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Friday, February 24, 2012 - 5.10 GMT
Our goals should be to preserve and promote SL's unique identity Defence Secy


In terms of urban development, town planning and architecture, one of our critical goals should be to preserve and promote Sri Lanka's unique cultural, historical and environmental identity, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said.

"Sri Lanka is presently is striving for rapid economic growth built upon the foundation of peace. We should realise that Sri Lanka is an attractive destination for foreign investment as well as tourists when compared to many other parts of the world. The challenge before us today is to make sure that we highlight this attractiveness in every way possible. If this is done properly, more and more tourists will choose to visit Sri Lanka and more and more foreign businesses will choose to invest here", he said delivering key note address at the National Conference on Architecture 2012, said " This year's conference was held under the theme of "Regenerating Sri Lanka: the Architect and the Built Environment" at BMICH yesterday.

The Secretary went on to explain, "Improving the quality of the open public spaces within the urban areas is a matter of some priority. People should be able to go for walks, exercise, relax and interact in open spaces within the city".

"To further encourage the enhancement of urban areas outside the large cities, the Urban Development Authority is being decentralised to the Provincial and subsequently the District level," he further said.

Full text of the speech:

I would like to thank the Chairman, Council Members and Organising Committee for having invited me to deliver this address at the 30th Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects. The theme of this year's Conference, "Regenerating Sri Lanka: the Architect and the Built Environment" is a wisely chosen one. It reflects the development thrust of the Government, as well as its intention to refresh and revitalise urban areas and infrastructure that has been neglected for too long. Architects, town planners and professionals in relevant fields are key stakeholders in this process. It is important that they be aware of the Government's objectives in this regard.

Sri Lanka is presently is striving for rapid economic growth built upon the foundation of peace. We should realise that Sri Lanka is an attractive destination for foreign investment as well as tourists when compared to many other parts of the world. The challenge before us today is to make sure that we highlight this attractiveness in every way possible. If this is done properly, more and more tourists will choose to visit Sri Lanka and more and more foreign businesses will choose to invest here.

In terms of urban development, town planning and architecture, one of our critical goals should be to preserve and promote Sri Lanka's unique cultural, historical and environmental identity. Sri Lanka is a country with a mix of cultures, a rich history, and a great deal of natural beauty. This should be reflected in our urban environment. Take Colombo for example. Known as a gateway to Sri Lanka since ancient times, it was a centre of activity for successive colonial administrations in past centuries and is now the country's largest, most vibrant and most modern city. It is the city in which the socio-cultural diversity and harmony of present day Sri Lanka is most visible. In contrast to commercial capitals of comparable countries, it is an impressively green city and a very clean city. It is also an ocean city.

Taken together, all these factors give Colombo a competitive advantage over many of its regional competitors. We must work together to make this advantage even greater. The best way to do this is to highlight and enhance its unique features even further.

Improving the quality of the open public spaces within the urban areas is a matter of some priority. People should be able to go for walks, exercise, relax and interact in open spaces within the city. Over the years, however, the parks and public spaces available for this purpose were largely neglected and in some cases even destroyed. Take the Viharamahadevi Park for example. This is the largest public open space available in the city of Colombo, and it should have been properly preserved as such. Instead, however, its extent was drastically reduced with the establishment of the Public Library on its premises. Commercial activities were allowed to take place, which led to a lot of damage occurring within it. Parts of it such as the children's' play ground or Singithi Uyana, have been stripped of grass and trees and built up with concrete and cement. These developments have greatly reduced the quality of the park as an open public space. While remedial action has been taken recently to try and remedy this situation, some of the damage cannot be undone.

One of the projects currently underway is to create more high quality public spaces throughout urban areas. The Independence Square area is a good example. Its utility was very limited until the recent development project took place. Walls obscured its greenery and even obstructed public access. Anyone wanting to go from Bauddhaloka Mawatha to the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station on Reid Avenue would have to take a taxi. With obstructing walls being demolished and pathways developed, it is now possible to walk that distance in less than five minutes. In addition to walkways, cycle paths and areas for people to relax and interact in have been developed in and around Independence Square. Similar developments have taken place around Beira Lake near Nawam Mawatha and around the DiyawannaOya in Battaramulla. More such developments are coming up in Thalawathugoda, near Water's Edge, in Rampalawatta and other areas.

