Creative urban planning | Daily News

Creative urban planning

Time to stop developing carbon copy monster cities
Sri Lanka needs urban planning that works for its people
View of Colombo city.
View of Colombo city.

In Colombo we have a problem. We don’t know who we are, said a young researcher during a session of the recently concluded 30th City Net Congress held in Colombo.

Addressing a group of Mayors, city planners and researchers on ‘Economic Development for Inclusive Cities’, Centre for Poverty Analysis (CPA), Research Professional, Nirmani Liyanage added that “Colombo is becoming a bad copy of Singapore and the other cities are becoming a bad copy of Colombo”.

Panel discussion at City Net Congress on inclusive economic development in cities.

As the city mayors of less developed cities scrambled to learn the success stories of more developed cities, Liyanage insisted that it was futile for local planners to simply ‘copy’ from other major cities with no effort to contextualize these plans to suit our local needs,

“We are constantly trying to become like them and we are overlooking opportunities to learn from our own people - in the process turning into monsters of sorts”, she said.

Thus as Sri Lanka celebrates 70 years of Independence next year, the country will also take forth, seven decades of ‘urban planning’ which has failed to work for its people. The root cause, Liyanage argued is the lack of understanding of the ground situation by planners who have been brainwashed to think that development is indeed having Sri Lanka turn into Singapore - a country 90 times smaller, with different ethnic groups, demographics, politics and culture.

The ‘Pola’

An urban planner by profession, Liyanage has been studying the impacts of bad planning on local spaces in Sri Lanka. Her main focus has been public spaces such as the pola (market) and handiya (intersection) which have their own rules and norms of functionality. Her research highlighted the negative impacts authorities can have, when they blindly enter into re-imagining and planning these spaces according to a uniform vision of what they should look like.

The ‘pola’ or market is part of most Sri Lankan’s daily or weekly ritual. It is a place where one goes to purchase their vegetables, fruits, dry rations and perhaps converse with the vendors for the latest gossip in the area. And most townships in the country have at least one pola which receives frequent patronage. In 2010, the central government at the time, thought this was a place they needed to ‘beautify’ and ‘gentrify’, more importantly a local space they needed a share in.

Until 2010, there was no central government involvement in reconstructing local spaces like the pola, said Liyanage.

The central government used the all powerful Urban Development Authority (UDA), then attached to the Ministry of Defence to take over many local polas such as Maharagama, Kottawa, Delkanda and Malabe to turn them into ‘blue roofed’ structures where vendors through a highly politicized system were given slots to sell their produce in.

Handiya in Sri Lanka (courtesy, People’s neighbourhood centre Handiya in Sri Lanka 2016).

The logic of the government was that the pola was always in a key piece of land in the city and it is this land that was being underutilized, explained Liyanage. Keeping to the mantra of urban planning, ‘highest and best use of land’. The question however was for whom did this apply?

“They thus proposed an alternative structure where local government, the local business community and national politics would come together. The Rajapaksa regime was planning to have the big political meetings, exhibitions and also the pola in these spaces”, she said.

Liyanage who worked as an assistant to a vendor who sold snacks at Malabe and Kottawa for four months for her research was able to understand the inner working of the pola circuit and the social dynamics of the place.

Polas are organized in circuits. A vendor who goes to Maharagama on Mondays will go to Kottawa on Tuesday. Within a pola itself, the vendors explained to Liyanage that there were ways in which people organized themselves. They had vendor circles and loyal customers who frequented them and no two sellers offering the same produce would sit together. But the new structure disturbed this social structure,

“The national level designer did not listen to local officials. There were Maharagama Municipal council officials who had been going to the pola for a long time to collect ground revenue and knew its structure but they were not consulted”, she said.

In addition, the vendors were also asked not to use tables to sell their produce on. As it would also be used as a meeting place, the tables would only take up more space.

“This is also where you see a secondary purpose dictating the primary use”, she added.

As vendors had to resort to keeping their produce on the ground, they complained that women no longer wanted to buy from them as they were not comfortable to bend before a man to select produce from. Liyanage also noted that Sri Lankan culture dictated that things were cleaner when they were kept at a certain height away from the floor. Neither the vendors nor the customers could get used to buying produce kept on the floor.

“It is important that we understand the cultural values of the place we plan to design. On the one hand Colombo wanted to look like a world class city so we wanted modern structures and in a way the government must have thought they wanted to tame these people…In a way they cleansed pola”

The pola was however not the only victim in the process of ‘beautification’.

The ‘Handiya’

“For a jack fruit seller at the Moratumulla Pola, the “handiya is a place of opportunity; that is where he opted to rebuild his livelihood. His stall grew into a family business within two years”, begins Liyanage in her 2016 research paper ‘People’s Neighbourhood Center: Handiya in Sri Lanka’ with Nihal Perera on this seemingly ‘ordinary space formed around the intersection of streets in Sri Lanka’.

Having studied the development of this local space, its history and norms, they note that the “Handiya has never been successfully replicated by outsiders, whether professionals, policy makers, or politicians. It is illegible to the middle classes”.

“Developed by people, it is a messy living space”.

The Moratumulla handiya which initially developed in the 1970s around 18 cooperative societies (The Moratumulla Samupakara Association), gradually expanded to include and adapted to include providing most of the material and social needs of the people in the area. Over the years, under various governments, the Moratumulla handiya has faced attacks to its very existence, through various gentrification and planning programmes. In 1985, officials threatened to remove its pola as they pointed out that it hindered traffic. In 2001, the government removed the boundary wall which separated the pola, it gained more ground space but was also subjected to ground rent charges by the cooperative association. In 2004, once again the government decided to intervene along with a local politician to demolish the old cooperative building and build a ‘permanent’ pola structure. The people however protested and stopped construction in 2009.

