URBAN DEVELOPMENT OF SRI LANKA – Story of Colombo and the role of Architecture: From Chaos to Order: Part 1

COLOMBO: Transformation from a “good woman” to a “trailer park girl”

What is Colombo? Let’s start answering that simple question. Colombo, as even the 5th grader knows, is the Commercial Capital of Sri Lanka. Its natural harbor, which made it a desirable location for traders, explorers, and seafarers. The twelfth century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta described Colombo as “the finest and largest city in the Serendib”. The Brits made it the capital of the island when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire in 1815, and its status as capital was retained when the nation became independent in 1948.

What does this short history lesson convey to us? Colombo is a place for trade, which had a well-earned reputation, and famed as a finest place to live. Trade is exchange of goods and now, services. So, in my point of view, I think, a place of trade has a direct relation to the concepts of economy tied with globalization and global political agendas. Before digging further, we need to have a rough understanding about what kind of trade concept we see now and how it affects a city.

After the great depression, which was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, lasting from the stock market crash of 1929 to 1939; insisted resurgence of 19th-century trade ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism, ultimately called as the neo-liberal approach.

As per David M. Kotz, in his paper “Globalization and Neoliberalism” argues that, “Neoliberalism has strong advocates in continental Western Europe and Japan, but substantial popular resistance there has limited its influence so far, despite continuing US efforts to impose neoliberal policies on them.” In much of the Third World, and in the transition countries (except for China), the US has been successful in dictating neoliberal policies while keeping a monopoly. But in the recent decade we are seeing a gradual reverse trending, featuring with a cold war between China and US.

Being so, how would this whole scenario affect Colombo’s face? Neil Smith, in his paper “New globalism, new urbanism: Gentrification as global urban strategy” coins the term “gentrification”, the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste. Well, the ever changing face of Colombo can be explained with this, I think. It ideally describes the changing face of Colombo, according to the “taste” of neoliberal economy.

So, can we define a strict shape to Colombo’s face? In my point of view, within a competitive global economic system, it is hard to come up with a strict definition on how Colombo should be “dressed”. She needs to change her fashion, time-to-time, while keeping her fame and dignity, attracting the world focus to her! Her success would be the ultimate success of the country.

So, are we on the right track? Does she follow the best fashion theme everyone loves? Or does Colombo acts like a Trailer Park Girl? Obviously, her “fashion designers” are mixed up, unsure of what’s going, failing to choose the right! The haphazard, uncontrolled, undisciplined development which we see in the country especially in Colombo and its immediate suburbs is what I am talking about! Yes, Colombo now, is a classic Trailer Park Girl! Her majesty, pride has been ruined. Don’t you think that this must be critically controlled? Proper planning for waste management, urban sprawl, architectural control, zoning, regulations, etc must be understood and executed by the Urban Development Authority and other relevant officials.

For an instance, are we able to give a proper solution for Urban Sprawl where development haphazardly expands outbound Colombo? Abandoned lands, junkyards, fancy high risers, Geofrey Bawa’s Architecture, bla, bla…..mixed up like a soup made out by a bunch of ego-centric chefs who don’t want to listen to anyone!

As I have previously said, we cannot come into a strict derivation of how Colombo should look like or behave. But, we have a history dealing with how the global and local trends changed, what demands were there and what lessons we learned. With this, and the keen eye on present situation, we can come up with predictive decisions about her future. This predictive decision ultimately becomes our national policy, our Master Plan of development and, if rightly made, it can be timeless!

So, it’s time to question the “colored” zoning plans, and urge our policy makers to come up with the proper policy that makes not only Colombo, but also, Sri Lanka, to be rejuvenated with the pride and modesty she deserves! It’s the professionals who need to take the lead! If not, Colombo, in the near future, will grow and become “Trailer Park Queen”!

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