RESPONSIBLE URBANISM

Inclusive cities and national development

By Dr. Harsha Munasinghe – Professor at George Brown College, Toronto, Canada

Pinocchio was cared by a fairy after his father was swallowed up by a shark. He promised to the fairy that he would be a good boy. One day he went to the beach with other boys and got into trouble. He came back to the fairy’s castle very late. A tortoise, who was the gatekeeper, was slow thus giving Pinocchio ample time to think how his behaviour brought nothing but misery.

Making cities sustainable living spaces requires a fundamental shift in values and behavior.

COVID-19 is giving us time, which we never had, to think how our urban development agendas have degraded the liveability of cities. We ignored the fact that a city is not just a physical thing and its continuity is not just ensured through mere physical development. While waiting, we can start thinking how to revitalise our cities.

City, as a living thing, continuously evolves. Our delusion of a developed city has brought tall structures, unwanted activities, beautified streets, multilevel carriages to cities. Furthermore, we have made attempts to garnish its historic heritage for economic gains, facilitating the rich to celebrate waste as way of life. The attitude to save only the monumental structures and demolish its minor architecture has made the city non-inclusive.

By shaping the city for a rich minority, we waste resources, aggravate urban heat island effect, and dismantle its life.

The uprooted Colombo is ghost town in the nights and public holidays. The recent lockdown exposed the creation of a dead space. We boast of the tallest telecommunication tower, ignoring that we have inadvertently shaped a huge ecological footprint. With high-rise buildings already gobbling up a sizeable portion of energy, mostly produced by burning fossil fuel and as such polluting the environment, Colombo could soon challenge Las Vegas when the Port City is built.

The promoters of the reclaimed city would rush to tell us about the number of trees planted to compensate the damage made by those energy-busters. We certainly are the world champions for this reactionary planning; make a dent and then repair.

Our failure to identify apt models for the city seems to have pushed us towards making colossal mistakes, some of which are reversible. For example, we could investigate how the existing buildings could be used to harness solar power and rain water, and mandate such harnessing for all new buildings.

Creating an urban park rather than a financial city on the reclaimed land will infuse more city life. Investors come after their possible markets — thus advertising, street vending and various city happenings could generate revenue while the strengthened city life will bring long-term gains.

Toronto has set an excellent example by closing down streets and extending cafes and restaurants, thus showing how public urban space can earn a healthy profit.

Our stereotyped vision that only air-conditioned space can attract investors should be replaced with more creative economic models. We should improve social balance by convincing the condominium towers to integrate affordable housing rather than building separate filing-cabinet like structures to imprison the low income groups. It is important to thwart any more towers that compartmentalise the city based on citizens’ incomes.

Development practices based on conventional market theories; providing ingredients to the rich to bake a cake hoping that they may share a piece with the rest, have no depth. COVID-19 exposed the selfishness of the private sector. We need to look for authentic solutions and test them locally.

Sri Lanka coped migration to city after independence through settlement programmes and by empowering the regions through central colleges, base hospitals, maternity clinics and financial hubs. The employability in rural areas was enhanced by opening up various industries. The market economy emerged after 1977 started drawing more to cities. The high prices of urban land pushed the newcomers to suburbs. The new residential suburbs, or bedroom-towns, make a huge impact on energy distribution, environmental pollution and resources and waste management. Most of their residents work in Colombo, send children to its popular schools, and use its other services.

The high demand for short-term living spaces has triggered a trend of energy guzzling living-silos in Colombo. At the same time, private hospitals and schools were built in the city, adding more dead spaces. Most large buildings not only gobble up energy but also contribute to the making of poor outdoor air quality. Their external surfaces may be the easiest to maintain but not the best when it comes to the urban heat island effect.

It is time that such large-scale privatised spaces are regulated to promote mixed use development accessible for all. City managers shall provide guidelines for large buildings, and regulate materials and technology used in them to ensure public health and safety.

Everyday more than a million people travel to Colombo polluting air. Being reactionary planners, we widen roads and prepare plans to build multilevel transit.

The encouragement for cycling and plans to improve public transport may cut down emissions. A majority will be reluctant to use public transport in the post-pandemic eras. Cycling requires provisions for parking and shower facilities with lockers at work.

Building regulations could make such facilities mandatory for public buildings and authorities should discuss with employers how such facilities can be incorporated in their existing buildings. The Urban Development Authority (UDA) could start with its head office!

Furthermore, changing our driving habits to respect cyclists and pedestrians, when those paths intersect with roads would be more challenging. The most successful cycling cities in Europe have provided guidelines to their drivers. On the other hand, Toronto has not been able to avoid accidents with separate cycle tracks and regulated driving speeds. By strengthening regional centers as self-sustaining living habitats and by inquiring the possibility of working from home, we could retard daily commuting.

Making cities sustainable living spaces requires a fundamental shift in values and behaviour. In terms of values, we need a shift from materialism to a more holitstic view of what constitutes life. We should understand intangible values such as inclusiveness, social cohesion, community and self-realisation as inherent in our society.

Working should be considered as an activity of value, and not just a way of earning a living. Journey to work should be an enjoyable short trip. The environment that facilitates such reformed lifestyles should be shepherded to the next generation so that they could enjoy living in the city. Care for environment is an activity that brings society together as reflected in the recently built urban parks.

City should be conceived as an extension to its location, and its socially-defined ecological balance. Our ignorance may result in ecological collapse and the punishments could come in various forms such as the 2015 tsunami and COVID-19. Change of behaviour patterns will not only include how we behave in public space but also our choice of materials and technology, and how we use them.

It is not too late to press forward for more conducive land use so that people do not have to travel daily. Development plan of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte could share the burden of Colombo, if wisely implemented. The shifting of public services should not flock too many extensive buildings within one area. This green city requires a sound waste management system. It is important to promote mixed land use; mixing uses as well as users.

The concept of creating parks in the city could be further strengthened by adding mini parks to heavy-traffic junctions such as Borella, Maradana and Bambalapitiya, thus facilitating social interaction.

The high dense European cities with mid-rise structures set examples for liveable cities. The density can be increased in Colombo without challenging city’s sustainability. The more recent positive ideas in the field of sustainable city development; compact city, walkable city, can be used as templates to shape our own authentic models.

City is a result of our need to interact with others, and its management shall evolve around its users. Our building designers shall take the baton from urban designers to create more ecologically-sustainable built spaces that facilitate such changed behaviour patterns. The shapes and massing of buildings and spatial arrangements could minimise energy consumption while promoting social cohesions and inclusion. Architects could show their users that true green architecture stems from the place where it is created rather than the trees planted around it or creepers grown on its walls. Designer training may require certain new turns and development guidelines will require cautious screw-tightening.

It is important to note that designing in the city means designing within an existing system. Our success as a designer is measured by the contribution to strengthen city’s liveability. Inclusive city, providing equal opportunities for all without any social, cultural, physical, or psychological barriers is the most sustainable city. It is still not too late for Colombo to become a sustainable city — and we shall thank the modern-day tortoise, the COVID-19, for giving us that break.