One of the pillars of the Prime Minister’s economic reforms seems to be the revival of the forgotten Colombo centered megapolis concept. The Western Province is pretty much simultaneous with our GDP, accounting for a staggering 42% of the GDP. With Colombo as the coastal center of the nation it is no wonder. Ever since the Portuguese established Colombo in the 16th century its wealth has only been growing. Now 500 years later, our plan seems to keep enlarging the fort of Colombo. I am not saying it’s a bad thing. I am a supporter of urban centering being used as growth centers in developing countries. But I think the plans being proposed have been a bit too ambitious for Sri Lanka to achieve in the midterm.
The Western Province is home to about a fourth of our population – that’s around 5.6 million. Of this barely a million live within the Colombo City limits. Relative to urban regions in most developing countries this reflects a very low urban density. In fact Sri Lanka is reported to have one of the world’s lowest urban population growth rates. However we have a significant rate of urban sprawl increase. Which means the overall urban area is increasing faster than the urban population.
Although they have made progress, South Asian countries have struggled to make the most of the opportunity urbanization provides them to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations in both prosperity and livability, according to a new World Bank report – Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.
Is this bad ?
This has meant that Colombo is not the typical concrete jungle that is typical of a metropolitan. Yes, it means we have quite a lovely city with much open space. But it’s bad for economics.
So are Concrete Jungles are better ?
It comes with a concept called ‘economies of scale’. An economy of scale means that larger the size, lower the costs and greater the profits. The reason the Romans created a vast empire was because it created an economy of vast scale that generated massive revenues. (Of course, at one point overextension hits and things get messy and barbarians invade.)
A large city creates a large market within which transaction costs of doing business (transport, labour, banking services etc.) is lower than outside it. The large market also means an immediate market to generate revenues from. The same principle applies to the once massive size of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa as ancient capital cities. They become lucrative centres of trade and commerce.
Has not urban sprawl created a large city ?
Instead of having large cities, we have a large number of smaller urban centers varying from Maharagama to Kadawatha in the Western Province. And rather paradoxically most of these urban centers operate more as rural areas – Pradeshiya Sabhas – or as Urban Council areas; there are very few municipalities. Even some of the new municipalities don’t carry the characteristics of a typical municipality.
Look at Kaduwela. It was a rapidly urbanising region but remained a Pradeshiya Sabha region until a few years ago it became a Municipal Council. Despite having many urban centers within it, there is no large city that can be identified as being the center of the Municipality. We have parts of what is the capital city, Sri Jayawardenepura, being administered from Kaduwela, a small town on the edge of the Colombo district. It would be wise to administer the entire capital city region as one administrative unit because as the heart of the government it must be cohesively run.
Kaduwela to me represents the point where Sri Lanka’s urbanisation has gone haywire. Firstly we lack cohesive urban planning and the demarcation of industrial, commercial and residential areas. Regularly one finds slaughterhouses in the midst of houses. What we have is messy urbanisation and ribbon development.
What’s ribbon development?
Have you noticed those empty plots of land in urban centers like Nugegoda ? Just behind massive buildings one can see empty houses and coconut trees. Since those lands don’t have direct access to the main roads, they have not been built upon. Use Google maps and you will notice it very well. However if you do the same in New York or London you will notice there is absolutely no more space left. Any extra space is demarcated green space. This is a possible cause of low urban density and increasing urban sprawl
It is not only bad for the economy; it is also bad for the environment. More urban sprawl means less forest cover and more landfills.
Ever wondered why our national exports of coconut and rubber fell over the years? It’s because we cut down the cash trees to build houses. While most cities have massive apartment complexes for the middle class, Colombo has a few scattered derelict apartments for low income families and large houses and luxury apartments for the richest. This has meant that the middle class who are employed in the offices in Colombo city find residence in the suburbs. Many travel daily not just from Homagama or Maharagama, but from Galle, Avissawella, Gampaha and even Kegalle. They have no option thanks to the massive expense of land prices and rent in the city relative to the incomes of the middle class. True, London has the same problem today, but Colombo is at least a 50 years from being a London by any means.
So what about this megapolis ?
Thanks to ribbon development and urban sprawl, we have built ourselves a lovely huge megapolis that has come to increase transaction costs than reduce them. As it stands the Greater Colombo region has driven productivity to a low. The middle class that drives the urban economy is stuck in traffic jams in cars, buses and in cramped trains for hours every morning and evening. They go to work tired and they come home exhausted. One cannot blame public servants for being lazy at work.
What we need is a planned future for the Colombo city. The proposed Metropolitan Authority under the new Ministry of Metropolis and Western Development hits the right spot.
What it first needs to do on finalizing the Metropolis Plan is not to build a massive metro railway. Instead it needs to sort out the municipal administrative jumble the area is in. The Mumbai Metropolitan Corporation might provide a plausible model along with lessons from every other city on Earth. Basing it on the city state of Singapore is illogical where the municipality is the central government.
Secondly free space in Colombo city limits must be utilized to build affordable but quality apartments for the middle class. Bringing in FDI through luxury apartments doesn’t serve a long term development goal other than a short term balancing of our current account.
Then work on the bus system. Introduce a new class of metropolitan buses with air conditioning and more standing area than seating area. Transfer the hub for central long distance buses from Pettah to a suburn like Kottawa that is connected to the highway system. The metropolitan buses would then connect this hub to the rest of the city, including shuttles from the Fort train station. The Park & Ride system trailed some years ago can be re-established and uses can get discounts on bus fares through a city wide Metro travel card system.
As demand for public transport soars, the grand metro railways system can be built to increase capacity. I am no transport systems specialist, but these are simple observations from comparing Colombo to New York and Nanning.
What’s my conclusion on the megapolis ?
I don’t want to prejudice anything. If done properly it will create a massive boost in our GDP growth. But if done in the typical Sri Lankan fashion, it will be yet another disaster or yet another plan that was never meant to be. But that does not mean that a successful megapolis is going to make Monaragala prosperous as well. Trickle down economics has proven to not work. Other industrial centers will have to be built. However if the government tries to overextend the meager resources it can muster to start off multiple massive scale projects before the megapolis is completed, we are going to end up with a quite a few unfinished wonders.
Ranil Wickramasinghe's original plan from the 2001/2003 period:
“Colombo is Colombo – you should be proud of the city,” a Singaporean remarked at a meeting that I had summoned as Prime Minister in 2003 to discuss plans for developing the city of Colombo.
The new government of Sri Lanka has revealed its stance on a Western Region Megapolis enveloping the Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara Districts, states the Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s annual report for 2014. Meanwhile, a recent Cabinet approved proposal stated that the Western Region Megapolis plan prepared in 2004 to develop the Greater Colombo region …
This is Part 2 of a series of articles on PM Ranil’s economic reforms. Read Part 1 on the Privatisation initiatives via the link below if you have not already.