The spaces being developed will not only be accessible to the general public, they will also be clearly visible to everyone in the city. It is only through this visibility that the true benefit of such spaces will be felt. Colombo is a very green city, but unfortunately most of the greenery had been shut off from public view through the erection of high walls and fences over the years. Not only was the greenery obscured, the beautiful architecture of many of the city's buildings was also hidden behind these walls. People traveling through the city were unable to see its beauty; instead, they only saw congested city spaces surrounded by high walls. That had a definite impact on the sense of freedom felt by the general public. With many of these walls being demolished, Colombo is now a much more pleasant city to live in. A further initiative that should be implemented in future is the removal of the large billboards that have mushroomed all over the urban areas. By adopting a proper policy for billboard advertising, it will be possible to better highlight the natural beauty of our city spaces.

The preservation of waterfront views is another important thing to consider. For too long, hotels and commercial developments near waterfronts and the seafront have obscured them from public view. The view of the waterfront should not be something exclusive to hotel guests and people working in commercial buildings adjacent to waterfronts; they should be open for the general public to see and appreciate.

Another asset that this country has are the many beautiful old buildings in our cities and towns that were built during the Dutch period and the British period. Unfortunately these are not properly maintained, and most of them have been covered from public view for decades. We must make an effort to conserve these buildings and restore them to their original grandeur. We must then open these buildings out to the public so that our citizens as well as the tourists who visit Sri Lanka can see them and appreciate their beauty and historicity.

In this context, I am proud to note that the recent renovation and reopening of the long neglected Dutch Hospital has been a tremendous success. While retaining the spirit of the original architecture, a lot of value addition has taken place through the transformation of the old hospital to a public open space housing high-end shopping and restaurant facilities. The demand from the private sector for similar spaces is great. With that in mind, the old Colombo Racecourse, whose buildings were originally scheduled for demolition, are presently undergoing a transformation similar to that of the Dutch Hospital. The pavilions will be conserved and converted to suit new activities, with the area with road frontage being converted to an upmarket shopping complex. The ground itself will be converted to an international standard rugby ground. A third project of a similar nature is the conversion of the old Marketing Department building adjacent to the Dutch Hospital.

The waterways are another important but long neglected feature of the urban environment. Take the Beire Lake for example. This is a critical water body for the city of Colombo. Unfortunately, there was a time when it was almost completely destroyed through pollution coming from the shanties and buildings on its borders. The lake itself wasn't properly maintained. Its efficiency as the centre piece of the drainage system for Colombo was greatly affected as a result of these factors. The recent initiatives to develop the Lake have greatly improved it, but what was true for the Beire still remains true for many waterways in Colombo; all of these need to be upgraded to a proper standard.

In this context, I am pleased to note that with the assistance of a World Bank loan, the waterways in and around Colombo will be upgraded. The key features of this project include the creation of new lakes, enhancement of the Beira Lake and the creation of micro-drainage systems within the metropolitan area to minimise flooding and upgrading of relevant infrastructure, including roads and public facilities. Capacity enhancement and strengthening of the various agencies and public institutions will also be undertaken to help ensure that the improvements being made to the city's infrastructure will be long lasting.

I hope that the town planners, architects and professionals in related fields in this audience will appreciate the importance of what I have just discussed. We must strive to ensure that the new developments coming up in urban areas contribute to the broader objective of making our towns and cities beautiful, open and public friendly areas that will set Sri Lanka apart from other countries. One of the only advantages of resuming a rapid national development programme after many decades of halted progress is that we can learn from and avoid the mistakes made by countries that have gone before us. The economic development of Sri Lanka must not take place at the expense of its natural beauty. Instead, all the new developments that take place should complement the existing advantages of our cities and towns.

