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Colombo’s facelift

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  • Urban regeneration in the metro Colombo region is beautifying the city while adding value

By Cheranka Mendis

The Colombo landscape is changing visibly. The sprucing up of Colombo with an emphasis on serving the citizens with a cleaner and greener city and an accentuation on beautification and value addition is now on in full swing.

The commercial and financial hub of the country, Colombo is also the international gateway to Sri Lanka and houses most of the country’s important institutions and service facilities. With most of Sri Lanka’s foreign trade passing through the Colombo Port, the metro Colombo region will continue to generate much of the capital, human resources, technology, and services needed for the growth of the rest of the country. The need to tap the competitive advantage of Colombo and to accelerate growth is therefore a key necessity.

Focused on developing Colombo to become a competitive and dynamic city and to be listed among the most liveable cities in the world competing for the likes of Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in the coming years, the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project has unwrapped many of Colombo’s treasures and is on the lookout for more.

Project Director of the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project and Ministry of Defence and Urban Development Additional Secretary Engineer Rohan Seneviratne delivering a lecture on Colombo’s urban regeneration noted that with the end of civil unrest in Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa identified the need for rapid urban regeneration as vital for the sustainability of the economy. Speaking at a discussion organised by the British Scholars Association, Seneviratne noted that an ambitious program was launched to realise the full potential of the region and to create a highly liveable city.

The urban development work is led by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa under the purview of the President since 2010.

 Why Colombo was not so beautiful before

 Seneviratne noted that the first task undertaken by the Defence Secretary was to list out the obstacles that prevented Colombo from attaining its maximum capabilities.  “Under the key issues some of our priority concerns were poor solid waste management, frequent flooding in the metro Colombo region, and the lack of mega urban regeneration projects happening in the city,” he said.

The committee put together to identify such matters also identified the large number of pavement hawkers occupying road pavements, poor walkability on the roads, inadequate infrastructure, underserved settlements, and inadequate city spaces for public. Also noted were the insufficient institutional strengths of local authorities, less opportunity for city economy, and less environmental protection and improvement in the city.

“We wanted to carry out immediate programs for at least few of the obstacles, while planning medium and long term programs to address many of the other areas which cannot be addressed in a short time period,” Seneviratne said. The limited availability of funds in the country also posed a question mark in carrying out a number of projects during the same time frame. “We therefore categorised the issues and while starting work on immediate concerns, made plans for medium and long term projects. This enabled us to save time and organise ourselves better.”

 Immediate programs launched

nIntroducing proper solid waste management system for the city of Colombo

A few years ago, solid waste was everywhere in the city and its outskirts. No proper collection mechanism was adapted and garbage management was very poor. Seneviratne acknowledged that while garbage collection was handled by the CMC, the task was not properly managed. “We gathered the stakeholders of the exercise and wanted to smoothen out the management system. It was not a problem of money but of management. Contractors were not doing their job.”

Under this intervention, the Environmental Police was introduced to supervise the collection of garbage and maintaining the cleanliness of the city. This seems to have worked remarkably well and the city is now more or less spick-and-span. “Visitors now congratulate us on the cleanliness,” Seneviratne said, “Some say we are even better than New York.”

While this positive change is likely to continue, the issue now is handling the garbage and landfills, he said.

  • Pavement hawkers relocated to organised structures

More evident in the areas of Nugegoda and Pettah, cleaning up the pavements for pedestrians and giving the pavement hawkers a new location to settle in has not only created a better environment to walk in, but has also managed to ease the traffic flow in the areas.

“While cleaning the pavements for the benefit of the public, we also wanted to give better lending spaces for pavement hawkers. We wanted to create better opportunities for them.” Buildings for this purpose were constructed in Pettah, Hospital Square, and in Nugegoda.

