The shape of our urban future

By Thushara Matthias
Despite many urban development plans drafted over the years to cater to the rapid growth of Colombo and its suburbs, the capital and other urban centres are plagued by poor planning. The result is traffic jams, overloaded infrastructure, environmental pollution, poor quality urban life, inappropriate distribution of land and fragmentation of valuable agricultural land.

Apart from lack of funds in the Urban Development Authority (UDA), which is in charge of urban planning, there needs to be a clear, consistent and long term plan that can be implemented without interference by politicians or change of governments. This is far from the case. The Sustainable Township Project goes along at a snail's pace. The organizations that worked together to make this project a success are now under different ministries. Reluctance to co-ordinate, lack of co-operation, and unwillingness to pool resources seem to slowly bringing this project to a halt. In this interview with The Sunday Times FT, S. Amarasekara, Secretary, Ministry of Western Region Development and UDA Chairman speaks about the UDA's present projects and the future shape of our urban landscape. Associated with him were W. Adhikari, Head of the Land Sales Promotion Unit and H.K. Jayasundera, Director, Project Implementation.

What is the current status of the plan to develop the Colombo Metropolitan Area where the country's economic and administrative functions are concentrated along with the international airport and harbour?

Until last year the plan in operation was the Colombo Metropolitan Region (CMR) Plan. This was being amended but has been temporarily halted as the Western Region Development Plan is being drafted now. This was an idea of the Prime Minster under the 'Regaining Sri Lanka' initiative. At present the BOI and CESMA International Private Ltd, a subsidiary of the Housing Development Board of Singapore, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Many parties felt that the guidelines set by the UDA in our previous plans were too rigid and need to be relaxed. The UDA has identified areas such as Colombo 3 and 7 as prime residential areas. Among the other proposals that are under consideration is not to allow high-rise buildings to come up in the coastal stretch as there is a plan to freeze development between Galle Road and the sea beach up to Wellawatta.

What are the main proposals in the new plan?

We have identified areas for open development as many urban areas are already congested. Avissawella is one such new area. The Greater Colombo area is also to be increased with the inclusion of other areas such as part of Maharagama and part of Kolonnawa. At present the Greater Colombo area consists of the Colombo Municipal Council area, Kotte and Mount Lavinia. Under this plan the CMR Plan will also be revised.

What are the prime lands in Colombo that the UDA is considering for development?
Last year we advertised two plots of lands - at Chatham Street and at the Cornel site. Proposals have been received and will be evaluated on their technical and financial viability. The Cornel site tender has been awarded and the land given on a lease for commercial and residential purposes to Ceylinco Homes Ltd for Rs. 276 million. Within three years a 22-storey building has to be put up by the investor.

There are other sites that the UDA is hoping to sell and develop. The land at Hewa Avenue, Colombo 7 (68 perches) is to be developed as a residential area. An area at Reid Avenue (145 perches) is for mixed development. This will be advertised very soon. The former Weaving Mill site at Wellawatta, which is the largest plot of land in Colombo with an area of 17 acres, is also to be developed for mixed purposes through a joint venture between Bank of Ceylon and UDA.

A company has been established for this purpose. This land is a very useful land for private investments.

The UDA is hoping to build the basic infrastructure for the land, which will be open for private sector investment later on while the UDA holds one site for housing projects.

Under Regaining Sri Lanka it has been proposed to develop the Panchikawatta Triangle, which is a key urban centre in Colombo. This presently causes traffic congestion as squatters occupy it. If a development project is carried out the prime land will be released.

This project has still not started. Surath Wickramsinghe Architects has been engaged to carry out a feasibility study on the project.

What other urban areas is the UDA considering developing?

Beruwala, Gampaha and Negombo have been identified as major growth centres. The plans for Maharagama and Negombo are being prepared. We will start work on these areas shortly. There is prime land in Nuwara Eliya on the former Kachcheri site which the UDA is hoping to advertise for sale in the future.

