The concept of creating smart cities is one that has gained ground globally and Sri Lanka has also enthusiastically adopted the challenge of changing Colombo into a ‘smart city’ or a megapolis. Over the years, the Government has rolled out several projects, including a new light rail system, new water and power lines, housing projects for the middle class and traffic plans to name a few. But the emotional connection people forge, sometimes over generations, also holds people to a city.
Smart cities are supposed to make urbanisation more inclusive, bringing together formal and informal sectors, connecting urban cores with peripheries, delivering services for the rich and the poor alike, and integrating the migrants and the poor into the city. Promoting smart cities is about rethinking cities as inclusive, integrated and livable.
But ‘smart cities’ are also about good governance and the sustainable use of resources that give inclusivity to everyone, even beggars and stray animals. Smartness is about doing more with less, which means absorbing and creating space for local tech companies and organisations to design smaller projects that will address specific issues. It is also about celebrating heritage and keeping the iconic buildings of a city intact while developing the city. Unfortunately, there is the danger that Colombo is moving away from this ideal.
It was reported over the weekend that the Urban Development Authority (UDA) has approved the demolition of the iconic Soysa building in Kompannaveediya, defying impassioned appeals for it to be preserved as a historical monument.
The Cabinet was recently informed via a note that, because the edifice has still not been gazetted as a heritage building by the Department of Archaeology, there was no impediment to pulling it down. This will free up the land for Tata Housing Development Company Ltd. to implement the next phase of its Kompannaveediya mixed-used project.
Conservationists argue that the basic structure of the building is sound and while it needs a good cleanup it is not so precarious that it needs to be torn down. They also point out that agreements to reconstruct a newer building with the same façade cannot be trusted because this was the same argument presented for the 150-year-old Castle Hotel but when the new building was unveiled it only provided a passing nod to its predecessor. It is indeed sad and disappointing that the Western Development and Megapolis Ministry, the UDA or the Housing Ministry, which is the line ministry for the Archeology Department, have not taken steps to protect a building that was established by an iconic Sri Lankan.
Heritage is important for sustainability because cities are essentially living things. The people who came before and what they did add character, beauty, life and context to a city. This is why despite the advance of technology the more popular and populous cities around the world are ones where humans have dwelt for centuries and well-planned artificial cities in some parts of China lie empty.
People need to feel the connection of generations that have come before and will continue to occupy the same spaces. There is great emotional and even commercial value in these spaces, which are usually preserved because they are the city and they are of the people. Cities, especially capital cities, need to be a space for all people and represent their stories and journeys. It is by knowing where we have been that we can get a sense of where we are going.