How the pandemic exposed cracks of Urban Settlements Planning | Daily News


How the pandemic exposed cracks of Urban Settlements Planning

Not many in Colombo have access to green spaces
Not many in Colombo have access to green spaces


All of us should agree that this is the longest, most excruciating period of our lives spent in forced confinement, made even more fragile by an unprecedented medical threat never seen by today’s generation. This enormous health crisis has brought the best and the worst in the human spirit and the collective mind of our humanity.

We’ve all seen and heard the news and social media narratives in the epidemic — cities upon cities imposing their intensified lockdown, non-essential movement being restricted, supply chains being controlled, the healthcare system is overwhelmed, local and national economies being stopped.

Concentric Zone Model of Urban Development by Ernest Burgess

The City of Colombo, a highly dense urban agglomeration of close to 0.9 million people, reached an inevitable standstill due to a region-wide community quarantine.  Mass transportation had been shuttered. Workaday and informal labuorers were swept to one side, constricting their chance to survive as they cannot earn their day’s hard work crucial to their short-term sustenance. The City of Colombo has a threat of low-income settlements due to the miserable standard of living in slums with lack of fresh air, hygiene, open space, and proximity to Market. Evolving health advisories point to keeping one’s health in manageable shape, but access to nutritious food is close to impossible when the supply of food production is hampered, and stocks on the grocery shelves will take time to get replenished.

So, what happened to the slums in Colombo City ? This created risk areas of the Covid-19 pandemic. Normally, most of the people in the slum area work in the street and close to the market to attend to the informal activities in the daytime and they do not need the resting places during the daytime. Only in the night, they are in the living place. Due to the lockdown, their routine work was also disrupted. Our built environment (i.e. our cities, and the homes) have responded, in recent memory, to the proliferation of deadly outbreaks. But to date, have we gleaned the hard lessons from the past so we can make a better, more proactive choice, most especially when it comes to planning our cities?

The Informal Workforce & Urban Slums

The informal workforce, those who live as far off as Colombo City and administrative city Battaramulla, Kotte suspended their travel as the offices were closed.

What they typically earn is exhausted by their immediate expenses, rendering them unable to save for a rainy day. Also, the dearth of decent jobs in their respective hometowns is aggravating their economic situation. This can be further explained by the dynamics of large cities and urban areas, where the clustering of economic activities and human footprints become more concentrated while the steady generation of competitive jobs serves as an attractor to the migration of (usually) young, productive workforce who can make do with measly remuneration. Also, large, economically productive cities engender rural-urban corridors where human capital becomes commodious. As cities become more expensive, less developed areas along the rural-urban corridors that radiate from the thriving business canters usually become suitable for unplanned, haphazard growth (urban slums, mass housing, suburbanization.) Urban theorists and economists such as Anthony Burgess, Homer Hoyt, David Ricardo, and J.H. von Thunen, have observed these polarizing effects of urban centres and visualized their spatial manifestations.

Too Much Centralization

There is a consensus among experts that the City of Colombo, being a cohesive administrative and the newly built commercial region, has grown as much twice its size, built-up megalopolis composed of highly urbanized cities and municipalities in the Western province. The resulting sprawl came about due to the centralization (and congestion) of opportunities and services, and inevitably created a north-south urban expansion. Considering how unwieldy the urban agglomeration of the City of Colombo has become, what used to be prime agricultural lands that can augment, if not provide, the food requirements of a highly-dense urban region, has become a thing of the past, as human settlements, commercial and industrial estates were prioritized over land use that favours food production. What does this kind of development entail? That instead of establishing food baskets closer to our homes, we are promoting an unsustainable food supply vulnerable to volatile logistical issues and disasters caused by anthropogenic climate change, when our food practically needs to travel many kilometres, before they even reach our plates.

Wealth is being captured within this diminutive geographic space, leaving a widening poverty gap across the country, while the imbalance and concentration of wealth ultimately lead to a disparity of opportunities and outcomes in less developed areas.

To densify, or not to densify?

Falling prey to our obnoxious obsession to build, build, and build, we made our cities suffer from a horror vacuity where open spaces and land use are practically sacrificed at the altar of compact, high-density development. What does this signify when there is nothing to be gained by overcrowding? Felt at once, problematic issues in social infrastructure have surfaced and reared their ugly heads during the abrupt imposition of the lockdown.

One of the prescribed measures during the outbreak is ‘social distancing,’ calling for people to observe at least one (01) meter of distance from one another, to clamp down on possible human-to-human transition that can happen through close contact. Any call to properly carry out ‘social distancing’ would sound hollow, especially in packed neighbourhoods and pockets of urban poverty.

Without a doubt, ‘social distancing’ undermines its viability when urban poor families of five or seven are forced to inhabit closed, makeshift quarters where they have been living in for years now. Multiply these households into tens and hundreds, and stacking them on top of one another, and you get a ‘perfect storm’ for an epidemic. The part of the Northern area of the City was affected by the epidemic due to the packed neighbourhoods and the government had to lockdown the area for quarantine.

On the other hand, middle-class households who live in condominiums and subdivisions are also prone to the spread of any disease, given the constraints in habitation present in urban centres, but they are nevertheless insulated by a layer of comfort and protection that comes with their social class. Their proximity to lifeline amenities, open spaces, and permeable road networks increase their chances of survival amidst this pandemic.

Without a doubt, the price to pay for the high human density of our cities will be congestion, inefficiency, and acute inequality. Cheek by jowl, we must endure physical closeness to avail of the basic services and inadequate amenities offered by our cities. Our public servants — teachers, policemen, nurses, and doctors — instead of attending to an ideal demographic proportion, must be spread too thinly.

Civic Buildings and Open Spaces

Public and open spaces that cater to the public realm such as parks, recreational areas, and nature reserves, are robust, irreplaceable assets that drive real estate values and promote resilient urban ecosystems. The most common categorization of open spaces is that they are the “breathing lungs” of the cities that provide us a breather from the pollution that smothers all of us. Aside from this, the essence of open spaces in the field of disaster risk management is central in ensuring emergency preparedness, precluding risks from and impacts of hazards, and facilitating relief and long-term recovery. Highlighted during the surge of this pandemic, we have seen how civic structures and the few remaining sprawling grounds we have, are flexibly converted into emergency quarantine facilities.


These ephemeral structures are mostly built indoors, as setting up field hospitals may be deemed challenging, given that our cities are practically deprived of open spaces. To show how grave the situation is, Sri Lankan must make do with a meagre 4.5 square-meter of open space per head, a far cry from the ideal 10 square meters. Besides, open spaces, mostly in the form of green, vegetated areas, are linked to respiratory wellness and good mental health in adults who grew up close to them. To think that a sizable number of our population has been denied access to green spaces, and they are at great risk to be hit hard by the complications caused by the virus.

(The writer is Director, Project Management, Urban Development Authority)

To be continued

Social distancing is near-impossible in slums

The city went into lockdown for Covid 19 control

Visit Sri Lanka's Largest online shop. Over 125,000 unique categories such as Fresh Flowers, Cakes, Food, Jewllery, Childrens Toys and other Sri Lankan e-commerce categories. Low delivery cost to most cities here and free delivery in Colombo.

Add new comment