There is concern over sewerage and water disposal and discharge of storm water. During heavy rains the problems become acute. What are the measures taken by the authority to improve conditions?

The UDA is a planning and regulatory body. The maintenance of any public property is the task of the Municipal Council. The UDA acts as a facilitator for investments.

How are UDA projects financed?

The government budget allocates a certain amount for administrative purposes. The money for projects is through land sales. Yet, due to lack of funds we have decided to obtain bank loans keeping prime land as security. We need funds for land acquisitions, to relocate squatters, etc. Since the UDA lacks funds we adopted an alternative method under which the UDA approaches the landowner. Then, according to guidelines set by the UDA, developers are called to bid for the land. The UDA appoints a tender board, which consists of officials and a representative of the landowner. Transparency is maintained throughout the whole procedure. Then after considering many factors such as land value, the UDA awards the tender to the successful bidder. The bidder will then pay the landowner through the UDA where the landowner is guaranteed his compensation. The UDA gets four percent of the total deal as management fees. Then the developer develops the land under the guidance of the UDA.

Recently the government gave approval to the UDA to acquire about 25 to 30 plots of land, which is owned by various government departments in areas like Dematagoda. Yet, several government institutions are reluctant to release their assets. We are in the negotiating stage.

Is there is a marked shortage of recreational facilities in Sri Lankan cities compared to other cities worldwide?

This is quite true. Now the UDA is planning several projects to fill this void. Adjacent to the Bolgoda Lake in Boralasgamuwa there are plans to build a theme park.

The UDA invites proposals from reputed investors to develop and manage two adjacent sites, 5.29 acres and 4.64 acres in extent, adjoining the fisheries harbour at Polkotuwa, Beruwela, for predominantly open-air recreation and entertainment with maximum free access for the general public while including revenue generating activities.

There are plans to develop a beach carnival zone and a green zone.

Shanties and slums tend to discourage investors in acquiring land in certain areas. Isn't this a major barrier to development?

Yes, it's a major social problem. These lands are very valuable, yet the people living on them can't be relocated without alternate housing. The UDA is now focusing its attention on this matter.

The Constitution guarantees "Shelter for all" but how far has this been achieved? What are the programmes to provide shelter for the ever-increasing urban population of the country?

The UDA is presently planning to build 1300 housing units in several cities. These include Borella, Kollupitiya Peliyagoda, Rajagiriya, ,Kalapaluwawa, Depanama and Homagama.

The Sustainable Township Programme envisages constructing 50,000 units by 2005. Can it be achieved?

This was one of the most far-reaching, goal-oriented projects ever initiated in Sri Lanka. It was the joint effort of the UDA, Reclamation Corporation and National Housing Development Authority (NHDA).

They pooled resources. The theme of this project was " housing for poor, land for urban development". It was to operate on a "rolling-basis" which means the UDA acquired land from various entities and this land was used for commercial purposes. The money obtained from these was used to build housing units at Wanathamulla and to acquire new land which could once again be used for commercial purposes. The people evacuated from this will be stationed in the housing units. The youth in these households will be educated. They will move out to middle and higher income houses somewhere else. Then a new set will be brought in and so on. The project is still going on.

There is a lot of land adjoining the government railways. How are these unused lands to be developed?

These lands are not owned by the UDA. There is a controversy at present as the Railway Department, which at first agreed to hand over some land, is now not willing to do so because it will be transformed into an authority in the future and will be restructured.

There are many complaints that the time taken by authorities to process and deliver approvals of building plans and issue certificates of conformity hinders development and adds to the cost of home ownership. In 2001 the UDA planned to set up an e-net office in order to streamline this process and enable online application. Has it achieved its objective?

This project never took off the ground as the CMC took it over. Under this project the UDA planned to use Geographical Information Systems where all information related to land is online. Under this the UDA will feed the information about the land to the system, such as who owns the land, what type of buildings are allowed, the water and sewerage systems surrounding the land, value, etc. The whole process was to be automated and approval obtained in almost a week, which now takes one to three months.


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