In order to assist in this process, there are a number of projects that have been undertaken by the Government to rationalise the use of city space and generally uplift the urban areas of Sri Lanka. A key initiative that has been expedited is the shifting of Government offices establishments from Colombo to Sri Jayawardenepura, the administrative capital. This will rationalise the functionality of Colombo and free up a lot of space for the expansion of commercial activities. It will also realise the decades old vision of making Sri Jayawardenepura a fully functional administrative capital.

Many of the important construction projects necessary for this relocation of Government offices are already underway. The second stage of the Sethsiripaya complex is presently nearing completion and is on schedule to be opened in April this year. Stage three of the complex is being organised as a Public Private Partnership with an Indian investor. The expanded Sethsiripaya complex will accommodate a large number of Government offices, while additional administrative complexes are being created for the Auditor General's Department, which will be opened in March, the Department of Census & Statistics, and the Registrar General.

Another key project being undertaken is the establishment of a central Defence Headquarters Complex, which will house the headquarters of the Army, Navy, Air Force as well as the Ministry of Defence. The work has already started, and land belonging to the Army headquarters near Galle Face has been released to flagship investors for luxury hotel developments. The Hong Kong based Shangri La Hotels and Resorts, one of the world's leading high-end hotel chains, has already been allotted ten acres of land to establish a luxury hotel in that location. ITC of India has signed an agreement to obtain the remainder of the land to establish another luxury hotel. In addition to relocating Armed Forces headquarters, a new Police Headquarters will also be constructed outside the immediate Colombo metropolitan area.

Apart from the relocation of Government Ministries, Departments and offices from Colombo to Sri Jayawardenepura, the Government is also relocating certain economic infrastructure in order to provide better facilities at custom-built locations whilst minimising the need for heavy vehicles to enter the heart of the city. The relocation of the St. John's fish market and Manning market from Colombo to Paliyagoda is a key initiative in this regard. Paliyagoda is poised to be a central location with the construction of the Outer Circular Road. Establishing the wholesale markets for the Western Province in that region will allow retailers from Gampaha and Kalutara to obtain their requirements without being compelled to travel through Colombo. Another initiative being taken for a similar reason is to establish a dry port in Paliyagoda. By constructing a rail link between the Colombo port and this container terminal, it will be possible to dispatch cargo from Colombo to the rest of the country without container trucks passing through the city. On a much smaller scale, the relocation of pavement hawkers established in unauthorised lots in various parts of Colombo to proper facilities nearby has also reduced the congestion on our streets.

The area in which the fish market used to be is now being redeveloped as a central facility for gold, gems and jewellery. Despite gems being one of Sri Lanka's most widely recognised exports and a significant industry in the country, there is no central location for a marketplace for such items. With the relocation of the fish market, a spacious, modern, Dubai-style Gold exchange will be established in Pettah. This will allow businesses in the gold, gem and jewellery industry to establish shops in a secure, central environment that will be conducive for more trade. The land freed through the relocation of the Manning market will be used to establish a commuter centre that will provide convenient shopping facilities for people using the adjacent rail and bus stations in Fort.

The rationalisation of land use in Colombo is part of a larger city rejuvenation programme that is presently underway. One of the key projects in this rejuvenation effort is the uplifting of living standards of people living in slums and shanties. It has been found that some 70,000 families live in such underserved settlements in various prime locations throughout Colombo. Under the Resettlement of Underserved Settlements Project, these families will be provided housing units designed and built to a good standard. The construction of 10,000 housing units is presently underway, and plans are in place to expand this number by a further 15,000 during the next year.

Another programme underway in the Slave Island area is to regenerate urban spaces through Private Public Partnerships with the cooperation of landowners. There are a large number of small private homes and properties in these areas that are old and quite run down and need to be replaced to enable the uplifting of the neighbourhood. Under a project facilitated by the Urban Development Authority, regionally recognised players in the property sector have undertaken mixed developments there with full cooperation of the property owners. The householders will be resettled in high quality high-rise accommodation within the same neighbourhood, and will also receive a rent for housing during the construction period.

