(File photo)

The ongoing era is often regarded as the new wave of urbanization. Throughout last few centuries we could witness the process in which the cities, originated within agro-based societies were transforming into centers of industrialization and service provision, and then turned into centers of global economic relations, socio-political affairs and intellectual discourse. It is more appropriate to say that the entire world is transforming into a ‘global city’ than into a ‘global village’, as was envisaged in the past era of advancing information technology. In this new era, Sri Lanka, despite its island status, has no escape from these worldly trends and therefore, has to work out its own scenarios to face the challenges surging from this new urban world.

Thinking of that, we cannot forget the fact that Asia is emerging as the giant of the economic affairs, geo-politics and the technological advancements of the globe. Inevitably, this rapid growth in the Asian economies is closely associated with the equally rapid urbanization processes proliferating across Asia. According to statistics, six of the ten largest cities in the world are already in Asia and according to forecast, more than half of the world urban population will be found in Asian cities towards the middle of this century. South Asia will be the home for a major portion of that urban population. Out of the twenty largest urban agglomerations around the world, six are currently located in South Asia and nearly one quarter of the world trade and transactions are based in those locations. In that context South Asia is already playing a major role in urbanizing Asia. Being an active member and a pivotal point of all geo political affairs of South Asia, what would be Sri Lanka’s contribution to this wave of urbanization?

The successive governments of the post independent Sri Lanka have already paid due regard for this matter by forming a ministry dedicated for Urban Development and establishing a number of institutions delegated with tasks related to urban affairs. This regard is extending throughout and the latest development is the Megapolis and Smart Cities, which are far beyond the conventional scope of work and modalities of urban development.

The proposed Megapolis development in the Western Province of Sri Lanka brought in a hot topic for discussion, especially among professionals and interest groups. This was a main item in the recent election manifesto of the United National Front for Good Governance. While it still remains unfamiliar to a majority, it also brought in amusement to the public for its interpretation as a ‘large scale police’ by some ignorant and immature politicians.  By now, a new ministry for the purpose is already established and several high profile institutions are already allocated to this ministry. A few more is to be established, according to unconfirmed sources of information. However, the proposed ‘not-well-known’ phenomenon cropped up innumerable questions in the minds of all those who are interested. The questions are basically of three categories namely: the substantive, procedural and contextual.

Firstly, the main question is whether the entire Western Province will be enslaved by ‘Colombo’, forming a large urbanity similar to Singapore, Bangkok or Mumbai? As occasionally mentioned, will it be an agglomeration of eight million people, which is one third of the projected 22 million population of the entire island by 2030? In that scenario, amidst Sri Lanka’s slowly-growing population, will the other 85 percent of its land territory scare people to live in them and to run their functions, or will this Megapolis depend on foreign talents and imported labor? What would be the consequences of the migration on the ethnic balance, cultural mix and the contesting interests? While threatening the sensitive and fragile ecosystems of the western quadrant of the island, will this giant lead to large scale regional disparities that had already resulted in three uprisings in 1971, 1988-1989 and 1983-2005?

In the second category, what will be the process followed to carve out this yet unknown territory and the new institutional framework to continue it out of the existing institutions such as the Urban Development Authority, Provincial establishments, local authorities, etc.? While the fate of the Western Provincial Council and the number of Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas is not clear, will this new urban enclave be governed by an authoritarian institution, in which citizens have less or no say or role to play?

In the contextual category, the main question is how will the proposed Colombo Megapolis be positioned in the emerging urban South Asia? Will it be able to be par with the other cities in the region and around the globe in terms of competitive infrastructure, safe and livable environment, attraction to business investments and equity in service provision? Will this new environment also accomplish the complexities and complications resulted in by mismanagement, misappropriation and marginalization that the other cities in the region are entangled with?

These are only a few out of many questions that naturally emerge from the hazy conditions that prevail. In this background it is important that the interested parties are informed not only of the proposed Colombo Megapolis development, but also of the local and international context in which this urban phenomenon that is new to Sri Lanka is going to come in.

Another concept that gets popularity among many is the Smart city. Although the means and bounds and the form of a Smart City remain undefined, at the core of the concept is accessibility to fast, reliable and on-the-spot information. At this passing age of information technology, in which ‘speed is regarded as the success of a city’, cities are expected to be fields of freely available information for efficient means of way finding, locating people and places, doing business, communication, etc. In this context not only a new set of citizen demands associated with the changing behavior and lifestyle are emerging, but also a new infrastructure that reshapes the entire city environment and its life are now on their way. India has already declared one hundred of its urban entities to be developed into smart cities. Other nations in the region are trying to be par with that. Urban development scenarios in Sri Lanka can no longer overlook this fact. Will Sri Lanka be able to cope with these emerging demands? What will be the shape of the cities, towns and villages of this island on the hands of this smart society in future? What will be the challenges that the authorities will have to face in the process towards smart urbanities?
With all the challenges emerging from the above in front of us, it is important to have an extensive discussion as to where Sri Lanka along with South Asia is heading towards. This will be the matter of focus in upcoming South Asia Urban Forum 2015. This Urban Forum intends to bring urban researchers, practitioners and interest groups together and to provide an opportunity to initiate grounds for the long felt need to explore the South Asian Urban Quest. The Forum which is a long felt need by all researchers, academics and the urban interest groups in South Asia, is an initiative of the Department of Town and Country Planning, University of Moratuwa and jointly organized by the Urban Development Authority of Sri Lanka, National Physical Planning Department and the Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka, with the participation of research and practicing organizations in the SAARC countries.

The main event, marked by the research and practice conference, will take place on September 21 and 23, at Cinnamon Lakeside, Colombo. The organizers of the event invite all those who are interested and have valuable contributions towards making our urban areas more livable and responsive. Further details on the event are available at the following web site:
(The writer is a Senior Lecturer, University of MoratuwaChartered Architect and Town Planner)