Balancing Urbanization | Daily News

Balancing Urbanization

Urban Design Conference on Cities, People and Places
Colombo Shanties
Colombo Shanties

A series of familiar images were unfolded on the screen; the photos described the growth and expansion of Colombo as the main urban city in Sri Lanka. The visuals were accompanied by a sequence of statistics; which depicted that the urbanization trends show a rapid transformation of rural areas to urban through unplanned development activities.

It was the fifth International Urban Design Conference on Cities, People and Places (ICCP-2017) at which the speakers highlighted the need for balance in urbanization and sustainable development and added that internal migration and settlement has been considered less important in the phase of development.

Dr. Harsha de Silva

They emphasized the need to prepare development plans and land use plans taking into account healthy environment, climate change impacts and the need for disaster reduction as an integral part of the planning process.

The conference recently held recently at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Colombo and was organized by the Department of Architecture of the University of Moratuwa in collaboration with its international and national academic partners.

The world cities in 2016 - United Nations Data booklet revealed that in 2016, an estimated 54.5 percent of the world’s population lived in urban settlements. By 2030, urban areas are projected to house 60 percent of people globally and one in every three people would live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants.

Understanding the key trends in urbanization likely to unfold over the coming years, is crucial to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. By 2030, a projected 27 per cent of people worldwide would be concentrated in cities with at least one million inhabitants. Between 2016 and 2030, the population in all city size classes is projected to increase, while the rural population is projected to decline slightly. While rural areas were home to more than 45 per cent of the world’s population in 2016, that proportion is expected to fall to 40 per cent by 2030.

Sri Lanka too is no different from this statistic and is urbanizing rapidly, with at least 50 percent of its projected 22 million population expected to be living in urban local authorities by 2020. The process of making Colombo a great city, begun post-war under the Rajapaksa regime and it still continues under the yahapalanaya government – though this time around, relocations are supposed to be conducted in a far better manner, according to the current government whips at least.

Lack of balance – in the process of urbanization

Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Housing and Construction Susil Siriwardana speaking under the topic “the Urban Underserved - An innovative strategy” said new buildings, new administrative structures and ever increasing place rules mean that the people will become marginalized, insignificant and at the mercy of the urban space, although theoretically the city is meant to be for people.

Metro Colombo Urban Development Project

Siriwardana emphasized on the need for balance in the process of urbanization comparing the housing development projects that consecutive governments implemented so far. He said that from 1984 to 1993 housing programmes were initiated by every single urban authority (municipalities and urban councils) at the time and to this day the state made all the decisions and sent people to houses built on their own whims and fancies.

Housing in Sri Lanka revolved around the policy decisions of successive governments in the past. In the 1950s, the government functioned in a regulative role whilst focusing on the urban middle income and working class. In the 1960s to the 1970s, the government was directly involved in housing to encourage a ‘home owning’ society and in the 1980s to 1990s, it emphasized on its role in enabling housing. The housing sector however, gained momentum after 1990s when the government encouraged public private partnerships.

Siriwardana said the former government’s Urban Regeneration Programme (URP), is being continued by the present government and in his words, “The present government was continuing the same paradigm.”

A report issued by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) titled “The Working of a World Class City: Displacement and land acquisition in Colombo” stated that there was no official data available on evictions from 2010 to the end of 2014 though the Urban Development Authority (UDA) website stated that approximately 5,000 persons have been relocated to date.

The report further stated that although the concept of relocation implied a ‘voluntary act’, it was complicated in the context of post war land acquisition and the role played by the military in evictions under the previous regime and their continued presence within the UDA.

“We have not found that balance as yet and we need to find it,” he said.

Siriwardana looking back said the participatory housing development projects which resulted in voluntary settlements was a better option.

He noted that the “Sahasthapura housing plan” to be one of the non- participatory plans developed and called it “unmovable hell”.

“There is no light in the common spaces, the lift is broken and it’s haunted,” he said.

Siriwardana stressed that this needed to be changed in the present context.

Disorganized policy decisions - local authorities should be involved

Professor (Emeritus) Willie Mendis speaking under the topic of defaulting Urbanization Policy Formulation Imperatives for the future said the country generally tended to follow a disorganized policy decision with regard to urbanization.

