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How do we tackle urban sprawl in Sri Lanka?


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By United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Sri Lanka

Urban sprawl is one of the key challenges facing Sri Lanka’s cities today. Sprawl development, typically defined as uncoordinated, low density urban expansion, involves rapid land consumption as cities expand and swallow up surrounding rural areas. Globally, urban sprawl is associated with a number of undesirable city attributes, from traffic jams to the destruction of important natural habitats on the urban fringe.  

In Sri Lanka, urban sprawl is identified in the Government’s Public Investment Programme 2017-2020 as a priority issue facing urban planners. Addressing urban sprawl is also emphasised by development partners, including UN-Habitat and the World Bank, and is a component of key international agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which has a specific indicator related to urban sprawl (the rate of urban land consumption), and the United Nations New Urban Agenda. 

A good demonstration of the scale of sprawl in Sri Lanka’s cities can be found in the highly urbanised Western Province, which the government plans to transform into an urban hub of South Asia as a Megapolis. The Western Region covers an area of 3,684 km2 – bigger than twice the area of Greater London. Yet despite being twice the size of the UK capital, the area includes under two-thirds of Greater London’s nearly nine million population, and, correspondingly, registers a much lower population density. 

Sprawl is not just an issue in the capital. The State of Sri Lankan Cities Project, implemented by UN-Habitat and the Government of Sri Lanka with funding from the Government of Australia, has found such urban expansion is typical in many of the island’s cities. The project is providing an assessment of key urban planning issues, including urban sprawl, in Sri Lanka’s nine Provincial Capitals. A report will be published this year with a view to aid evidence-based urban policy making in Sri Lanka.



Why are people worried about urban sprawl?

Both globally and in Sri Lanka, urban sprawl is widely viewed as undesirable for many reasons. 

According to a report by OECD, urban sprawl negatively impacts urban mobility because of the greater distances that are required to be travelled. Commuting to work is an important issue: in Colombo, for example, commutes of over one and half hours have become the norm. Long commuting times take a toll on the wellbeing of urban residents, leaving shorter periods for leisure and family-based activities.  

The large distances in sprawling cities also discourage non-motorised transport, such as bicycles and walking, and make public transport provision difficult, because the urban population is spread over a wide area.  

Due to a lack of alternatives and long traveling times, many residents in sprawling cities opt for private transport, resulting in the large traffic jams that have become common in Colombo and Kandy. Increased usage of motorised private transport – particularly cars – is also associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution, and is linked to a variety of public health issues.  

Rapid urban expansion also poses grave threats to important ecological habitats. Alarmingly, Sri Lanka is at the forefront of this environmental risk globally. A major study led by Yale University included Sri Lanka as one of the world’s top four biodiversity hotspots threatened by rapid urban expansion. 

Rapid land use change from non-urban to urban also negatively affects urban resilience to climate change, particularly through increasing flood vulnerability. Land use change has reduced drainage capacity in the greater Colombo area substantially, increasing flood risks to urban residents. According to authorities, the flood drainage capacity in Colombo was reduced by 30% in the past decade, as wetlands and other retention areas have been converted to urban land use as the city expands. 

In addition, urban sprawl increases the costs of public service provision, because service users are spread over wide areas. Consequently, coverage of key services, such as sewerage, solid waste collection and drainage can be haphazard in Sri Lanka’s cities. In the Colombo Metropolitan area, for example, only those living in the central areas have access to municipal sewerage services and proper drainage systems. 

Poor waste management practices and lack of drainage become particularly hazardous in times of flood, where waters stagnate and become contaminated leading to disease outbreaks, such as the dengue epidemic of 2017 that was focused on urban areas, and was particularly severe in the highly urbanised Western Province.  

The cumulative negative impacts of urban sprawl may have severe economic implications for Sri Lanka, as cities become less liveable and more susceptible to disruptive environmental shocks. 



Addressing urban sprawl, promoting compact cities

Across the globe, urban planners are striving to promote compact cities as an antidote to sprawl.   Compact cites exhibit mixed urban land use over a small area and are widely viewed as preferable to low density sprawl areas. 

Promoting compact cities with appropriate urban planning interventions can improve access to urban services, such as solid waste and waste water management infrastructure, and drive cost effectiveness in service delivery, by reducing coverage areas.

Compact cities also lead to improved urban mobility by reducing the need for private vehicle usage and enabling effective, efficient and equitable provision of public transport. 

The mobility benefits of compact cities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have been shown to have significant impacts in improving public health outcomes, according to a recent study reported in the leading medical journal, The Lancet. 

Reducing the rate of land consumption by promoting urban densification rather than sprawl also safeguards ecological environments on the urban periphery.

In the medium- to long-term, compact cities enable planners to efficiently upgrade urban service delivery through ICT interventions, and deliver smart cities – an important component of the globe’s urban future as detailed in the New Urban Agenda. 



How do we get there?

Government, development partners, research institutions and the private sector have key roles in promoting compact urban growth in Sri Lanka. 

A first step is developing an evidence-based understanding of the dynamics of urban form and patterns of expansion, so that policy makers have sound information on which to base programming decisions. 

The State of Sri Lanka’s Cities Project is currently addressing this issue by providing detailed spatial analysis of urban areas, with a view to generate urban data and analysis to give policy makers a strong evidence-base to inform future urban planning interventions and investments. 

The project intends to spearhead the formulation of an urban research agenda in Sri Lanka. From this base, the Government of Sri Lanka, development partners, research institutions, the private sector and other stakeholders must collaborate to develop innovative and workable strategies to improve the form of Sri Lanka’s cities, and deliver compact cities for a sustainable, resilient and competitive urban future.


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