Colombo; progress but who is it for?

Colombo is modernising fast, and many would argue ; not before time.  In 2010 although the Sri Lankan economy started to grow rapidly in economic terms at least Colombo was not pulling its weight.

A lack of inward investment was the main cause and the reasons for that were fairly obvious. The image of Colombo was a negative one. Colombo was a city:

  •  prone to flooding,
  • suffering increasing levels of traffic congestion and chronic air pollution;
  • with garbage choked waterways
  • with high levels of deprivation and relative poverty often focussed on the pockets of underserved settlements you can still find all over the Colombo
  •  that looked “down at heel” and in need of a major makeover
  •  that seemingly went to bed by 8pm
  • with a very limited home domestic market and a small tourist base

and of course this was a country still emerging from a brutal period internal conflict.

Contrast this with the glitz of the major Asian cities; KL, Singapore and Hong Kong and it isn’t hard to see why  foreign companies were not too keen to come to Colombo given a commercial environment typified by an out of date and unattractive  commercial environment a shortage of land, and lack of modern business facilities in the city.

Garden city

Not surprising then that the last government saw the need to “rebrand” Colombo as it embarked on a major regeneration exercise, post 2010.

This is what Gotabaya Rajapakse had to say in  2013:

The focus is on developing clean, green, people friendly cities and towns that will foster an efficient working environment and a relaxed living environment….conducive for knowledge workers and other professionals to live and work in Sri Lanka. (who) expect to maintain a high quality of life for themselves and their families…. it is also extremely important from the perspective of attracting Foreign Direct Investment.”

Out of this was borne the concept of The Garden City of South Asia with its emphasis on greening the city, opening up urban spaces and creating high quality recreation spaces such as at Waters Edge.

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pics taken from Sunday Observer

A lot of good came from this.

  1. Flooding ( a regular problem) has been brought under control and the cities drains and spillways have been improved.
  2. Canal sides have been cleared of the sprawling and messy underserved settlements and the rubbish that piled up within them. Beira Lake has also been cleaned up.
  3. Garbage collection improved and the environment generally got a lot better. Colombo in 2014 was a lot cleaner city than London that’s for sure.
  4. The city has at last got properly paved sidewalks; there is even a degree of traffic taming in some parts of the city.
  5. Ugly walls have been knocked down and the city space is opening up.
  6. Major landscaping along the Diyawanna river,  at Waters Edge and in other locations around the city make for high grade recreation space that everyone can use.
  7. City nightlife is on the up; The Dutch Hospital complex and the multiplex cinemas, bars and up market eating places are evidence of growing investment in leisure within the Sri Lankan community.
  8. Many beautiful old historic buildings have been restored to their original glory; none better than the town hall and the old auditor general’s building.
  9. Independence Square is an attractive urban area used by many and Viharamadhevi Park has been turned into a beautiful open space.

IMG_4222-600x400-1

credit: YAMU

So there are many positives and the plans go far beyond the simple environmental uplift the city has enjoyed.

Projects

Ambitious projects like Port City, The Lotus Tower, Krrish Square, the Galle Front Shangri La development  are planned to shoot Colombo into the 21st Century.

note; you can find videos of all of these on U tube via google

The image of Colombo as a vibrant modern city is one that has been promoted; and why not after so many years of hardship?

Clearly government policies are driving this development  but there are other forces at play.

  • you could argue that there is  an emerging middle class with more money to spend and the ambition to live in a more modern city
  • at the same time we live in a global world; TV and the cinema, facebook contacts with friends and relatives living abroad, and holidays abroad; all of that serves to make people aware of what the cities of Singapore, KL and Hong Kong have to offer.. and they want to have a slice of that.. all of which is quite understandable.

However, the major force at work is commercial pressure.

As I wrote at the top of the article  the government believed in 2013 that Colombo needed to attract a great deal more inward investment.

The idea goes.. attract in investment (mainly from abroad) which will drive up tourism, and possibly increase the presence of multi national companies, retail chains and the like locating to Colombo..the development will open up business opportunities, and create jobs which will trickle down to the rest of the city  in terms of jobs and per capita income; everyone benefits.

But do they really or is it a few well placed individuals and foreign corporations who will take most of the rewards from whatever growth occurs?

True, everyone in Colombo benefits from better roads/pavements, more green spaces and a cleaner environment but how relevant are the proposed commercial developments in downtown Colombo to the average joe?

