Business Times

Appropriate housing solutions for low income groups in Colombo city

By Thushara Samaratunga (MPIA / MITPSL) PhD Candidate - Bond University, Australia

Until 2001, high-rise housing for low-income people (structures above five storeys) was not in the Sri Lankan government's urban planning agenda. Since then, the government has attempted to convince urban slum dwellers to relocate to nearby high-rise apartments and, thus, reclaim encumbered lands for commercial and city development.

Maligawatha Flats - 10 minutes walking distance to the railway yards and industrial areas.

The "Sahaspura" high-rise low-income housing project was the first attempt in this direction and it consisted of 14 floors with 670 housing units in 2001. In practice, this concept has been limited to one project, "Sahaspura", and no more developments were proposed until the end of the civil war in 2009. However, after that, the government has given priority attention to city development, especially in Colombo as it is the commercial capital of the country. The main constraint in Colombo city development is that 51 % of the city's population live in under-served settlements.

The alternative considered best by Colombo was to implement a high-rise high-density vertical housing strategy, which begun in 2001 under the "Sahaspura" project. At the time of writing this, nearly 12,000 housing units have begun with a goal to construct 35,000 dwellings within next three years.

However, Sri Lankan housing professionals and policy-makers have mixed feelings about high-rise low-income housing in Colombo and ongoing high rise low income housing in Colombo. Lack of literature and research are the main disadvantages in the field and the city needs more academic research, professional dialogue to discover what the main factors are in the success or failures of low-income housing, especially high-rise low-income housing.

Even though high-rise low-income housing is new for Sri Lanka, it is not new for many other countries in the world. Therefore, using the knowledge gained from international experiences and critically evaluation of past experiences would be very beneficial for Sri Lankan high-rise housing. The Pruitt Igoe public housing project in St Louis, US is one of the most discussed high rise low income housing projects as well as a symbolic icon and the most well-known case study, which ended in the demolition of 2,800 housing units. There is a correlation between the Pruitt-Igoe case and the current Colombo high-rise low-income housing program called Relocation of Underserved Settlement. As the main aim of both projects was slum clearance by providing high-rise housing for urban poor. Therefore, understanding the Pruitt-Igoe experience and evaluation of "Sahasputra" experiences is important for Sri Lankan professionals and policy-makers to reduce the risk and not repeat the same mistake in developing high-rise low-income housing in Sri Lanka.

Key issues
In the Pruitt Igoe public housing project and other well known high rise public housing projects, it is clear that most of issues are associated with main four categories listed below:

The success or failure of high-rise low-income housing depends on how these four sectors are managed and mitigated. After the high-profile failure of the Pruitt Igoe public housing scheme, most housing professionals considered high-rise public housing chapter no longer an option in the US. Therefore, to understand the issues surrounding high-rise low-density housing, it is necessary to conduct an in-depth evaluation of Pruitt Igoe housing project with comparison of how social and cultural issues, architectural planning and technical issues, financial issues and management and operational issues affected this project.

Pruitt-Igoe was a large public housing project built in 1954 on a 57-acre site in St Louis, comprising 33 eleven-floor buildings which would house over 2,800 apartments. The complex was designed by well-known architect Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the World Trade Centre in New York. Pruitt-Igoe was a critically acclaimed design and in 1951 the Architectural Forum gave Pruitt-Igoe an award as the 'the best high-rise apartment' of the year. Pruitt-Igoe was styled as a project that followed the principles of Le Corbusier's concept in modern architecture. Although criticisms of inadequate parking and a lack of recreation facilities were levelled at this project, no one anticipated Pruitt-Igoe would become a symbolic failure in the public housing sector.

Shortly after its completion, this award-winning project began its decline. The project had failed at an architectural and social level. Maintenance and many other qualitative features proved to be expensive and difficult to upkeep. In 1972, state and federal authorities decided to demolish the $57 million investment project, making it the biggest disaster in high-rise public housing history.

What went wrong with Pruitt-Igoe? The explanation for the spectacular failure is complex. Most people believe it was purely architectural failure and the construction did not meet the needs of the city or its residents. Other critics bring in social factors, such as a lack of shared space to create community feeling and the lack of recreational areas. Some argue poor maintenance and management which caused the building to fall into disrepair. However, no one single reason could cause such a huge disaster, and the most common theory is that several mistakes were made throughout the project. Therefore, architectural social, management and policy issues equally led to the qualitative decline and kept people out of the project.

