Lasting beautification?

Thursday, 25 June 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


THE decision by the Colombo Mayor to allow the return of pavement hawkers to the capital city’s roads has resulted in much commentary. Sentiments are largely divided into two segments. Some people are unhappy about the decision and charge it is merely an astute political move to aid the Mayor’s wife who is reported to be seeking election at the upcoming Parliamentary polls. 

Being typical politicians, the Muzzamil clan has allowed pavement hawkers to return on the hope of increased votes, they believe. This seems to be a sound supposition as the Mayor himself has admitted to media the decision was taken on “political consideration”. However, he has defended the move by insisting not all streets will be released to hawkers and even those will eventually be reclaimed once negotiations to move them to another suitable locale have been completed. Residents long used to languishing and stalemate-bound negotiations will have little confidence in this promise. 

A second set are less against the move, insisting beautifying cannot be done at the cost of the poor man’s bread. They argue all people have the right to be part of its culture and in being so create the vibrancy and inclusivity that is the real hallmark of a proper capital city. In short, the soul of Colombo is not in restored old buildings but in its entire people, inconvenient, loud and polluting as they are, and it is this give and take, which gives the city its true identity. Perhaps an idealist stance but one that resonates with the right idea.

Since the end of the war, Colombo has been beautified almost to an unrecognisable degree, yet strict rules of how to behave in those public spaces have also followed. This has drawn criticism from some quarters as an attempt to control civil behaviour but such actions are largely because the community does not feel invested in the development and therefore does not feel motivated to maintain it. The other side of the coin is that the public usually sits and complains until the Government takes action and does not proactively participate in maintaining public spaces. 

Therefore the attitudinal change that should happen from the ground up has been dismissed for strict top-down methods that ultimately do not result in social transformation. It could be argued such efforts could take a long time and cannot be applied to large projects, but actual evidence points to the contrary. Creating space for the public to be invested financially and emotionally in a public space will result in real social change. It will grow an environment where people respect and value public space because it is created by them, for them.

Of course such a process is long and fraught with delays. Yet the fact that standard beautification undertaken by the previous Government left many people without their homes and places of work cannot be disputed. Even though allowing these low income groups to operate can be viewed as an election sop, it is also a need created by their participation being shut out of the development process. This is the danger of a results-at-any-cost method and more than anything else a lesson to policy makers, without everyone little change can be made to last.