Urban planning

Friday, 5 October 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Recently Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority (UDA) celebrated its 40th year in operation but given the declining state of liveability in Colombo and other key cities, there is little cause for praise and much need for stronger urban planning. Colombo is still struggling with basic services such as garbage disposal, traffic, pollution, underserved settlements, safety, especially for women and many other issues that need to be addressed.

Urban planning embodies a vision that conveys the aspirations of both the government and the people. The better aligned the collective vision from both the Government and the people, the more realistic and implementable are the plans. It does not have to paint a lofty, unattainable goal but it should be attractive and contextual, making use of the unique assets and characteristics of each place, community or city. In fact, the more down to earth the vision is, and the more the people can relate to it, the better.

Urban planning is a value creation tool which often generates more than enough return just from its own merits although one may need to have some patience. It is a powerful tool to generate economic opportunities and facilitate economic development. For example, a well-planned and functioning city is an efficient city that can reduce congestion costs and negative externalities. Urban planning should take one step beyond just function and efficiency, but towards livability and attractiveness, that will generate even greater economic benefits. In addition, a little packaging built on the planning vision can be a powerful marketing material to attract investors. 

Of course, realising the vision would need much more than a plan: strong political will, legal backing, and social consensus amongst others; however, a transparent and well executed plan will instill confidence in investors and is one of the first step towards generating a virtuous upward growth cycle.

Urban planning is a coordination and communication instrument, the common document that brings together stakeholders. Just taking the example at the government level, arguments, trade-offs and compromises are better done at the table – the draft urban plan can be used as a starting point for discussions amongst agencies with different mandates and interests. Perhaps even more importantly, the final document reflects agreements and decisions from these discussions that should be upheld. It would, therefore, minimise potential conflicts amongst different agencies during implementation. 

This applies to all aspects of urban development – from road, water, drainage, sewers, electricity and community services, health and education facilities to economic development direction and goals. Underlying this is the need for one main coordination agency and a clear division of work between the agencies as well as the various levels of Government. Therefore, urban planning is not just about restricting the land use, gross floor area, height limits and imposing various control guidelines for plots of land.

Perhaps then, the question is how can urban planning be carried out in a useful manner appropriate to the developing countries’ or cities’ contexts? If tackling the issue at the city level is too complicated, perhaps start with one neighbourhood or one community. If five agencies cannot agree, perhaps align the interests of three first. If there is not enough budget to implement the entire wish list, prioritise tasks and do the most urgent and critical one first. 

At present the UDA is part of ambitious plans such as a light rail system but it needs to fulfil a much wider mandate to improve the quality of life of people in urban areas.