As a foreigner, I have been living for two years in Colombo. Despite traffic jams and other commuting issues, I enjoy living there and I still find it beautiful.
I fear that Colombo at its current turning point with many new urban projects in a quest to look better might get disfigured unless carefully planned. It seems to me that it faces three main challenges: an issue of aesthetics, a question of mobility, and a need to appeal.
With the rapid development of Colombo, one should stand back and think about what kind of urban lifestyle should be sought. Without a clear idea of where we want to go, the road is all too hard
Prior to discussing the most appropriate development for Colombo City in the coming years, it is worth observing the city as it is today and as it has developed recently. Colombo is a colonial city with a heavy British influence – buildings dating back before the British period are rare – and that spread east through a form of a garden city that quickly turned into a bottleneck for transportation within the urban area.
With the development of a relatively dense suburban neighbourhood further east of Colombo, crossing this central green zone becomes tedious and long.
Similarities with standard colonial cities
Colombo has many similarities with standard colonial cities of the British Raj but its overall condition is generally better; old buildings are less dilapidated and many have been properly preserved.
It is however necessary to make a real development of many sites that are often scattered (it is difficult to organise discovery walks). Most estates are protected completely behind walls, legacy of past fears of terrorism or burglary. Generally, town planning has been poor and urbanisation has been badly streamlined.
One may like many notable buildings in Colombo City like Hotel Nippon (with its exceptional and intricate balustrade), Grand Oriental and other less known places. Some streets are attractive such as Rifle Street.
Certain rehabilitation work has been conducted by the Urban Development Authority where the Dutch Hospital and Race Course were remarkably restored; while certain projects benefited from well-made landscape improvements such as the Water’s Edge in Battaramulla. One may also like other noticeable buildings like the New Parliament which remains poorly illuminated at night.
The special feature of this city comes from its central green corridor – that should be protected – with fantastic trees encroaching on the streets that adds to its charm.
The same urban attempt was made in New Delhi in the diplomatic enclave – Chanekyapuri – approximately at the same time, but the buildings quickly turned gray due to pollution; elevated sidewalks were built, wasting green spaces as they were either developed in the wrong places or were hardly used; in the end no commercial life has developed for miles and no one takes advantage of these spaces that spreads distances where transportation is really required making accessibility an issue for the general public. So Colombo is relatively doing better.
Many faults persist
But the City of Colombo is not free of criticism and many faults persist. Firstly, canals are built to prevent flooding but their shores have not been developed in order to favour walking; they remain locations for illegal housing or poor dwellers and canals do not structure the urban landscape of the city, which could also have been part of Colombo’s true heritage.
Generally observing, the constructions over the last 30 years have been built (certainly with some exceptions) without any marked architectural style and behind high walls preventing visibility. Buildings are yet taller but without any style. Houses are bigger and often more comfortable but their aesthetics are cubic and standardised. There is indeed no harmony of style and colour, too many advertising banners, poor planning of the adapted frontage of shops, too little space to walk around (but the recent developments).
Among the poor landscapes that persist, please consider Marine Drive which is a series of abandoned land with buildings damaged by sea spray, with a rusty railroad and decrepit stations. In short, the seaside promenade is not attractive and the landscaping possibilities of the shoreline have been presently ruined.
And what about Galle Road which remains as one of the major roads of Colombo? Such an avenue – which is supposed to embody Colombo City – does not retain attention of any tourist as that is poorly arranged, noisy and congested. Recent planning has focused on the rushed construction of roads to meet urgent needs, without thinking enough on the overall picture.
Do you think Colombo has its own architectural style which would act as a visual marker and leave a lasting memory in the minds of the tourists? I can see colonial buildings of different colours. I can see religious buildings that have no strong attractiveness for tourists (excluding their true ritual purpose).
Conversely, when we go to London, everyone visits Westminster Abbey, that is well considered as a masterpiece of architecture (even though it is more recent that it looks Gothic). But here in Colombo City, few marvel at the most recent religious buildings which are – sometimes unfairly – judged by Westerners as garish and kitsch. For nice mosques, Hindu or Buddhist temples, one may visit Kyoto, Kajuraho, Isfahan but not Colombo.