The fact is that around 50% of the Colombo population is on low incomes; the average urban income ( which takes into account all the high earners in the city) is only just over Rs 60,000 whilst outgoings are around Rs 50,000 and that is with at least 2 and maybe more in the family working. (In fact the median income; the most common income, is just Rs 30,400 per month)

So  once rent/ food etc are taken into account what else is left and how many visits to enjoy the high life in Colombo can you make? ( see 2012/13 Household Income and Expenditure Survey)

Port City is justifiably a source of some national pride even among the lower income groups BUT how relevant to them is Port City and all the other developments in downtown Colombo?

Port City (if it ever gets finished) is not really for Sri Lankans is it? The only low income people in Port City will be the tuk and taxi drivers or the housemaids. the same goes for all the hotel developments; This is also true of the new shops and restaurants in the old Auditor General’s building close by Independence Square. They are lovely buildings but how many local people can afford to visit the shops and restaurants there? They are for tourists both business and recreational; something for them to spend their money on.

So is it a case of two Colombo’s are being created: one for the rich, mainly wealthy foreigners and one for the rest?

Not that Colombo is alone in this regard. It is pretty much the same in all the world’s major cities.

Forced evictions; the ugly face of beautification

Commercial pressures were also behind the forced evictions of large numbers of families from the underserved settlements under the guise of urban regeneration and beautification. In all it was planned to evict 65,000 families; around a quarter of a million people and relocate them in high rise blocks like this one:

Mihindu_Sethpura_mega_housing_20131118_06p2

this from the Centre for Policy Alternatives second report:

The rush to relocate communities to high-rise apartments was not done with the uplifting of people’s lives foremost in mind, but with the intention of freeing up property with high commercial value. What made the Urban Regeneration Project of the Urban Development Authority more problematic was the means used to acquire land. Military force, intimidation and harassment were used to evict people from their homes and the process did not follow Sri Lanka’s laws related to land acquisition.

Communities… face many hardships. Residents are forced to pay Rs 1 million for the apartments over a period of 20 – 30 years. They are yet to be given deeds to their apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting and mortgaging the apartments, which means that a source of financial security has been taken away from them.

Winners and losers

A common concept that has been used in geography over many years is that  whenever economic/commercial development takes place there will be winners and losers.

If London is anything to go by the future for Colombo’s lower income groups is bleak. Ongoing development will most likely result in soaring land values; the lower income groups will be priced out of the city and forced to the edge of the city from where they will face an expensive commute back into the city to their place of work. Central London has already been bought up by rich foreign investors who in some cases have bought property with no real intention of living in it; just an investment. The average worker can’t afford to live in London now. Prices in restaurants and bars are obscene in some cases.. and so it goes on.

The accepted view (at least amongst governments and politicians ) is that the capital city drives the economy. London has become a monster dominating the whole of the UK; London is not a place for Londoners these days. Colombo will go the same way.

Note 1

The drive to Singapore style development has taken a step further with the launch of the government’s Megapolis plan. This is really an extension of the Port City, Skyscraper City concept mentioned before in this article. It is a grandiose plan; you can check it out via the Sunday Times (Lanka) report at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110918/News/nws_19.html

Initial thoughts:

  • It relies totally on foreign direct investment; so where is it going to come from and with what strings attached?
  • how much of the existing architectural heritage will be retained?
  • What will happen to Slave Island and Pettah? I am betting those vibrant multi-cultural communities will be broken up and their residents forcibly evicted
  • what will we be left with? Singapore glitters but it is soulless..is that really what Sri Lankans want..
  • how if anything will it change the lives of the majority urban poor/middle income groups.. who will only be able to afford to stand and stare
  • how much of any growth will trickle down to the Sri lankan people?

Colombo is a fascinating, and in places, beautiful city but much of it will be buried by this project and in terms of the country as a whole I wonder what real good it will bring.

How relevant will Colombo really be to people in the rest of the country? Are the policy makers in ganger of creating 2  countries: Colombo and the rest?

Finally will Colombo become such a magnet for growth and development that it becomes a true primate city dominating every aspect of Sri Lankan economic life and what effect will that have on the rest of the country?

Note 2

There is another view of city life though which is worth a look; check out the vision of Jan Gehl on U tube who believes that city growth and regeneration needs to be organised around the needs of people as much as economic priorities.

 

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