Almost 10 days ago, an invitation titled ‘Mega Minds’ was hand-delivered to me. It had two taglines. One said ‘Towards the future we dream…’ and the other ‘Nation’s call on its brilliant minds and patriotic hearts.’ The invitation was for the launch of the ‘Colombo District Strategic City Development Plan’ on the evening of April 2 and the venue was Prime Minister’s official residence, Temple Trees.
Three years ago in late January 2016, this same ministry with Patali Champika Ranawaka as minister launched the ‘Mega City Development Plan’ for Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara Districts at a cost of USD 40 billion. That grand ceremony held at Independence Square was graced by President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. Launching the programme, Minister Ranawaka said the development would focus on “economic prosperity, establish social justice, ensure environmental conservation and create a spiritual human.” It was also said some 150 projects would be carried out ‘under 10 main themes.’ Traffic congestion, garbage disposal and housing facilities for slum dwellers, drinking water and sanitary facilities among other issues were to be addressed.
Urban development planning cannot, in any sensible way, provide solutions to major issues that need a holistic ‘National Socio-economic Development Programme’ to answer all those. ‘Social justice’ depends on such a national programme to work towards equality and equity nationally. That cannot be answered only for the Western Province through ‘urban development planning.’ Creating ‘spiritual humans’ (if possible) is the work of religious beliefs. All of them prove, these gorgeously dressed urban development plans have very little to do with actual urban development planning proper.
Three full years gone, that plan is not seen in operation. All issues from traffic jams to garbage disposal, drinking water and sanitary facilities to environment conservation and social justice have worsened. A few politically-selected areas and the Colombo City for untold reasons have the privilege of avoiding the islandwide staggered ‘power cut’ while Colombo was on a ‘24-hour’ water stoppage too. That is three years of megapolis development with ‘brilliant minds and patriotic hearts.’
Convinced attending the function would serve no purpose, an internet search for details of this ‘Colombo District Strategic City Development Plan’ led to two of the most ‘user-unfriendly’ websites. One, the official website of the ministry and the other, that of the UDA; two websites that provide information with much ‘reluctance’ and in small,
Official information says it is an integrated plan that brings together eight local authorities ‘into a single planning area named Colombo Commercial City.’ That includes Municipal Councils of Colombo and Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia, Urban Councils of Boralesgamuwa, Kolonnawa, Peliyagoda, Wattala-Mabola and parts of Kelaniya and Wattala
"Bottom line is, this whole Western Province megapolis concept is about turning Greater Colombo into a commercial hotspot within an insanely corrupt free market economy. A den of corruption in the name of commerce and business, promoted as nationally-important for ‘growth’"
This whole geographical area termed ‘Colombo Commercial City’ is introduced as “a competing international city in the South Asian context as; one of the busiest maritime hubs, a blooming business hub, a highly sought-after tourism nest and as the country’s commercial capital that acts as the focal point of national economy.” Along with this, there is another called the ‘CapitalCity Development Plan’ for the same period from 2019 to 2030. That covers the four local authority areas; Municipalities of Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte and Kaduwela, Maharagama UC and Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawa PS to be developed as Sri Lanka’s
With more emphasis on the Colombo Commercial City, the official promise says the total development includes seven strategic development plans for; (1) water esplanade; (2) spatial development; (3) transport; (4) city economics; (5) settlements; (6) utility management; and (7) outdoor public recreational space management. All these sound super fabulous on the internet and on paper.
That is proved by huge numbers of multi-storey apartments approved by this same UDA with callous disregard to their own ‘Colombo District Strategic City Development Plan.’ In one’s very residential neighbourhoods, they keep amassing vehicle parking issues, unruly congestions on by-roads and link-roads, solid waste disposal issues, heavy strain on common utilities and total lack of respect for the ‘residential culture’ there was and for ‘outdoor public recreational space’ the neighbourhood has been enjoying for long decades before. There are protests against these unplanned, unregulated ‘high-rise apartment’ constructions mushrooming in Colombo East and West, Dehiwala, Mt. Lavinia up to Moratuwa and in adjoining areas. Complaints to the UDA go unheeded with an unchecked and unplanned ‘urban sprawl’ swallowing up land and disorganising urban life.