It is however important that new religious buildings promote a unique and beautiful Sri Lankan architecture and contribute to a sense of Sri Lankan architectural unity. Take for instance the Temple of Beira Lake (the blue roof is gorgeous) and find your own architectural style! Every Sri Lankan has a fair idea of which landscape is attractive and which one is not; why do you think so many brides asked to be photographed in the front of Beira lake temple?
All buildings whether public, housing, religious buildings, offices or shopping centres, should adopt standards that align, adding a sense of shape to the urban development. Why rush in a mad race to build oversized towers disfiguring a city to compete with other immensely richer Asian cities? You will add to the economic growth momentum but you will lose all charms regarding Colombo City.
It is necessary to establish – and uphold – clear rules and respect details such as the shape and slope of the roof, the materials of building and the shape of the windows as well as permitted colours. Think first without repeating the past mistakes and sometimes rebuild what has not been nicely constructed.
Perpetual construction projects
Greater Colombo is beaten by real estate projects sometimes financed by donors, by UDA or by private developers. The city is undergoing perpetual construction projects between drains, rehabilitation of road-works, sidewalk (especially for CHOGM), laying of water pipelines to sewage systems.
There are a multitude of projects happening; hotels, luxury buildings (Altair, Iconic…), re-housing projects and mega real estate promotion like Tata Building or Imperial Builders on Slave Island (ironic name for a next rich ghetto). Then there are those gigantic construction projects such as Krrish Square or Port City on the cards.
Everyone is pushing to build higher and higher but no one is interested in the inclusion of these towers that will age quickly in the urban landscape of the city. I personally believe there is a fashion, an international urban competition, that is pushing Colombo into copying Singapore or other Asian parodies without the same population density, the same needs or the same means. Why?
There are big changes underway and major challenges associated with it. The proliferation of big hotels, big buildings and shopping centres shows little planning; despite the efforts to arrange utilities, providing water supply, electricity and wastewater will be complicated. These projects appear often uncoordinated and seem to repeat several times along the same stretch of roads.
The densification of the city in some places receiving little new communication routes (roads and transit) is also a major challenge. And all these buildings, will they meet the expected success? Alongside this increase of the population density, Colombo should be awarded the new zones promotion through the likely move of many military units outside the current areas of Colombo 1 and find a new retreat in Battaramulla at a more suitable place.
If the first issue of this city is its ability to find a visual marker and renew its aesthetic appeal, the second major issue will be the question of urban transport. We feel that traffic is increasing quickly and that current works in progress do not help solving traffic congestion. Car ownership remains low and yet a sense of stifling presence of motor vehicles is felt.
To get to circulate smoothly in the city (as a resident, a commuter, a tourist or a pilgrim), we will have to change many things. First, we have to conduct a genuine debate on improving civic behaviour; too often clogging the streets is due to individual misbehaviour. Drivers stop or park anywhere; drivers block two lanes rather than one. A Police service in charge of wrong parking should be put in place (under CMC or Central Government), illegal parking should be clearly sanctioned (axed) and money should perhaps fuel a municipal fund for repair work. Private and paying car parks could be developed under concession.
Secondly, we have to equip the city with a complete transportation system, which is interconnected and efficient. That means at good value, reliable and cost-effective in terms of investment and operation. Such systems should not further degrade the aesthetic appeal of the city.
We are witnessing many potential conflicts of interest but some projects seem to be more advanced than the others: the Parliament axis could be equipped with a mode of mass transportation via a viaduct system monorail, LRT or anything similar. We also note the envy of many lobbyists to push for the construction of elevated road – according to a widespread fashion in emerging countries; some roads would relieve the port and others to connect the downtown to highways.
Many questions remain unsolved: is it good to focus too much on terminus stations – even multi-modal – in the most congested part of the city where Fort is located? About the construction of the Port City; does it not accentuate the phenomenon of congestion? How would the bus stations, whether formal or informal, be taken into account? Noise and air pollution will be reduced, but the risk of disfigurement due to these major elevated structures is unavoidable and often irreplaceable.
