirely of wood,” says Duncan Brunings, Secretary of the Elisabeth Samson House Foundation, a private sector initiative in the historic center area. “I absolutely love the old buildings because of their very clean lines. They're very symmetrical and you always see the traditional colors being used. Wood for the walls, dark green for the windows and the doors, and you will also have red bricks on the underside.”
Despite its extraordinary features, Paramaribo’s historical core, along with its surroundings, has rapidly been losing its luster, as detailed in recent studies. Moreover, if this trend persists, the city could lose the UNESCO World Heritage title.
In response to this challenge, the IDB and the Government of Suriname developed the Paramaribo Urban Rehabilitation Program to design and implement actions to revert the physical degradation and spur sustainable revitalization.
To execute this vision, the program works in critical ways: renovation of urban spaces and of key heritage buildings; traffic management and improvement; promotion of economic and residential activities; and institutional strengthening towards managing the area’s sustainable development.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the recovery of the first historical building under the program took place in September 2019: the reconstruction of the Parliament Building that burned down in 1996. In 2020, work contracts were to be signed for the renovation of at least one more heritage building and the design for redeveloping the center’s Waterfront area.
Attracting people to live the area and enjoy the buildings and surroundings, as well as boost local businesses, plays a huge role in revitalizing the historical center.
“As the capital of Suriname, Paramaribo has always been a city with a mix of usages: you had the governmental buildings, the public offices, and businesses great and small within the city center. And, up to the 1950s, there were also many people living in the downtown area. That started to change in the 1960s and 1970s, when people started moving to areas outside of the city, and so nowadays Paramaribo is very busy and crowded during the daytime, but in the afternoons, it completely dies down,” says Brunings. He laments this as “the city has a beauty that lends itself very well to other usages outside of business hours – recreational usages and just simple adoration of the beauty of the buildings.”
Heerenstraat, one of the best preserved streets in the historical center and where there is a momentum of revitalization — several entrepreneurs and foundations have recognized the historical value and potential of this location — has been at the center of recent IDB-supported activities in connection with the program.
The first annual Heerenstraat festival took place from September 30 to October 6, 2019 in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Culture of Suriname. The film, gastronomy and arts festive affair was executed by a local private organization, The Back Lot, and supported with finance and technical cooperation from IDB Lab and the IDB’s Cities Lab.
“The goal of the festival was to bring back life to the city center for a short period of time, so that people could experience its potential for culture and recreation. Over 20,000 people enjoyed the activities in the city center during one week, which all took place after office-hours or on the weekend,” says Ruth Lanting, a consultant with the IDB’s Housing and Urban Development Division.
Paramaribo can draw important lessons from the festival on how its citizens can socially interact outdoors in the face of the restrictions and safety protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the event provides a model of inclusive approaches to urban revitalization through cultural and creative industries.
Further advancing the work of the program, in January 2020 the IDB held ‘Collective Area Improvement’ workshops in collaboration with BOP consulting London. Occurring in the Heerenstraat area, the workshops facilitated a participatory process in which local organizations and business explored how they can work together to improve the street for everyone.
Brunings sees a huge merit in this, as before the workshops there was very little collective action. “The project really provided a starting point for dialogue between these diverse groups of people currently living and working in an area that serves as an architectural artery, capturing the beauty of Suriname’s traditional architecture.”
During the workshops, stakeholders identified concrete plans to improve street lighting, enhance signage to provide storytelling about the buildings and families that have lived in them, and develop pedestrian accessibility, among other positive steps. “We believe that as we execute these projects, that together we will gain confidence and bring more locals onboard in support of the project,” says Brunings.
Brunings works with the Elisabeth Samson House Foundation, a key stakeholder in Heerenstraat and instrumental in the dialogue and work of revitalization. Speaking of the initiative’s contribution, Lanting shares that the IDB believes it to add to the same objectives as the program’s.
Elisabeth Samson House was the property of a wealthy Afro-Surinamese coffee plantation owner from the 18th century. She built a very opulent dwelling within the historical center which the Foundation will renovate into a new museum that could attract many visitors.
“Within that big building we'll have two small museums: one dedicated to her life and work, and one dedicated to the development of labor in Suriname, because up to recently the Ministry of Labor was housed in this building,” says Brunings. “The second floor will become an event space which will generate revenue and the third floor we will rent out as offices that will generate revenue as well.”
Looking ahead, although COVID-19 presents multiple challenges to the program’s progress, the digital communication and collaboration established among the passionate local businesspeople and equally enthusiastic government partners bodes well for continued planning and action in refreshing Paramaribo’s historical center.
“We, the group involved in Heerenstraat, aim to continue discussions among ourselves using digital means, to decide what we want to do, and how we're going to try to take these projects forward, but the reduced possibilities of meeting people and organizing large gatherings due to COVID is really going to be a great factor,” says Brunings.
A vibrant sustainable socio-economic future awaits Paramaribo, with what that future will look like already being made into visual work, in a collaboration between Delft University of Technology and the IDB.
“Despite the urban center’s current state of decay, the IDB sees the potential for this beautiful area and encourages all like-minded people to continue their efforts towards physical, social and economic revitalization. We’re looking forward to continually working together towards this purpose,” says Lanting.