  • Walkability improvement

Under the immediate interventions, work also began in reconstructing the damaged pavements with the assistance of the CMC and Road Development Authority (RDA). Seneviratne noted that a new mechanism has also been introduced to stop the digging up of roads in an ad hoc manner soon after reconstruction. If needed, the body/organisation must seek special approval from the UDA.

nRehabilitation of roads

The rehabilitation of roads also happened in parallel to walkability improvement. Roads that were in a poor state – especially Galle Road, from Bambalapitiya junction to Colpetty junction – have been rehabilitated under a ‘modern road’ concept. The Parliament Road followed suit with new landscapes being added to the improvements.

All this work and the work that continues at present (bus lanes being introduced, new street lamps installed, uni-flow traffic system, etc.) has brought local roads on par with modern roads of the region.

  • Immediate solutions for flooding

Colombo’s poor drainage and flood issues are a common issue faced by all. As it was, the city was getting flooded even after medium rainfall. Even the Parliamentary complex fell victim to this issue.

Having analysed the issue after the 2010 floods, Seneviratne noted some of their key findings were high intensity of rainfall due to climate change (within half hour 70-80mm of rain), macro drainage system with insufficient storage, 30% of storage space lost during the last decade due to legal and illegal fillings in Colombo, conveyance capacity limited and solid waste everywhere, outflow capacity of the system not enough (hugely insufficient capacity in the Mutwal tunnel and north block where water passes through to the Kelani River), low capacity in the down-flow (South Block and St. Sebastian’s Canal), localised issues, and climate change.

“We wanted to develop an integrated flood management solution. We brainstormed and got the engineers to work around the analysis.”

The solutions were many. To improve upper catchments basin so the water does not come to canal system immediately and store water when it rains and release later, divert water to Kelani River before it comes to Parliament Lake from the Madiwela east and south diversion, store water by creating lakes, retention areas in the upper catchments and increase capacity of Parliament Lake, and the removal of bottlenecks in the downstream canals to maximise the conveyance and cleaning of the canals were among some of them. The Group also decided to go for micro tunnels, install pumping stations, improve the micro drainage system, and canal bank protection.

“As immediate solutions we created lakes in the upper catchments areas (new lakes created in the Parliament Lake area) using National Budget money, rehabilitated the main canal system wherever possible, and installed a proper cleaning mechanism for micro drainage system,” Seneviratne said. “All this gave very good results.”

  • Creating urban spaces

“We identified that there are no urban spaces in the city for people to enjoy as it is a highly dense place,” he said. While large areas for people to gather and enjoy is quite common in other countries, in Sri Lanka the places were few and far between. The Galle Face Green, Independence Square, Vihara Maha Devi Park, and the Parliament Grounds were some of the most popular spaces.

“We went on to demolish the walls and enhance the greenery. We wanted to get as much space for the public which is important for the mindset of the people.” A large number of spaces have now been created and there are more to come in the pipeline. (See box ‘Latest developments in the city’ for more details.)

  • Mega scale urban regeneration projects

Colombo did not have proper mega scale urban regeneration programs for many years after the construction of the Twin Towers. Therefore the UDA is promoting mega scale development projects within the city in the land that is registered under UDA. (See box ‘Latest developments in the city’ for more details.)

Medium term programs

 While these immediate programs were being implemented, the UDA under the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project started working on its medium and long term program plan. With the limited funding available within the Government, the State has encouraged PPPs and to receive assistance from lending agencies such as Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank (WB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JAICA), etc.

 Metro Colombo Urban Development Project

 The first and key of such projects are the World Bank and Government funded ‘Metro Colombo Urban Development Project.’ The US$ 233 million project has received approval within a year since initial discussions from the World Bank. The usual period to receive approval is three years. This is known as one of the fastest urban regeneration projects in the world.

The project focuses on three key factors – flood and drainage management, urban development, infrastructure rehabilitation and capacity building for Metro Colombo local authorities, and implementation support. The costs estimated for the first two components are US$ 147.55 million and US$ 50.7 million respectively and is coming from the WB. The third, at an estimated US$ 10 million will be borne by the Government. The WB funding is on a concessionary loan to be paid back in 25 years.

“Land Reclamation conducted hydrological studies using latest software, latest models, and with the use of helicopters for the survey and has developed the first hydrological model for Colombo,” Seneviratne said adding that this is said to be one of the best in the world. All work has been done by local architects and engineers, expediting the work for faster implementation.