In the light of urban transportation, one must consider the outcome of other more advanced cities. These have previously responded to the problems of congestion by building wider roads, more numerous, encouraging even more vehicle travel and eventually failing to address the problem of congestion.
Inversely, the establishment of an efficient system of mass public transport by far is a good way to transform an entire area within a city. It is then important to work again on the public space and accessibility of other modes of travel. Such an approach to integrate urban development helps attract visitors and encourage both commerce and sustainable businesses.
Safeguard economic and tourist attraction
The final issue of Colombo will be to safeguard the economic and tourist attraction. Creation of new office space, housing or hotels is useful only if they are filled, that is to say that condition of high economic growth promotes the attractiveness of the city. Anyway, in an economy focused on service development, a city is attractive if it is easy-living (dealing with pollution, leisure, consumer services), if cost of living is kept reasonable, if travel times are not too long.
Tourist attractiveness is a major issue with large urban consequences. The city lacks a good cultural offering and places to go out for a few hours to attract tourists; who then tend to avoid visiting the capital city. There are few cultural centres of quality but they are undersized. So tourists are generally advised to avoid staying there (as many guides support it unfairly). What to do?
The National Museum is nice but its visit is too fast and is not customer-friendly; there are no proper temporary exhibitions. Could we not increase the supply of museums (say an architecture museum, a true museum of science and discovery, a city of children, etc.)? Can anyone suggest a more attractive zoo with a real development of local species (birds, vivarium and aquarium)?
Many restaurants have opened but Colombo is not yet a city renowned for its gastronomy. Therefore to develop food culture should not we facilitate the importation of products and get more foreign knowledge?
It is surprising to see larger and larger real estate projects without a clue on how to attract tourist or what culture to be proposed. Think about Bangkok; in every mall you will find something – but shopping – to keep a visitor busy all day long. It might be smart to request for obtaining a construction permit that big developers dedicate a portion of their surface to a cultural project (art centre, attraction, theatre).
What about upcoming casinos? And what sort of fun? Casino is not just about disbursing or betting on one’s money; shows, attractions and leisure should be brought to attract customers.
Eventually, it is well-known that tourist or young people love gathering in confined spaces to socialise and entertainment purposes. One could develop few pedestrian streets dedicated to night life where people could move from a restaurant to a bar and from a bar to a night club; a place where they are free to gather, eat and be merry. The concept which is starting on Baybrooke Street can be amplified. It won’t disturb many people and will be attractive for youngsters.
Colombo is a nice town but new developments seem insufficiently planned and strained with many challenges. It seems to us that we should advocate an integrated approach of urban development that challenges the heritage development in the centre of the debate, which focuses on the creation of a complete transportation network, organised and aesthetics.
Talking about integrated development is to avoid duplication, work in the same place twice. Each project is not conceived in isolation but as a fragment of a global urban system, with a social, economic and environmental chain.
Colombo has become a city of good living taking advantage of low pollution – very clean compared to many cities specially in Asia – and allowing good urban mix (without ghettos of rich or poor) ; that’s true that social diversity is essential for this city to remain safe, attractive and somewhat non-violent place.
The city should be beautiful at any time of year, any time of the day and be nice to explore on foot or by soft mode. We believe that the future development of Colombo City should be on well identified themes: the theme of water, that is to say, walking by the sea, ports and canals. The other theme is to be a green and aesthetic walking city with many trails and gentle transport (meaning mass transportation modes). Finally, Colombo has to become a pretty important place of tourist attraction.
With the rapid development of Colombo, one should stand back and think about what kind of urban lifestyle should be sought. Without a clear idea of where we want to go, the road is all too hard. In Europe, the urban experience is strong and cities have become pleasant places to live in. In Asia, except Singapore which was strongly and intelligently planned, cities have grown too fast and are rarely aesthetic (beautiful), unpolluted and enjoyable.
Thanks to good planning and stringent urban rules, France aims to promote a certain idea of urban lifestyle biased towards heritage preservation, culture, gastronomy. The French Development Agency (AFD) is keen to finance modern mass transportation modes, integrated urban development projects and to share its experience of well-planned urban projects worldwide to favour harmonised urban development in Sri Lanka.