Uplifting Colombo to a world-class city remains a key priority of the Government…with the on-going economic growth, a great deal of urban regeneration is very clearly taking place in Sri Lanka. This regeneration is taking place in the capital city of Colombo, as well as in the other cities and towns around the country, said Secretary Defence & Urban Development Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the Launch of the South Asia Region Urbanization Knowledge Platform, in Colombo today (20).
Mr. Rajapaksa who detailed the many challenges facing the urban development of Colombo such as underserved settlements, poor drainage and sewerage, unauthorized boutiques on pavements and roads and solid waste management said that while meeting all these development challenges, the Government has been very much aware of the need to capitalize on the natural advantages that historic cities like Colombo have.
‘The unique blend of cultures and the shared heritage of the various communities of this country must be highlighted in its urban growth. There are old Colonial buildings all around Colombo and the other cities of Sri Lanka. There are also ancient temples, kovils, mosques and churches. There are public places with history and great symbolic value, such as the Viharamahadevi park, or old Victoria park, and Independence Square. In developing the city spaces, it is important to highlight this heritage. A number of projects that have got underway in the recent past that have been instrumental in doing so’, he further said.
He added that when undertaking all the development programmes discussed earlier, the Government is taking particular care to improve the greenery of the city and the vitality of its public spaces. Having enough public spaces for people to relax and enjoy themselves in is very important, and the creation of more quality public open spaces is at present underway.
He also said that through the measures just discussed, the Government hopes that Colombo will be transformed into a world-class city that can be the centrepiece 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.
Full text of the speech
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank World Bank for having invited me to be the Chief Guest at the Launch of the South Asia Region Urbanisation Knowledge Platform. I hope that the sharing of knowledge that will take place through this Platform will be to the great benefit of all the nations represented here. On behalf of the Government, I take this opportunity to warmly welcome all of you to Sri Lanka. It is a pleasure and an honour for us to have so distinguished a group of international urban experts and decision makers in Sri Lanka for this event.
Less than three years ago, Sri Lanka emerged from the shadow of a terrorist conflict that had lasted for nearly thirty years. Quite apart from the lives lost and the affect that this conflict had on our society, its impact on our economic development was tremendous. Now that we have achieved peace, a rapid economic growth is taking place after many years of stagnation. Because of the peace, stability and freedom now enjoyed throughout Sri Lanka, investors are very confident about this county’s prospects. They are showing a keen interest to tap the great potential available in this country in many sectors. Tourists, too, are returning to Sri Lanka in large numbers. The Government is confident that these are healthy signs of even greater things to come.
With the on-going economic growth, a great deal of urban regeneration is very clearly taking place in Sri Lanka. This regeneration is taking place in the capital city of Colombo, as well as in the other cities and towns around the country. The development of Colombo is particularly important. 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. Although other cities such as Kandy, Galle, Jaffna and the fast emerging city of Hambantota also play important roles in the life of this nation, uplifting Colombo to a world-class city remains a key priority of the Government.
With its rapid growth over the centuries, the urban development of Colombo poses a diverse set of challenges. A very significant issue facing Colombo is the large number of people who live in underserved settlements throughout the city. During the past few decades, many people migrated to Colombo from all around the country. A large number of them were seeking to escape the terrorist conflict in the North and East. Others were mostly poor people from the rural areas, attracted to Colombo because of the economic activity and good prospects in the city.
As they lacked the wealth for proper housing facilities, most of these people settled in poorly constructed shanties and slums that sprawl over the cityscape. These settlements are mostly on government lands in various parts of Colombo. Many of them are on the reservations set aside around the lakes, canals, roadways and railway tracks. These settlements lack basic facilities and sanitation. The hygiene of the people living in them is poor. Their living conditions are bad, criminal activity is rife and they and their children undergo various hardships on a daily basis. Their quality of life leaves much to be desired. Finding a solution to this issue is one of the key challenges before the Government.
Improving and redeveloping the infrastructure of city areas also poses a serious challenge for urban development in Sri Lanka. The drainage system and flood control systems require rapid improvements. A sewerage system is present only in the city limits, and it is quite overburdened. There are also other infrastructure related problems that impede the uplifting of living standards. The limited space available for public spaces such as parks and other recreational spaces has long been a serious issue. The Government is keen to ensure that appropriate remedies are found for this problem, as access to public spaces is a significant factor in the quality of life of all citizens.