There is also a giant private sector project – ‘Marina Square’ – to be constructed in Colombo North given approval by the UDA, a joint venture with an investment of around Rs.15 billion led by Access Group with China Harbour and Mustafa Singapore as partners. This seeks to provide “all the luxuries and conveniences at an excellent location in the heart of the city” within a single complex never dreamt of before and as they say, “just a walking distance away from the PortCity.” These for the new rich who perhaps earn ‘dollar incomes’ and could afford Rs.12 million for a ‘single bedroom apartment unit and move upwards depending on affordability.’
Multi-storey apartments constructed all over Colombo and the likes of Marina Square are not what the Colombo District Strategic City Development Plan promises the people. The opening sentence in Chapter 9 titled ‘Settlement development strategy’ says: “One of the main objectives of the Settlements Development Strategy is to ensure affordable housing of high quality for all communities…” emphasising that “….approximately 50% of population of the Colombo Municipal Council reside in underserved settlements located in the northern and central parts of Colombo.” But that is not what is being implemented. What have mushrooming multi-storey apartments and luxury complexes like Marina Square got to do with these underserved settlements and those living in this project area?
Despite what is said in these proposals and in launching them for popular urban middle-class consumption (rural society is no stakeholder/beneficiary in this project), this is NOT urban development. Urban development planning is not about providing comforts, luxuries and social space to attract the new rich and the urban elite. Urban planning first and foremost is about providing a comfortable life for the permanent urban residents within the demarcated urban area and for those who have for decades been paying for the maintenance of urban facilities and utilities there are and also for those making a living within the urban area as daily visitors. Thus, urban development is about ‘zoning’ residential areas with recreational facilities for comfortable life with social space and without commercial and industrial activities disturbing personal and community life. Commercial and industrial activities are thus zoned out of their way at convenient distances for easy access. In short, consumption markets and industrial activities are not dragged into or should not be dragged into residential life. Yet, there is a problem with the clumsy and lazy attitudes in urban life that want everything at their doorstep, including even the bus stop that is never addressed in urban development planning.
This Colombo District Strategic City Development Plan is not about any of them. It is very clearly about planning for a new rich commercial city for those who could come with big money. It is about turning eight local authority areas into a commercial hotspot for those who would invest in these areas and provide a cash flow for a lucrative market. There is no serious attention paid to the 2.5 million plus permanent residents in those local authority areas and to their daily needs to provide comfortable life. The objective of the ‘Spatial Development Strategy of Colombo Commercial City Development Plan (CCCDP) 2019-2030” is spelled out as “...determine the most appropriate city spatial structure for Colombo Commercial City in terms of densification pattern, prominent uses and characters which would contribute to enhance its role as a competing international business hub while minimising negative environmental impacts and social impacts.” The sole purpose of this ‘development plan’ is to turn Colombo and its adjoining areas into a ‘busy maritime hub, a blooming business hub, a highly sought-after tourism nest and as the country’s commercial capital that acts as the focal point of national economy” as the project document says.
"Three years ago in late January 2016, this same ministry with Patali Champika Ranawaka as minister launched the ‘Mega City Development Plan’ for Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara Districts at a cost of USD 40 billion"
Thus, zoning of Colombo is based on ‘high-rise buildings’ termed ‘density zones’ and not on needs and comforts of residents and of daily users of Colombo. The whole area from Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia to Mattakkuliya, Bloemendhal and the area termed Colombo CBD is the ‘high-density zone’ that allows more than 15 per cent high-rise buildings with four to eight floors and 13 floors and more. ‘Moderate Density Zone’ that covers Ratmalana, Peliyagoda, Wattala, Kolonnawa and Kelaniya will have all such buildings between 5 to 15 per cent. Colombois to be turned into a jungle of high-rise buildings mostly for sophisticated business and extravagant living.
Bottom line is, this whole Western Province megapolis concept is about turning Greater Colombo into a commercial hotspot within an insanely corrupt free market economy. A den of corruption in the name of commerce and business, promoted as nationally-important for ‘growth.’ Urban development planning with taglines “Towards the future we dream….” is not what people dream of and “Nation’s call on its brilliant minds and patriotic hearts” is turning residents into aliens in their own locality. All trendy phrases in the plan are just ‘marketing lines’ for urban middle-class taste.