Through all the measures just discussed, the Government hopes to facilitate the growth of Colombo to a world-class city that will be the centre piece of Sri Lanka's economic revival. By upgrading commercial, residential and public facilities in the city to a very high quality, the city will not only become an easier one to live in, but will also become a lot more attractive from the point of view of international investment. With its close proximity to the international airport, an expanded and upgraded port, and much improved land communication infrastructure including an Outer Circular Road and Expressways to other large cities, Colombo will become a true commercial and economic hub. This is an essential prerequisite for fast-tracking our economic development.

At the same time, the Government has taken steps to develop towns in the rest of the country. Urban development is being undertaken in all parts of Sri Lanka, and a number of successful regional development programmes have already produced impressive results. Even before the end of the war, a great deal of work was done in the Eastern province to upgrade infrastructure and create higher quality facilities. A similar programme was enacted in the North soon after the dawn of peace. The amount of work that has been done in a short span of time is quite laudable. The on-going development of towns such as Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mankulam will result in the people of those areas gaining access to a much higher quality of urban life.

Take Jaffna for example. The system of ponds and canals that is an important feature of its landscape is presently being redeveloped through the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation. With Norwegian assistance, the Fort is being redeveloped. The town's bus terminals are being developed, and improved measures for traffic control and parking within town limits are being put into place. The open public spaces are also being rejuvenated. Similar efforts are underway in Kilinochchi. An economic centre for the collection of agricultural produce, similar to Dambulla, alongside accelerated improvements to public administration and civil infrastructure such as the bus terminal and circular road is taking place there.

A large number of small and medium mini towns are scheduled to be developed from each District during this year. These include towns such as Imaduwa and Akuressa in Galle, Urubokka in Matara, Eheliyagoda in Ratnapura, Narammala and Panduwasnuwara in Kurunegala, Dankotuwa and Naththandiya in Puttalam, as well as Mannar, Haputale and Diyatalawa. These are towns that have long been neglected, and their infrastructure and public spaces will be significantly revamped. This will create a much-improved living environment in these town areas. An example of a very successful recent project of this nature has been the upgrading of Matara, which is being rapidly developed. Another is Nuwara Eliya; particularly in the areas surrounding Lake Gregory, the transformation that has been achieved is quite remarkable.

To further encourage the enhancement of urban areas outside the large cities, the Urban Development Authority is being decentralised to the Provincial and subsequently the District level. It has to be said that many of the regional offices of the UDA did not exist in anything more than name for many years, but under the present decentralisation programme, professionals in areas such as town planning, transport planning, architecture and engineering are being deployed to the regions. The UDA's regional offices will also be encouraged to provide consultancy services. This initiative should effectively convert a cost centre into a profit centre, and ensure more effective governance in those regions.

In the longer term, the creation of greater institutional strength and the development of cohesive plans and policies by the central and regional state agencies will result in greater efficiency in urban development. While this process is underway, the role of the public in regenerating Sri Lanka is also very important. Cleanliness must be maintained in the urban areas, and businesses as well as individuals must ensure that they do not pollute public spaces. Road frontages should be kept clean and tidy, and no activities undertaken by businesses should encroach on pavements or misuse the drainage system. New buildings should be designed to complement their surroundings, and they should be open to public view without being obscured, or obscuring the city's beauty. As town planners, architects and professionals in related fields, many of you also have a role to play in this regard. Your contribution in educating the public on the matters discussed would also be greatly appreciated.

Regenerating and transforming Sri Lanka from a developing nation to the Miracle of Asia is the task before all patriotic citizens today. I hope that the content of this speech has provided a broad outline of the Government's intentions in this regard, with a particular focus on urban development that should provide a useful point of departure for the forthcoming Sessions at this Conference. In concluding, let me wish all of you a productive and enjoyable day, and request all of you to work together with us to make our vision for a better Sri Lanka a reality.
Thank you.

Courtesy: Ministry of Defence and Urban Development





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