Another significant challenge is the number of unauthorised small boutiques that have been set up mainly on pavements, roads and reservations in various parts of the city. These boutiques reduce space available to commuters and prevent the expansion of roads by blocking the reservations. A lot of problems regarding the cleaning and maintenance of roads also arises due to the presence of these pavement hawkers. Because the people who run these small boutiques depend on commuters en route to bus stations or train stations for business, attempts to relocate them to other areas deprives them of their income. We need to find a proper mechanism to enable them to retain their livelihoods, whilst relocating them so that they no longer obstruct pavements and roads and the proper maintenance of the city streets.
Colombo and the other cities in Sri Lanka also face very serious difficulties regarding the management of solid waste. Garbage is typically dumped in low-lying areas. This can have many serious consequences, including the pollution of water and other environmental hazards for people in surrounding areas. This is another area in which I hope fruitful discussions can take place at this Platform, with particular emphasis on the solutions that have been arrived at in other countries.
I believe that all of the challenges I discussed are significant issues not only in Sri Lanka but also in the rest of the region. I hope that the urban specialists from the World Bank and the various countries represented here will be able to share with us their experiences and knowledge on these problems, and discuss the ways in which these problems have been solved in other parts of the world. As Sri Lanka moves forward into a brighter future, finding solutions to these various issues is a high priority. The Government of Sri Lanka also welcomes, and would greatly appreciate, any proposals of solutions for these issues from the experts present and the institutions represented here.
At the same time, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss with you some of the initiatives Sri Lanka has taken with regard to urban development over the past few years. A significant programme that has been undertaken is the rationalisation of the city of Colombo. Thirty years ago, a city plan was developed that featured moving all government buildings and offices out of Colombo to the adjacent administrative capital of Sri Jayawardenepura, Kotte. A proposal was also made to develop that the neighbouring region of Malabe as an education hub.
Over the past two years, moving the administrative buildings from the Colombo city limits has been expedited. The construction of new office buildings for the Government Ministries, Departments and offices at Sethsiripaya in Battaramulla is rapidly underway. Stage II of the Sethsiripaya Complex is nearing completion and is scheduled to open next month. Stage III of the complex will be constructed as a Public Private Partnership. Several standalone administrative complexes are also being created. The opening ceremony of the new building for the Auditor General’s Department took place yesterday. New buildings will also be provided to the Department of Census & Statistics, and the Registrar General’s Department outside Colombo city limits.
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 the land that was occupied by the Army headquarters near Galle Face has been released to flagship investors for luxury hotel developments. 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 city.
To further rationalise space utilisation in the city, the relocation of wholesale markets and other economic infrastructure to custom designed locations outside the city limits is taking place. The old St. John’s fish market in Fort, which was the key wholesale market for fish in the Western Province, has been shifted to Paliyagoda. The Manning market, which is the wholesale market for vegetables, is also to be shifted to the same area. Peliyagoda is poised to be a central location for the entire western province with the construction of an Outer Circular Road. By using this road, heavy vehicles that transport goods from these wholesale markets to retailers will be able to avoid entering the city limits unless so required. By creating rail links between the Colombo port and a container terminal and dry port being set up at Paliyagoda, it will also become possible to drastically reduce container traffic entering Colombo.
With regard to the underserved settlements, the Government has a clear intention to upgrade the quality of life of the people in slums and shanties by providing them proper housing facilities. It is not only important to give them much higher quality places to live in, but also to facilitate a better quality of community life for them. Under the Resettlement of Underserved Settlements Project being undertaken by the Urban Development Authority, some 70,000 families living in poor conditions in Colombo will be given housing in high rise buildings designed and constructed to a good standard. These buildings will come up in close proximity to the original homes of these families, so that they do not need to find different jobs or send their children to different schools. The construction of 10,000 housing units is presently under way, and plans are in place to expand this number by a further 15,000 during the next year.
In this context, however, I have to note that providing proper housing for the underserved settlements is a significant problem for town planners and architects. Over the years, various administrations have tried to tackle this issue, but they have had limited success. It has been observed that relocating the urban poor to high-rise buildings causes several problems. The people find it very difficult to adjust to their new environment. They typically lack an interest in preserving these buildings properly, and their attention to cleanliness is not as great as it should be. Because they are from the low-income segment of society, they would find it difficult to maintain the high-rise buildings properly even if they had an interest in doing so. As a result, the cost of maintaining these buildings ultimately devolves onto the government. With the initial construction cost of these buildings also being very high, this makes relocating low-income segments to high-rise buildings is a very costly exercise.
However, because the shantytowns and slums tend to be low-rise buildings sprawled over large extents of land, one of the great benefits of the relocation programme is that it will release a lot of prime land in Colombo for commercial and other developments, including the creation of more public spaces. Nevertheless, finding a more practical and end-user friendly solution to the problem of underserved settlements is a high priority. The solutions identified can be used for future projects to provide better housing to the people in the underserved settlements.
