Is Sri Lanka an urbanized country? | Daily News


Is Sri Lanka an urbanized country?

Continued from March 18 Part ii

Sri Lanka does not have a yardstick to define urban. As is done in many countries in the world, Sri Lankan urban policy planners use a pure administrative definition with some flexibility to define and declare certain rural areas with potential for increasing the amenity value of land through dense development. In the National Physical Plan 2007-2030, there are several Metro Regions, which are urban agglomerations but without defined boundaries. According to the classification currently in use, the following areas, which are considered as urban, are under the purview of respective state institutions.

a) Urban Development Authority- 23 Municipal Councils (MC), 41 Urban Councils (UC) and Urban Pradeshiya Sabhas (UPS), Nuwara Eliya District, Trincomalee District, and 1-km wide Coastal Belt

b) National Physical Planning Department- Sacred Cities and Metro Regions

c) Megapolis Development Authority (in future) – Western Province and other Metro Regions

All MCs, UCs and UPSs, which govern the areas declared under a) above, exercise authority delegated by the UDA for enforcement of urban development plans prepared for those areas by the UDA. The purpose of declaring a 1-km wide Coastal Belt was for promoting and guiding the developments in those areas for facilitating Tourism. (Silva 2016)

Besides these several high density housing schemes were developed by the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) in peripheral areas of Colombo (Mattegoda, Ranpokunagama and Seeduwa) and the densities of populations and buildings in those housing schemes are close to them being considered as urban.

In a report titled “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability” the WB (2015) states that “Sri Lanka is one of five nations in the region – Bangladesh, India, Maldives and Pakistan are the others – where official estimates of the urban share of the population are well below other estimates. That suggests large hidden urbanization – in other words, sizable portions of their populations are living in settlements that, although they may exhibit urban characteristics, are governed as rural areas. There are indications that as much as one-third of Sri Lanka’s entire population may be living in areas that possess urban characteristics, but are classified as rural”.

Analysing the key findings of the 2012 Census of Population and Housing, the Department of Census and Statistics says that the urban percentage “would have been much higher if the definitional issues were resolved”. (DCS/UNFPA, 2014)

An interim report of an ongoing research on “An Alternative Definition for Urban Sector in Sri Lanka” suggests a yardsticks for defining an urban area for Sri Lanka by using four indicators to screen the Grama Niladhari Division (GND) level, the smallest spatial unit recognized for civil administration: Minimum population and Population density reflecting the social characteristics of urban population; Plot area ratio and Non-agriculture employment ratios reflecting ecological and economic elements. The same interim report suggests a yardstick as the “ideal urban definition” for Sri Lanka.

i. Grama Niladhari Division (GND) level, using four indicators;

a. Minimum population of 750 persons,

b. Population density greater than 500 persons per km2,

c. Firewood dependence of less than 95 % households,

d. Well-water dependence of less than 95% households.

The report further states that until appropriate data become available this ideal definition also fails to address the current issues of an urban definition and estimates. (IPS, 2016)

Quoting the statistics provided by Sri Lanka’s national statistical office, the WB states that in 2014, the urban population of Sri Lanka was 18.3% of the total population and the urban population was 0.9% (WB, 2015). Both figures are comparatively very low for a healthy report on urbanization as an indicator of economic development. In another report WB states that in 1987 Sri Lanka tightened its definition by reclassifying town councils as rural areas (Pradeshiya Sabha). This contributed to a fall in the country’s official urban share to fall from 21.5 percent in the 1981 census to 14.6 percent in 2001.

Lamudi, a web based journal that focus on emerging real estate markets in Sri Lanka states that, “Most households have access to modern-day social services as well as basic healthcare, education and electricity (96 percent), reducing the need to migrate to an urban area. However, the high cost of properties in Sri Lanka’s urban regions also plays a direct role. Due to the rise of construction costs and land prices, even the average value of a house in an urban area can exceed US $ 50,000 (above LKR 6,000,000 by 2014), resulting more than 90 percent being unable to afford a home in an urban area”. (Lamudi, March 2016)

Is urban Sri Lanka dynamic?

In Sri Lanka, the UDA Law was enacted in 1978 to go beyond hitherto practiced development control. The preamble of the statute states that the purpose of establishing the UDA is to promote integrated planning and implementation of economic, social and physical development. And the very intention of the law is to increase the amenity value of land in the areas declared as urban.