Under this, the UDA looks at improving canal system, creating more space, widening the Nawalagama flow and installing a pumping station, installing a micro tunnel in Muthuwavala, building drainage capacities and culvert improvement, micro tunnels from Thunmulla to sea, Muthuvavela to sea, and Dematagoda to Kelani River among others.

The Beira Lake and catchments will be improved and linear parks will be set up in East Beira while a biodiversity wetland park in Beddagana will also be constructed under the project.

Infrastructure improvements

 Infrastructure which also supports the local authorities of CMC, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, and Sri Jayawardenapura will be improved under the medium term World Bank-funded project. While the CMC remains to be the biggest beneficiary, the other two areas will also received adequate attention.

The project encompassing the Galle road stretch from Wellawatte to Bambalapitiya as well as Colpetty to Galle Face will be commenced no sooner the tender process is complete. R.A. De Mel Mawatha – Duplication Road will be completely developed with modern facilities. 10km of road in the city is to be developed along with 15 public complexes.

Seneviratne asserted that plans are underway to install two overhead pedestrian bridges in Colpetty and Bambalapitiya. “We are having a competition for designs for these bridges with the Institute of Architects,” he said. Two recreational water parks will also come up in Crow Island and Marine Drive.

The Town Hall square will be developed. “Restorations are ongoing at the building site, which you can now see is not done by the CMC but by us. The plan is to develop it to a city hall complex which the public enjoys in other countries.” The garden will be designed with water sprinkler systems, biking areas, landscaped parks, and illuminations with special lighting system. This is to be open to the public soon.

A project is also underway to reinstall the overhead cables underground. Done in collaboration with Ceylon Electricity Board, this has already been initiated in Vauxhall Street and Darley Road.

Seneviratne said: “The loan agreement was signed on 10 July 2012 and by October three contracts were already awarded. By now we have awarded nine contracts worth of 2000 million which is a record. We hope to complete the entire project in three years even though the given time frame is five.”

He noted that the first seven toilet complexes can be opened in one and half months and that 80% of the work is now complete. 60% of the roads work is completed. 25km of roads in Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte can be done, while 30km in the Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia road network has been done.

Another look at the strategies

 While things are changing the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project will also relook at the City Development Strategy and the Integrated Urban Master Plan which is currently outdated.

“We want to make an integrated one,” he said. “We have called an expression of interest from international reputed companies. We received a large number of it and must shortlist to six bids now for Metro Colombo.” The expectation is to go beyond Colombo to the outer circular boundaries of Ja-Ela up to Panadura and Kottawa covering 700 sqkm area.

Projects for the future

 A number of projects are also in the pipeline, Seneviratne said.

  • LT plan for solid waste management: Seneviratne expressed that the proper long term plan for solid waste management is a key need in the country. While there are many solutions, a sanitary land fill is the best, he said. However for this purpose some 150 acres of land is needed. “Finding this amount of land within metro Colombo is an issue,” he said. A location has been identified in Thavakkal, Puttalam – an abandon limestone quarry. An expression of interest for consultancy and study other options have already been called.
  • Colombo green growth program: With WB grants, this project will aim at creating an inventory of city wide green house gas emission and give solutions to reduction.
  • East Beira development: A new business model to develop the 70/80 acres of land spanning from Lake House to Gamini Hall is now underway.
  • Weras Ganga project: Started two week ago, the US$ 120 million project aims to protect the Raththanapitya, Nugegoda, Delkanda, and Boralesgamuwa areas from going under water. This is a three and a half years project.
  • Express City in the Tripoli market in Colombo: To encourage R&D institutions to set up shop here.
  • US$ 180 million water supply project.
  • US$ 175 million electricity distribution improvement.
  • JICA-funded Metro Colombo Urban transport project.
  • Sea reclamation projects: Near Galle Face and Colpetty, as well as in Mount Lavinia.
  • Kelani River development: Have not been discussed with other parties yet.
  • Formation of a National Urban Research Institute.

Pix by Upul Abayasekara

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