An interesting programme of a somewhat different nature to the resettlement of underserved settlements is underway in the Slave Island area. This is the regeneration of urban spaces through Private Public Partnerships with the cooperation of landowners. There are a large number of small private homes and properties in this area that are old and quite run down. They need to be replaced to enable the uplifting of the entire neighbourhood. Under a project facilitated by the Urban Development Authority, regionally recognised players in the property sector have undertaken to put up mixed developments with full cooperation of the property owners. The householders will be resettled in high quality high-rise accommodation within the same neighbourhood. It should be noted that the problems typically facing high-rise apartment solutions to the low-income settlement are unlikely to arise in this instance, since the people who will reside in them will be better able to afford the cost of maintaining the buildings.
The problem of flood prevention is another area of great concern for the Government. This problem was caused as a result of the increase in Colombo’s population over the years. As the housing stock expanded, low-lying areas and marshland were filled for construction purposes. This seriously reduced the catchment areas available for water retention, and construction related activities also often obstructed the canals and waterways critical for drainage. As a result, the monsoonal rains can cause significant flooding in Colombo. Solving this problem requires a number of different initiatives.
One solution presently being implemented is the dredging of lakes to create water retention tanks in the upper catchment and lower catchment zones of the Kotte area. Further, under a programme to be funded by the World Bank, the drainage infrastructure of the city will be greatly strengthened. Under this Metro Colombo Urban Development Project, the historic Beire lake will be renovated. The lake was developed as the centrepiece of Colombo’s drainage mechanism by the Dutch more than two hundred years ago. However, it has been largely neglected for many years. In the recent past, steps were taken to clean its canals as an urgent response to the growing flood problem. Under the new programme, the entire lake will be dredged and its floodgates will be repaired. The creation of micro drainage systems and the creation of linear parks around degraded wetlands, together with improvements to existing canals and lakes have also been identified as important initiatives. In addition, institutional strengthening of the agencies responsible for the city’s drainage and public infrastructure will be undertaken through this project. This will help enable better long-term management of these issues.
While meeting all these development challenges, the Government has been very much aware of the need to capitalise on the natural advantages that historic cities like Colombo have. The unique blend of cultures and the shared heritage of the various communities of this country must be highlighted in its urban growth. There are old Colonial buildings all around Colombo and the other cities of Sri Lanka. There are also ancient temples, kovils, mosques and churches. There are public places with history and great symbolic value, such as the Viharamahadevi park, or old Victoria park, and Independence Square. In developing the city spaces, it is important to highlight this heritage. A number of projects that have got underway in the recent past that have been instrumental in doing so.
The recent renovation and reopening of the long neglected old 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 very high. With that in mind, the old Colombo Racecourse, whose buildings were originally scheduled for demolition, are presently undergoing a similar renovation. 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 St. John’s Fish Market, which was relocated to Paliyagoda, to a Bullion Exchange. Many more old buildings with a lot of architectural features around the Fort area have been renovated and reutilised for commercial purposes.
When undertaking all the development programmes discussed earlier, the Government is taking particular care to improve the greenery of the city and the vitality of its public spaces. Having enough public spaces for people to relax and enjoy themselves in is very important, and the creation of more quality public open spaces is presently underway. The development of the Independence Square area is a good example: this public space which commemorated Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948, was not properly configured for public access and use for many years. Under the recent programme to uplift it, the walls that obstructed it in various places were demolished, and walkways and cycle paths were created for the use of people. The areas around Independence Square for people to relax and interact with each other were improved. Similar developments have taken place around Beira Lake near Nawam Mawatha and around the Diyawanna Oya in Battaramulla. More such developments are coming up in Thalawathugoda, near Water’s Edge, in Rampalawatta and other areas. Similar developments must also be made in the North of Colombo, where more and more congested areas are.
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 due to the conflict 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. What we have accomplished so far is only a start. Much more remains to be done.
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. 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.
Through the measures just discussed, the Government hopes that Colombo will be transformed into a world-class city that can be the centrepiece 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 cities and towns in the rest of the country. Urban development programmes have been undertaken in all parts of Sri Lanka. A number of 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.
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.
As a country emerging from the shadow of terrorism into a bright, prosperous future, Sri Lanka has many challenges to face and many opportunities to exploit. I hope that the officials and urban specialists of our country can learn a lot from the experts and participants from other nations present at this Knowledge Platform. Perhaps these other participants can also learn something from the Sri Lankan experiences regarding urban development. The sharing of information and knowledge amongst experts from various countries is extremely important, and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank the World Bank for taking this initiative, and for hosting this Platform in Colombo. In concluding, let me wish all of you a very pleasant, productive and enjoyable stay in our beautiful country.