A defiant chairman of the Vendors’ Welfare Association informed the researchers that they would ‘somehow maintain the pola’ until they get a structure and facilities for it. The issue, he said was that they were never consulted when both the heads of the cooperative society or local authorities planned what the handiya should look like.

At the Radampola handiya in Matara, the situation received national significance as the UDA got involved in handiya ‘building’. This handiya was included in a nationwide mini-town development plan series by a cabinet minister of the area. A feasibility study done on it failed but the project was implemented anyway. They replaced the original handiya with a shopping complex.

“Handiyas created by people have narrow roads where all sides of the intersection are functionally connected and have social aspects. But planned handiyas do not leave space for social interaction…and people are generally not welcome to their own handiya. Wide roads further restrict interactions between uses and users”, observed Liyanage and Perera as Radampola was turned into another paved ‘modern’ intersection.

The research also noted, “Identifying handiya as a significant social space and wanting to make a planning contribution is valuable”, but “the re-planned handiya exhibits the illegibility of socially produced spaces to professionals….the architect-planner himself stated that the mini town would take more than 20 years to function”.

Similarly the Mullaitivu handiya which survived the 2004 Tsunami and three decade war, having been continuously bombed, met its end at the hands of planners from Colombo who, “separated and relocated the major functions of the handiya to relatively distance places, challenging the people to conduct their daily lives accordingly, irrespective of local climatic (heat and dust) conditions and social relationships”.

Handiya is a delicate product of the people, it cannot be randomly moved without destroying it, said Liyanage and Perera.

Temporary structures

The planning failures in spaces like handiya, pola or even low income settlements, according to Liyanage can be understood when looking through the prism in which the urban middle class, elites and governments perceive these spaces to be.

It is not just the government, the inability of majority middle class and government to understand the problem at the grassroots is the key crisis, said Liyanage who questioned the very premise of why spaces such as these which have lasted for over hundreds of years (Moratumulla handiya has existed for 100 years, with the Kottawa pola now being run by the fourth generation of vendors) are being considered ‘temporary structures’ by planners. We don’t give value to that structuring process but look at the material and call it temporary, said Liyanage.

According to her the root cause of the problem lies in our university education system.

University education and planners

We were taught to praise whatever comes from outside, and accept it and at the same time were told, if we need to be modern, we need to borrow it from someone who is modern, she said.

We are always playing the catching up game, noted Liyanage as she observed that a Sri Lankan’s subconscious has been trained to think that ‘one day we will be like the US or UK’ and that as we are already tarrying behind, we need to copy them to be like West.

“But if you look at the social dynamics, demographics, religion, the way people think, our world views - it is very different to that part of the world. But we have never stopped the race, as governments, politicians, business sector, the middle class, we keep running behind this and we have never stopped to ask is this really what we want? Does this address the needs of our people?”

The person who runs a shop in the pola does not think of modernity as the way the Prime Minister would think of it. And this understanding of modernity is the clash, she continued.

As highlighted in the examples of pola and handiya, it has become clear that what people want is different to what a government wants to achieve, “And unlike in Europe, (which has become our example), in Sri Lanka planning is centralized. Only the government does planning, no one else does it”, added Liyanage

“In Sri Lanka, people created their own ways of organizing. The handiya is the ultimate organizer of space in Sri Lanka. A little handiya grows, adjacent handiyas then develop, they grow together and then you have one strip develop. Over time adjacent handiyas get specialized and form towns. In Moratumulla, when the town formed, there is a handiya which caters to outsiders, and one which caters to insiders. This is how small towns in Sri Lanka developed. But if you ask the urban developers, planners of academics, what a small town is, they would borrow the UN definition and say it is any place which has less than 50,000 people which is a small town”, she explained. Local planners equipped with techniques and tools to understand land use patterns, hardly are sensitive to the local needs of the people, she observed,

“And even if he/she tries to be sensitive, his/her mind is framed through the university education system where they are trained to not to localize”, added Liyanage who asked why our planners are mostly sent to France for training instead of learning from experiences in India or Nepal which have similar cultures to ours. She also added that you can learn from others but you could not implement it without effectively contextualizing it to local conditions.

The University education system, she said also takes professionals away from the local people, filling with technical jargon and knowledge which is not translated to the bottom. In Ahmedabad, an urban planner informed her, “I understand that these people are poor and have many difficulties but when I leave home in the morning, I have to leave my senses behind, I cannot feel sorry for people, I have to be objective”. But this ‘objectivity’ she said was the main barrier to effective planning.

Furthermore in Sri Lanka, there is no system which used inputs from local planners or officials in the planning process. It is designed by the central government and implemented from the top.

These problems however are not new, Perera in his own research, ‘Importing Problems: The impact of a Housing Ordinance in Colombo, Sri Lanka’ in 2005 noted the main issue was importing problems and solutions that were not specific to us to begin with.

“The premise necessary for this exporting is that the world is objectively knowable, and the knowledge so obtained is generalizable and exportable. This generalizable knowledge was viewed as superior to the local knowledge of the colonial authorities in Colombo, which was locally produced and not generalizable. Neither the handiya nor the pola were problems to begin with”, said Perera.

Radampola handiya then and now, (courtesy, People’s Neighbourhood Centre Handiya in Sri Lanka 2016).

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