Planning and technical issues
Technical failures and the negative attitudes of the architects also have had a bad impact on public housing in this era. Most of the architects who plan public housing for low-income people didn't really care about the people who were going to live in it. The public's image was they were just considered poor, illiterate people, so the attitude was, 'Let's put them all in one place, in these huge buildings, and just let the damned things go'. That statement rings especially true in the context of the Sri Lankan low-income housing, as governments tend to think only in terms of literal improvement of living space, believing it is enough to uplift the living condition and social life of the urban poor. For example, in "Sahaspura" the minimum unit size is 35 square metres, which is not much space for an entire family and their amenities. However as the family's previous dwellings in the slums likely consisted of a space smaller than 35 square metres without any amenities, it is an improvement.

According to literature, there are common features to high-rise public housing that mean it will not wear well over time. Some examples of these features are poor maintenance, the regular breakdown of elevators, a low-cost design, a lack of insulation to prevent excesses of heat and cold, a lack of open space and landscaping as well as isolation of individuals due to a lack of common space. Furthermore, if an area consists of only low-income people, then it will be labelled as 'a place where the poor people are living'. The Pruitt-Igoe development experienced all of the above-mentioned weaknesses, and they have been very common in most low-income housing projects in Sri Lanka.

Location is another issue in many public housing projects. City planners tend to propose poor and isolated areas for low income housing. Considering the land value and demand, locating low income housing far away from the city centre is much cheaper and can reduce the cost of the project. Pruitt-Igoe is an example of this, as it was located far away from the Central Business District (CBD) in an area which was demarcated as poor residential area. Fortunately, Sri Lankan urban planners have avoided this mistake and attempting to provide low-income housing near the CBD and and other workplaces.
The best examples are "Gunasinghe Pura Flats", just five minutes walking distance from the CBD and Central Station, "Kotahena Flats" which is five minutes walking distance from the Colombo harbour and "Maligawatha Flats", which is 10 minutes walking distance to the railway yards and industrial areas. In addition "Sahaspura", Sri Lanka's first high-rise low-income housing project, is also located at the centre of the city. Prime location is one of the main strength in Colombo's low-income housing, and even though low-income housing tends to have the minimum facilities and amenities, no project has resulted in demolition or mass vacancies like Pruitt-Igoe.

From a health point of view reducing elevators encourages people to walk and climb stairs, thus receiving incidental beneficial exercise. However, a skip-stop elevator causes enormous difficulty to elderly people, sick people or those with a disability, pregnant woman and parents with small children. Unfortunately, the same thing happened in Sahaspura when the Sri Lankan architects also incorrectly assumed that having galleries would help promote community interaction in what was bound to be a harsh environment, and so the lift only operated above the fifth floor. Today, these huge corridors are the most difficult part to maintain and that unnecessary space could have been added to residential area and bigger units could have been made for the same cost. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan architects did not structurally restrict building with skip-stop elevators and manually restricted usage up to the fourth level. Therefore those people who need the elevator can obtain special permission to use it when they need.

Social issues
In Colombo, ethnic and religion diversification is not a big problem. Despite this, social recognition can be very negative and with a perception that low-income people who live low-income housing are 'looked down upon' and lack privilege in the city. Another mistake made in Pruitt-Igoe was to house many people into too little space, without easy access to the outside world. In fact, even as the public housing planners were designing their high-rise blueprints in the early 1950s, sociologists were warning of the dangers of separating the poor and isolating them in mammoth structures. However, the warnings went unheeded, and during the 1950s and early 1960s, a boom period for public housing, the vast majority of units constructed in major urban areas were in buildings of nine or more storeys.

A similar situation is currently occurring in Sri Lanka. After the end of the 30 year civil war, planners and city authority tried to build as many high-rise low-income housing as possible in a limited area to clear the slums in the city. However, Sri Lankan urban planners and policy-makers often do not pay attention to social issues and focus on production. If Sri Lankan policy-makers do not learn lessons from past unsuccessful examples of isolated high-density low-income housing, the same failure can be happen in Colombo. Further social issues such as violence, crime, drugs, vandalism, illegal business and the Mafia also contributed to the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe development. These types of social issues are not uncommon in slums and when slum dwellers relocate to the high-rises, they bring their existing social issues with them. Therefore, planners should be aware of this problem and avoid placing thousands of slum dwellers in one place, thus reducing their vulnerability to crime and creating a safe environment.

