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Colourful risk governance in Willemstad, Curaçao

In this short article I want to introduce and discuss one specific important and often
associated phenomenon of the Capital city Willemstad in Curacao, namely the colourful houses it consists of. When people say Willemstad, you say colours! But, why?

Curacao is an independent state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in mid Latin-America. The country and its Capital city have a rich Dutch history of which a lot is debated today, such as the origin of the name Willemstad. Therefore, the city and its history have been added to the UNSECO World Heritage in 1997.

As many more places in the world, like Greece and Brazil, houses in Willemstad have been painted in the colour white. This is the case, since the building materials in these places are not fully resistant to the local weather circumstances. A nice layer of paint is added, therefore. Also, the colour white does reflect other colours of the colour spectrum send out by the sun, and thus the warmth it creates, and functions as a ‘natural’ air conditioning as well.

Although this sounds logical, stories of origin have been different. In the nineteenth century the local governor faced eye problems because of the sunlight reflection in the sprinkling white houses. He got an eye disease. Therefore, he prohibited people to paint their houses white and even obligated them to paint their dwellings in a different colour within thirty days. When the painting stock was running out, he made sure there was enough paint again, because (coincidentally) he was the director of the local paint factory. According to many island experts, this scenario is a pure fable, however. Another story is quite familiar. In the beginning of the nineteenth century a local doctor noted that many people got visual problems, because of the sunlight reflection of the white houses. Therefore, the doctor pleaded the governor to come up with regulations for housing colours. With success. A law was introduced to paint your house any colour you wanted, except white. Unfortunately, the law is diminished in the beginning of the twentieth century, but until today people still paint their house in the most flamboyant colours.

Ethical considerations versus risk management

Whatever the exact story may be, nowadays it is prohibited by the government to paint your house in the colours white and grey, according to a local tour guide. White because of the risk of eye diseases and visual problems and grey because it is only allowed to be used for people who are in debt at their bank because of their mortgage. Moreover, it is not possible to paint two houses in a row in the same colour. This is exactly the point I want you to think about: Is it ethically OK to show visually that inhabitants are in debt or is it a smart way of risk management to socio-spatial planning by creating social pressure to be sure people get rid of their debts, and therefore the government will be sure to have a financially stable and self-reliant society?

Subsequently, as an indirect by-product you could say, the responsibility and freedom that people get results in decorating the city and make it to their own liking within the legal boundaries. They come up with the most beautiful and artistic paintings you could imagine as can also be seen in the pictures in this article. You could also argue that this results in living in a better and more beautiful neighbourhood and city and thus creating co-ownership and co-evolvement of the place with local inhabitants.

In short, Willemstad has a rich and still questionable history which resulted in a typical way of working nowadays. Is it the result of an anti-sun policy? Is it a step into the unknown of the government by giving people responsibility to shape their own environment and see what happens? Is it an ethically on-the-edge style of ensuring resilience and a financially good society? Or is it a combination of factors, including local culture, that makes this a possible innovative and co-creative style of risk management to socio-spatial planning? I purposefully mention culture here, because would this measurement be appropriate in other contexts, like further away to the equator or in a less extrovert culture? Or where the local government wants to take lead in shaping their own environment and is not willing to give responsibility to ‘the common’ people? Think about it!

This Girugten article first appeared in GEO PROMOTION MAGAZINE, 23rd of February, 2019. 



  1. Dear Stefano,
    Although I’m glad you wrote about Curaçao and a little about its history, I have to tell you that there is no such law on the island that prohibits people to paint their houses white or grey. If you take a look at the bouw- en woningverordening of Curaçao there is nothing stating this.

    • Dear Paola,

      Thank you for your comment as it enriches our understanding of the topic. I do therefore definitely not doubt at your knowledge about the beautiful country and city. However, while collecting knowledge and talking to people who visited the city, I heard very different stories about the ‘true’. So, it feels like there are formal and informal rules you could say, based on the history sketched.

      Regarding the Building and Housing Ordinance 1999, it indeed only states in chapter 3 (article 6a): ”the maximum dimensions of buildings, the shape of the roof of buildings, the materials to be used and the colors to be used on buildings” are taken into consideration during the building permit procedure by the government. So, the colors do play a role, but it is not clear in what way.

      In the end, I hope that I have inspired you and made you think about my main discussion point. Would this be a briljant example of an innovative institutional framework for doing urban planning or is it ethically not OK to do so?



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