Urban areas are highly dynamic and accordingly their metabolism changes. With improving accessibility and stronger connectivity, urban development moves from single (sprawling) cities to a more disperse urban pattern that forms metropolitan areas.   In such a bustling backdrop, people’s quality of life are influenced by urban patterns and flows, analysts say noting that this is [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Rapid urbanisation triggers weak city planning, policy consistencies


Urban areas are highly dynamic and accordingly their metabolism changes. With improving accessibility and stronger connectivity, urban development moves from single (sprawling) cities to a more disperse urban pattern that forms metropolitan areas.   In such a bustling backdrop, people’s quality of life are influenced by urban patterns and flows, analysts say noting that this is why policy consistency is so important. “A very important facet of our quality of life is defined in terms of how we spend our time. So if people have to travel for several hours to get to work on a daily basis, this will tend to have a negative impact on the quality of life. This also raises deeper questions of city living and affordability,” Roshan Madawela, CEO/Director Real Estate Intelligence Unit (RIU) told the Business Times. For instance the heart-beat of every city, the people that keep the city ticking are typically low income groups, he pointed out noting that it’s important that these people are accommodated within the city and not priced out of their dwellings in a scenario where only the super-rich can afford to live centrally.

“In Colombo, we see many people commuting daily for several hours from outside the district, or even outside the Western Province to work at offices or government departments. Can you imagine the impact on the quality of life for these people who commute from Galle or Kurunagala each day?”

Poor planning; poorer policy

Cities in Sri Lanka are poorly planned or not planned at all. The density of nearby housing strongly influences large metropolitan areas, but this isn’t so in Colombo. Road safety is also of serious concern where an average of seven people meet with fatal accidents each day according to the statistics. Mr. Madawela stressed that the authorities need to prioritise road safety as a matter of urgency. “It’s also mind boggling to think that over 95 per cent of freight transport in Sri Lanka is carried on the roads instead of the railways. Incentives need to be introduced in order to move freight off the roads and onto the railways,” he said.

Hemaka de Alwis, Chairman Fairway Holdings, mirrors these thoughts. “The policy of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) with regard to the traffic impact of apartment complexes is not good,” he told the Business Times referring to the main Parliament drive from Castle Street junction to the Parliament junction near Diyatha Uyana. “This a very busy stretch of the road at most times of the day. The UDA has given approval for three medium sized apartment buildings on this main road. Two of them are near the Castle Hospital (Apartment Buildings A & B), one on each side of the road, and the other one is Welikada, in front of the Keells Supermarket (Apartment building C). The policy of the UDA with regard to the Parliament drive earlier was that it was reserved for institutional and commercial developments.”

Leaving this aside put yourself in the shoes of any of the apartment dwellers in these buildings. In the apartment buildings 1 and 3 are on one side of Castle Street. Apartment Building 2 is on the opposite side, he said. “Imagine you work in Colombo and have to travel from one of these buildings. Think of the circuitous route you will have to take either when going to work or coming back from work. The same applies if you are working in the other direction also. Either when going to work or when coming back, you will have to take a circuitous route that will not only cost you valuable time and money but also contribute to further traffic congestion because you are adding a number of cars in a loop to an already congested road network. This is very poor planning on the part of the authorities,” Mr. De Alwis explained. Another such building at the Narahenpita end of Thimbirigasyaya Road that was designed to disgorge its traffic directly to the queue at the traffic lights has been stopped by a court action after the neighbours complained.

The current lack of emphasis on the interdependencies between buildings and overall quality of life, as measured by health, safety, and welfare considerations, imply the need for a rethinking of public policy methodology to transportation investment and land development,  an analyst said.

Mr. De Alwis added that zoning is very important for a city to develop in an aesthetically pleasing manner. “Like in the instance of the UDA sanctioning apartment buildings on the main Parliament drive, we saw recently they had allowed a couple of 75 storey buildings in Colombo 7, an area where high-rises were not permitted earlier. The same goes for coastal area regulations. There is a lot of ambiguity and poor planning. There used to be logic for these regulations. Apartment buildings were not allowed on the Parliament Road because it is unseemly to have ugly laundry lines, etc hanging from balconies along the state drive. High-rises were not allowed in certain areas as they were classified as primary residential zones.”

Zoning also allows the classification of certain economic zones, he said. “We can call them entry level, intermediary and high end. We need to have them.”

Policies influence people’s health in cities, the analyst added saying that this may seem obvious for cities in developing countries, where informal settlements are rapidly expanding and it is difficult to monitor population numbers. Transport policies clearly have an impact on health. Analysts say that in practice, equity is mirrored in urban planning but for Colombo in particular this isn’t the case.

According to Mr. De Alwis, spatial planning goes hand in hand with zoning. The modern city planner must anticipate the wants and needs and the economic status of all its city dwellers, he said adding that today, the real luxury money can buy is space, but consideration must be given to these various strata of socio economic condition of the potential dwellers when planning the city. In other words, zoning.

“What I have seen overseas is for the entry level, the zoning allows certain relaxation of car parks requirements, floor area ratios, the density, etc in place of larger common facilities such as parks, libraries, etc. it is common for the local government agency of the area to develop these common facilities. These requirements are very different in intermediary and luxury zones. It’s always a compromise of space. Therefore, through proper zoning and planning, a city can facilitate a healthy local environment for its citizens.”

With rapid urbanisation health and wellbeing Is an issue

“We live in a city where there is no provision of safe cycling for instance. In Sri Lanka, cycling can be regarded as a dangerous and extreme sport and pastime while the developed world has embraced it as part of the city transport solution. Instead, even in scenic Sri Lankan country-side towns, noise and traffic pollution rules, whereby the latter is a major cause of rising respiratory illnesses, especially amongst children,” Mr. Madawela said.

Another consideration is mental illness. It is widely believed that open spaces and parks serve to improve overall mental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, much of the Western Province is being transformed into a concrete jungle with no regard for increasing the number of open spaces and parks. “It is near impossible to find a place to kick a ball in Colombo at most times. In the developed world, parks are located within walking distances of all residential communities,” Mr. Madawela said adding that health and environmental aspects included in early stages of planning need to be included when building apartments.

“The authorities that grant permits for builders and developers have their own criteria and guidelines on what can be approved. However, by international standards, the authorities here are too lenient and the emphasis doesn’t seem to be on preserving the islands natural environment. I believe more needs to be done in order to secure the interests of people and the natural environment.”

In this context, Mr. Madawela said that trees should be protected and planted. “Developers should be encouraged not to chop down trees and instead accommodate trees into the building plan. Where chopp ing down trees is unavoidable, the developer should be required to plant multiple new trees in its place.”

Without more stringent planning, regulations and the enforcement thereof, the quality of life in the Western Province in particular will be threatened and the overall natural attraction of the island will be eroded, he said adding that awareness should spread and action needs to be taken by the authorities soon. “At RIU, we encourage developers to embrace the green concepts and incorporate them into their developments.”

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.