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Cities for growth

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Cities are the next hotspot for global development, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said while in Singapore this week, calling on leaders to use this trend to gather more investment, connect to global value chains and build liveable cities. But, they face uphill challenges in attempting to do so. 

Today, cities occupy just 2.6% of the earth’s crust, but are home to more than 50% of the world’s population, generate more than 80% of the world’s GDP and use 75% of the world’s natural resources, according to the World Economic Forum.

The UN estimates that the global population will rise to 9.6 billion by 2050. The majority of this growth will occur in cities, with an estimated 66% of the global population living in urban areas by 2050. Cities are evolving faster than at any point in human history, putting them on the cusp of major transformation which, if managed well, could lead to unprecedented economic growth and prosperity for all but if managed in an uncoordinated manner, could drive social, economic and environmental decline.

This puts the onus on city leaders to debate the city governance, policies and regulation required to enable action, resulting in vital investment in the delivery of innovative, sustainable and affordable urban infrastructure and services.  The multiplier effect of mobilising the required investment will be manifold in improved human-centric, high-quality, sustainable and affordable urban services.

The objective of such an effort is to develop policy solutions that accelerate the delivery of human-centred, innovative, sustainable and affordable urban infrastructure and services required to prepare cities for the future. But, this also means that political structures of cities, often headed by mayors, have to be made more independent and accountable. 

In most developed countries, the mayors of capital cities, from New York to Tokyo, gain nearly as much attention as presidents of those countries, and often drive policy and development agendas that put their cities on the map. They often make sure that their capital is ahead of reforms and has preferential investment policies that make it an attractive destination for capital, lifestyle and transparency.

Even though this Government has launched the megapolis project, Sri Lanka is markedly different because Colombo’s second-tier political structure has little control over its own finances and policies. Often dictated to by the central Government, the mayor often does not have a pivotal or iconic role to play in developing the city and its liveability. Policies are often driven at the behest of the Central Government, which also has control over the finances, which puts Colombo alongside other periphery cities and not above them. 

This also means that public engagement has trouble reaching top levels of Government. One example of this is the garbage problem which, despite the allocation of Rs. 4 billion, was sent from pillar to post until the Meethotamulla disaster struck the conscience of the entire nation. Wide ranging consultations must be done, especially with marginalised communities, in the capital to draw them into the development process and ensure that cities can be representative of larger development achieved by a country. If not, resources that are essential to a city such as water, sanitation, clean air, and housing will be short-sightedly mismanaged.

Cities having the capacity to foster growth is also a justification to increase investment, potentially ending the ‘Colomabata Kiri, Gamata Kekiri’ attitude. Capitals can outmatch countries for investment, and it is time that Colombo is given a proper chance.

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