Could we at last put the horse in front of the cart as a revised concept for urban planning – 4


By Ashley de Vos

After a decade of talking about the lack of real urban planning in the country and raising these issues in three articles questioning the suitability of high rise construction and living in a tropical city, in a series to The Island on "The cart before the horse urban planning" concepts prevalent today. The issues raised about a statutory abrogation of the city, wholesale to the developer, who is only interested in his profits and not about the city as a holistic visual entity was raised. Development in the city and elsewhere should be based on context and suitability, and not by adjusting to suit the maximum profitability whims of the developer. Proper regulations should be formulated and adhered to, not constantly changed to accommodate short term political expediency. As the incumbent President is interested in creating a responsible citizenry and people friendly cities, we may have some hope.

The statutory guardians who are charged with and responsible for advising the political forces and ensuring that the city has a direction and a holistic vision have previously remained silent. Why was this not done, was it easier to ignore and allow the forces, some foreign pushing a lopsided development to do what they wanted to or were they advised by other agenda driven agencies on a way forward.

In this context, it is refreshing to read the 8th January 2020 article by Sudaththa de Alwis on "the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Vertical Living. How sustainable is living in high rise apartments?" in the sustainable city page, published in the Daily Mirror with comments by Prof. Mahanama and Prof. Ratnayake, Head, Department of Town and Country Planning at the University of Moratuwa. While some arguments are made that vertical living is a solution for the scarcity of land.

It is the duty of the Faculty to help develop a typical medium rise Sri Lankan residential solution for living in landscaped parks, where the human movement is mostly by foot. Early studies in Melbourne has shown that the whole of Melbourne could be housed in a four storey development utilising the same area. We can evolve a similar, not a superior solution for Sri Lanka, with landscaped open spaces, sky walks at canopy level giving access through to the residential accommodation. The ground floor to be reserved for common activity.

The late Turner Wickremasinghe architect, while at the SEC, tried this as an experiment with the Summit flats off Jawatha Road that may be demolished soon. We have to move away from permitting buildings to be constructed wall to wall. Instead a buffer space should be left on either side for access and maintenance. The taller the building the greater this buffer space along the side. This is an easily achievable possibility. But it needs enlightened political leadership to stand for and be proud of Sri Lankan achievements and stop foreign intervention.

How suitable is copying the solutions developed in the temperate west for life in a totally different climatic zone, in this case in the warmer tropics, is questionable. Or how suitable are the air conditioned gimmicks designed for Dubai and Singapore suitable for a country with a historical tradition that goes back 2000 years. It took Singapore almost 40-years to develop a new clone from scratch and to get its infrastructure correct, it is still being corrected, while Dubai does not care. In Dubai the cart before the horse philosophy is blatantly applied. Night soil produced by residents in the high rise buildings is collected in tanks, only to be hauled away the next morning by rows of sucker trucks to be eventually deposited in the desert.

Sri Lanka’s infrastructure is totally inadequate for the monster structures now dotting our skyline, but we still build in the most haphazard manner, happy with "the cart before the horse" philosophy, a method that will encourage the development of the vertical slums of the future. Many of the early 1950s and 60s high rise residential experiments developed for the UK, designed in an era of cheap oil, without proper understanding of the social requirements of the occupants, all are now being demolished as disasters.

It is an undeniable fact that traditionally, cities always evolved around people and people were never designed for cities. If the city is designed for a species of highly social animals called humans, it would, it should be, totally people friendly in its approach to scale, a human scale. Neither was the car ever designed for the city, if it had been, it would be very small to allow for easy manuvarability and parking.

Instead, we are basing all our design criteria and specifications on a large passenger vehicle that was originally designed in the USA for travelling long distances, especially on long straight highways. We then utilise those specifications to destroy our city streets and important identifiable land marks to accommodate this monster. How people friendly is that? Wider streets promotes vehicles to move faster through the city. Those passing through and the fast vehicles should be relegated to the periphery of any city. The introduction of a Disneyland type monorail system fanning over a very limited distance, constructed at enormous cost, has no opportunity cost attached to it. Then how viable is it except to stating, that we also have one. "Nagarata Magic"

What are the social implications? Should we not stop to think and evolve better and more sustainable results in our city planning? Solutions that are more appropriate and suitable to tropical Sri Lanka, its friendly people, rich environment, high biodiversity and flora. Considering and enhancing wind penetration through and around the complexes. Could we for a moment forget about copying what others have done or doing, because judging from the past we invariably end up following the worst at enormous cost to our environment, water security and biodiversity.

Our students are fed on an over dose of google driven material, smart phones and books by authors who conduct research addressing the issues they have encountered under totally different conditions in their own countries. Unfortunately when recommended, students read them and follow the concepts as gospel. Instead it is the responsibility of the faculty to guide and motivate the students, to question the suitability of this copy-cat application in our own country.

The extremely well detailed one inch survey maps developed by the Department of surveys with information collected over a century of its existence, show large extents of crown or government lands available in the north and the south of the country. It even showed the large rocks on the road side. No government land should ever be sold, instead only leased. Even the British appreciated and understood this in the distribution of crown land. Infact, all plantations were on 99 year leases.

We need to derive a method to measure the degradation of the environment we have lost. In this excessive exposure to global warming and climate change, we have to rethink all options. Is it possible to build back this lost environment? Yes, it is possible, we can. There must be strict regulations regarding the conservation and protection of the environment. Sri Lanka has sufficient regulations but mostly observed in the breech.

No trees should be cut unless ten trees are planted in their place. In the past, Kings planted Arulu, Bulu Nelli forest not for his use but for the benefit of future generations of his people. This attitude should be further developed. Could we plant Jak and Tamarind on either side of our roads, does it matter who eats or benefits from the produce.

All scenic views and large water bodies should be carefully protected, retained, and conserved and secured by legislation for their pristine and exceptional beauty which is an important part of what Sri Lanka is all about. No development that anyway mars or is detrimental to the retention of this pristine sacredness should be allowed. The genuine visitor or tourist comes because of the environment, if we lose it will affect all. When tourism started no hotel was to be taller than a coconut tree. It was fantastic as it maintained the human quality of the coast line. Both physical and visual degradation should carry similar repercussions. This applies to developments located throughout the country. The context and location is important when considering the environmental, scenic and visual value.

A question worth asking is how human are we or are we being manipulated by both local as well a foreign media to change and to think differently. To be totally inculcated in a preparatory European mind set of manufactured news, to be immersed fully in the globalisation debate. Considering that Kissinger once stated that "Globalisation is the Americanisation of the world", is this what the media wishes to feed the innocent citizens of this country on, a carefully marketed diet based heavily on short lived visceral pleasure and copycat life style centred on momentary excitement, ultimately leading to the creation of very rich cosmopolitan elite leaving the majority extremely poor and in debt. The media will push as hard as possible to achieve this unsustainable end. But is this what the normal person encompassed in the rich cultural history of this island deserves? is this what the people want?

There is a basic difference between Asians who are lateral thinkers and Westerners who are focussed thinkers. Most of Asia enjoyed centuries of critical thought till four hundred years of colonisation created a confusion through an education system that concentrated on producing managers, scientists and workers for the products created by the industrial revolution. A European model deriding everything that had gone before, faithfully followed even today in an education system that teaches students to get through exams but not to think. There is a need to urgently revise this decent into the darker abyss.

We have to build a Sri Lanka that will not become a cheap clone of the global debate but a clone that has evolved immersed and benefitting from in the rich cultural history of this island. An island whose history is not limited to that of this island, but one that encompasses the whole region.

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