In the 1980's the Max Plank Institute in Germany received funding from the European Union to establish the relationship between high-rise low-income housing and vulnerability to crime, focusing on whether this problem of crime has something to do with the design and construction of high-rise housing or whether it is to do with broader social and demographic factors. The research found that crime and a decrease in the quality of life is not limited to high-rise buildings and that physical security and design improvements aimed at crime reduction alone will not in themselves guarantee a safer environment. As usual, community safety is reliant more on socio--economic, community cohesion, demographic and estate management factors. Good design and appropriate levels of fortification can provide the background to a better quality of life for residents of high-rise housing.

Management and maintenance
Experiences with the management and maintenance of high-rises in the past have show that high-rise housing is difficult and complicated to manage, whether privately owned, government owned or belonging to a housing association. High-rise housing often shares too many facilities and amenities including public spaces, lifts, combined electricity and water networks, et cetera, but lack any who takes responsibility for their maintenance, management and cleanliness of the building. Therefore having a management corporation is essential for undertaking the management and maintenance of the building. It is vital that the management corporate has sufficient funds to keep the building in a good manner. Privately, owned luxury high-rise apartment buildings have their own mechanism to maintain the building which includes adequate funding, but it more complicated when it comes to low-income high-rise housing. Poor maintenance is one of the biggest contributors to the deterioration of high-rise buildings and low-income housing associations often have little or no money to undertake regular maintenance.

Most of the low-income house-owners believe it is the responsibility of the government or city council and blame the government and city council for the deterioration of the building. The previous Sri Lankan government did not establish a requirement to have a management corporation for low-income housing projects and all maintenance was done by the Common Amenity Board in the Housing Ministry. However, this system has been changed from "Sahaspura" project and now it is legal requirement for established management corporation for high-rise low-income housing project which is responsible for taking care of the building with the support of the residents. However, even with a compulsory management corporation raising funds is still crucial with low-income housing in any circumstances. This problem is not exclusive to Pruitt-Igoe and Sri Lanka. It is very common scenario for low-income high-rises around the world.

Financial issues
Mary K. Nenno, the Associate Director of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials in the 1950s, stated that "The construction of high-rise public housing was to a large extent a response to cost pressures.

The federal government wanted to get as many units on a site as was humanly possible - not only because it would be cheaper to build per unit, but also because it would be cheaper to operate once it was built and would mean more rental income coming in".

Accordingly, it was clear that under the urban renewal and slum clearance projects of the 1950s, the housing authority target was to provide as many units as possible for low-income families with a limited budget. Budget restrictions were one of the main reason changing the original proposal of Pruitt-Igoe, which was a mix of high and low density housing projects, to only high-density 11-storeyed housing. The Pruitt-Igoe project was also severely restricted by cost-cutting as an attempt to reduce costs from the original budget. The cost-cutting limited the architects and forced them to change the original designs. Several changes were made to the design of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing, for example elevators and corridors were constructed on the outside of most buildings and cheap material and poor-quality finishes were used. Additionally, to save money on doorways, elevators were designed to stop only on every third floor, and while the elevators and hallways constructed along the outside of buildings may have reduced initial costs, they also virtually ensured there would be maintenance problems. This post-concept reduction of construction costs also happened in Colombo while developing its high-rise low-income housing. The government wanted to minimise the cost of housing while building as many units as possible within a limited budget. In "Sahaspura", the initial minimum unit size was 45 square metres. This area was reduced to 35 square metres due to the huge cost pressure and to increase the number of units.

Currently the Sri Lankan government plans to construct 66,000 high-rise housing units in Colombo to relocate the residents of under-served settlements in the city. This is the biggest relocation programme in the country's history and the estimated budget is Rs 2.5 million per unit.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development in Sri Lanka and the key person in the relocation of under-served settlement programme, during a speech on World Town Planning Day (2010), noted: "At least Rs 2.5 million is required to resettle one of these families at a small housing unit. We have to find money to relocate these families. Town planning comes in here. Town planning should be realistic and town planners have a big challenge while doing this."

His statement makes clear that the government expects considerable professional input in this programme in order for it to succeed. Therefore planners, architects, engineers and all professionals who engage in the relocation programme have a huge responsibility to ensure its success and they have to be careful not to make any mistakes as well as not repeating simillar mistakes that have been made in other developments previously.

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