“We have no urbanization policy/ strategy but only an aggressive urban development policy,” he said.

The ICCP addressed the issue from different perspectives, said Mendis as houses and apartments were beginning to be smaller than what they were, “Urban spaces shrink and every inch of land is under the spell of the real estate developers,” he added.

The policy decisions that concern only urban development would not clear all the related issues concerning development, according to Mendis.

One of Mendis’s greatest concerns was that local authorities too should be a part of the urban development programmes/ infrastructure.

He complained of there not being any synergy in urban development programmes and added that architects and planners were usually not associated with cities, though they had an important role to play in the transformation of places in cities.

In the meantime, Mendis stressed for the need for a policy organization in Sri Lanka. He further said that nothing has happened with the National Physical Development Plan launched to guide development and added that it never saw the light of day.

Managing urban spaces – view from one of the policy makers

Deputy Minister of Policy planning and Economic Development Dr. Harsha de Silva who was present at the conference said the government was concerned on the zonal based approach to the issues for optimal development.

He said that Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development was in the forefront in managing these projects and he added that the government executed a public friendly approach to implement their plans unlike the former government.

Minister de Silva noted that the last two years were spent on research and developing papers with regard to the proposed development plans.

“There will be much faster implementation in the next three years,” he said.

Nevertheless, United Nations observations revealed that rapid and unplanned urban growth threatened sustainable development when the necessary infrastructure was not developed or when policies were not implemented to ensure that the benefits of city life were equitably shared.

It further stated that today, despite the comparative advantage of cities, urban areas were more unequal than rural areas and hundreds of millions of the world’s urban poor lived in sub-standard conditions. In some cities, unplanned or inadequately managed urban expansion lead to rapid sprawl, pollution, and environmental degradation, together with unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

The UN data book ‘The World Cities in 2016’, clearly stated that urbanization was integrally connected to the three pillars of sustainable development: ‘economic development, social development and environmental protection’.

The Minister continued to stress that there was a mismatch between livelihood and resettlement under the former government and added that the UDA followed undemocratic practices to relocate people.

“The methods used by the former government to remove people were simply unacceptable. The Urban Development Authority was under the Ministry of Defence and that explains everything,” he said.

The Minister however, agreed that the urban designs sometimes created social and economic problems and pointed out that people have similar problems like getting admission to schools.

End of process and the crisis it has created in a developed city

The urban study findings lead to several important conclusions about the role of density in urban productivity. Whilst it found that density played a significant role in the productivity of metro areas, it noted that it played a bigger role in cities where levels of skill and human capital were higher. Also it found the effects of density to be even more substantial in industries with high levels of knowledge and creativity.

Keynote speaker of the conference, Peter Barber Architects, United Kingdom, Architect Peter Barber speaking on “Hundred Mile City and Other Stories”, explained the negative impacts of urbanization and how it was demonstrating reverse qualities.

He said that the city would struggle to survive and would invent new ways of existence.

“While the formal city appears to be in command and demand, informality cannot be eradicated and those poor marginalized and ‘illegal’ occupants of the city will either fall off the systems or re-invent themselves for survival,” he said.

Barber did not believe in high density high rises as he said that they had witnessed the negative consequences of it.

According to the UN, on average cities in less developed regions were at higher risk of exposure to natural disasters and were more vulnerable to disaster-related economic losses and mortality than those in the more developed regions. Moreover, larger cities tended to be at higher risk of exposure to disasters and more vulnerable to disaster-related economic losses and mortality compared to smaller cities.

Floods were the most common type of natural disaster affecting cities, followed by droughts and cyclones. These three types of disaster were also the most devastating for city dwellers globally in terms of the mortality and economic losses they caused.

The report further stated that of the World’s 31 megacities (that is, cities with 10 million inhabitants or more) in 2016, 24 were located in less developed regions or the “Global South”.

As the world continued to urbanize, sustainable development challenges will be increasingly concentrated in cities, particularly in the lower-middle-income countries where the pace of urbanization is expected to be the fastest.Barber emphasized that integrated policies to improve the lives of both urban and rural dwellers thus, were the need of the hour. 

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