The legal instrument the UDA is empowered to use for achieving its statutory objectives is the development plans prepared for each urban area under its purview. Statutory functions of the UDA allow preparation, implementation, monitoring of implementation, review and revision of development plans making it a cyclic process. Therefore, it can reasonably be argued that in Sri Lanka the statute for urban development provides for continuous renewal which is the key to urban dynamics. The fact that the first development plan prepared for the city of Colombo in 1981 is now in its fourth stage of revision, is the proof of this cyclic process.

The statute also provides for using Land Use Planning and Land Use Zoning as planning tools in preparation of development plans. Generally, the opinion of the investors and developers is that these two planning tools are used to control development. What many are not aware is the statutory provision for obtaining a Preliminary Planning Clearance (PPC) for a development which is innovative even within an apparently rigid legal framework of a development plan.

Planning Committees make decisions on applications for PPC or Development Permits for special projects, which the developers consider as innovative. The UDA Law provides for establishing a PC in the UDA and at all local authorities, which exercise authority delegated by the UDA for implementation of development plans. A law that allows innovation in developing urban land cannot be said as rigid. It certainly helps maintaining urban dynamics.

Ensuring orderly development through a development plan does not mean rigidity in development control. Providing amenities for recreation and social well-being has also been made possible in a development plan, which may appear rigid to public and developers. The schedule provided in the 1982 amendment to the UDA Law, has enough guides for making an urban environment liveable. What is missing in the current set of development plans, which are in force in many an urban local authority, is apparent lack of those guides being used to looking into details beyond Zoning, in spite of the very schedule having provisions to do so. Examples of such matters that may be provided for in a development plan are architectural control, landscaping, public open spaces etc.

Subsequent to ratification of Agenda 21 of the UN by the GOSL in 1992, legal instruments were put in place for promoting sustainable development and protection of environment. Since then, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA)/Initial Environment Examination (IEE) have been made compulsory for projects prescribed under the National Environment Law. Monitoring compliance and performance of measures introduced for mitigating negative impacts on environment is now mandatory for all approved environmentally sensitive projects. A development plan with powers for protecting environment, while promoting and implementing economic, social and physical development, is the desired ideal end result of urban development planning.

Incorporating measures for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) into urban development plans was made compulsory aftermath the Tsunami in 2004. Climate changes experienced in the country during the last few years are resulting in more disasters of greater intensity and severity and damages caused to property and infrastructure services and disturbances caused to urban living are so great rectification is beyond the capacity of local government authorities. Destructions caused by disasters may cause stagnation. It could also trigger a new wave of dynamics, if city administrators and people are determined to rebuild.

Other Policy Interventions to making dynamic urban environments

After 2010, the UDA was issued new directives under national urban development policy envisioned in “Mahinda Chinthanaya” and strategies were revised to give priority to urban regeneration and urban renewal. Projects implemented under this revised policy, include relocation, conservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings, development of public open spaces and landscaping roadsides and flood control.

Viewed from the point of four interconnected principles: resource constraints, urban aging, relative attractiveness and growth vs. equilibrium, which Alfeld (1969) concluded as essential to ensure urban dynamics, the impacts of this policy intervention are too numerous to describe in a short paper but it deserves to be examined thoroughly as an R&D input. It is simply because it has helped releasing more land for new developments, creating people friendly public open spaces and also helped increasing the amenity value of all land adjacent to these regenerated areas.

Tourism adds vibrancy to urban environments. It is more so where old cities have been restored for adaptive reuse. Recently completed building restoration projects in Sri Lanka bear testimony to this. However, if the potential of old buildings with adaptive reuse for promoting tourism is not recognized and change of use is not considered in that context, all traces of old buildings in old and established cities in the country will be gone forever.

Expressways and improved roadways and railways have made intercity and rural-urban travel quicker and less cumbersome. This may slow down urbanization due to people from rural areas not seeking residence in cities. Studies need to be done to assess the economic and social impacts of people, who work in Colombo and suburbs, opting to travel daily from their home towns over 100-km away from Colombo.

Presently preparation of the Plan for a Megapolis in the Western Province of the country is in progress. This is the result of a review of the 1999-Structure Plan for Colombo Metropolitan Region with the view of implementing its recommendations. Development of infrastructure, transport, health, education, industry, housing, environment and agriculture sectors are envisaged in the new plan. Amendments proposed to National Physical Plan 2007-2030 envisage development of several self-sufficient metro regions in the country but those strategies are still in planning stage. The Port City Project, which is under construction with intermittent stoppages, appears to be a new wave of urban dynamics in the horizon.

(The writer, L T Kiringoda is a Chartered Architect, Town Planner and a Chartered Environmentalist. He headed the Directorate of Development Planning of the Urban Development Authority of Sri Lanka, wherein he served for nearly 3-decades).


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