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Development Plans for the City of Colombo - The Development of Community Housing

Article Index
Development Plans for the City of Colombo
Future Development Thrust
The Development of Community Housing
City Development Adjoining the South Harbour
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The Development of Community Housing

The most pressing problem in Colombo today involves the slums and shantytowns that house so much of its population. The people in these underserved settlements live in terrible conditions with few of the facilities most of us take for granted. The quality of their housing is extremely poor. They lack uniform access to proper sanitation and pipe borne water. The electricity they use is often tapped illegally and poses a significant fire hazard. Their houses are concentrated within an extremely small area and they have virtually no privacy.

Nevertheless, due to the economic dominance of the Greater Colombo Area, the people in these settlements provide an essential labour pool for the activities in the city. Because of this, it is necessary to relocate them to better housing facilities within Colombo rather than look to shifting them outside. In this regard, the Government has taken action to construct high-rise community housing within the metropolitan area to accommodate these people. The improved facilities they will receive should lead to the upgrading of their quality of life.

Relocation projects for underserved settlements have been tried in the past. The Sahassapura complex in Dematagoda was set up eight years ago, while the complex at Gunasinghapura was set up even earlier. These projects were generally successful in improving the quality of housing and rationalising the use of land, but there were also a few systemic weaknesses that limited the uplifting of living standards of the occupants. These included the lack of a proper funding mechanism for long-term maintenance; little effort being taken to educate the occupants and prepare them for life in a new environment; and the lack of comprehensive community facilities. These past experiences have been studied and remedies to such problems have been introduced in the projects that are currently under way.

I am pleased to note that the occupants of the 320 new housing units constructed at Dematagoda have shown that they are quite happy with the facilities they have received. The Dematagoda complex is only one of many projects that are presently under way. Another 680 units are to be built there, along with a 3,128-unit complex at Salamulla for which the foundation stone was recently laid. The Government's target is to relocate 30,000 of the 70,000 families to new community housing within the next two years. Land for these new centres has already been identified, and discussions have been held with a number of interested companies for the construction of these facilities. Several plans have already been submitted for UDA approval, and construction work is scheduled to begin shortly.

The cost of this programme is not cheap. Each new residential unit that is established will cost approximately two million rupees. Considering the number of units that need to be created, this is a very large cost to the Government. However, it is possible to fund these community housing projects through allocating the valuable land liberated through relocation for development activities.

Because the slums and shantytowns are all single storey or low-rise buildings, they occupy vast areas of land. Since the community housing to be provided will be in high-rise building complexes, a lot of Government land will be freed in Colombo, which will be earmarked for development. This liberated land can be used for tourism and residential facilities, business activities and other services. A great deal of foreign investment is also anticipated for these development projects. For these reasons, the feasibility of the project is assured.

A further benefit is that through relocations, slums and shantytowns will no longer disfigure the city. Many of these unauthorised structures are centred on strategic reservations around the public waterways and the sides of the railway tracks. In particular, our waterways are badly polluted because of the settlements on the sides of the canals. As a result, the canals require a lot more maintenance in order to function properly. Through the relocation programme, it will be a lot easier to clean up the waterways and create more public spaces including promenades, walkways, cycle-paths and parks around the canals to enhance the city's greenery and beauty. This will create a healthier environment for the people in the city.

The most important aspect of the community housing project is the uplifting of the living standards of Colombo's low-income families. Through greatly improving their housing facilities and introducing them to a more comfortable way of life, we will be able to provide these people with the domestic environment they need to achieve social mobility. This is the greatest contribution of the relocation programme to the people of Colombo.

Another area being looked into in terms of housing is the relocation or redevelopment of run-down, legally owned structures in Colombo. This is particularly prominent in areas in Colombo North like Slave Island, Fort and Grandpass, where there are a lot of small, haphazardly scattered, private houses that should be upgraded. Unlike the slums and shantytowns, these buildings are not unauthorised structures. As a result, the UDA is discussing the best way for their redevelopment with the owners as well as private developers. This programme is being set up as a public-private partnership that will be facilitated by the UDA. I am pleased to note that there has been a good response to this initiative so far.

The Relocation of Government Buildings Another project being implemented in parallel with the community-housing programme is the relocation of Government offices and buildings from Colombo city to Sri Jayawardenepura. As mentioned earlier, the sending out of Government buildings from Colombo to a separate administrative capital has been planned a long time. However, even though this programme was part carried out in the 1980s, there are still too many Government offices still occupying prime locations in Colombo. Many of them are located in housing intended for government servants in residential areas, which causes a lot of inconvenience to the people in the area. All of these should be shifted to the administrative capital.

As a first step towards speeding up the relocation of Government buildings, a programme is being set up to shift the offices of the Defence Ministry, Chief of Defence Staff and the Headquarters of the Armed Services to a combined office complex in Battaramulla. The Government is in the process of making arrangements to provide the lands that will be released through this relocation for the development of luxury hotels and residential facilities in the heart of Colombo. Plans have been finalised for an industry leading international hotel chain to create world-class signature developments on these lands.

Another project being expedited is the second phase of the Sethsiripaya complex. This high-rise building, once completed, will house many of the remaining Government offices in Colombo. A thirty-storey building will be constructed as the third stage of Sethsiripaya to accommodate the rest. This will finally achieve the goal of rationalising overall land use through centralising administrative functions at Sri Jayawardenepura.

Improvements to Colombo Fort In parallel to moving central administrative functions out of the city of Colombo, work is being carried out to enhance the central business district. The area around Fort is the oldest part of the city and has several historic landmarks and buildings. It is also home to the head offices of many businesses. The Fort area also has the advantage of being a sea front city. Unfortunately, due to its organic growth through the years, the full potential of this area has not been realised. That is why the Government is putting in place several measures to develop this historic part of the city.

One immediate measure is the relocation of pavement hawkers. It was realised early on that although these people carried out their business in unauthorised structures that obstructed city activities, they comprised a large group of self-employed people with a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. That is why the Government has helped these people by constructing separate central market facilities where they can continue to ply their trades. Similar initiatives have been taken to relocate pavement hawkers in Borella and Nugegoda.

Another project in progress is the relocation of certain facilities to less obtrusive sites that will not impact the city's image. The St. John's fish market is being relocated to Peliyagoda, where a modern facility has been erected. A Dubai-style Gold exchange will be built in its place in Pettah. The Manning market and the Wholesale market have also been earmarked for relocation. The central bus stand will be relocated within the vicinity and will be provided better facilities. Through these measures, the use of land in the Fort area will be rationalised. More open spaces will be introduced, and historic buildings and other landmarks will gain greater emphasis.

Other, simpler methods are also in place to beautify the Fort area and make it a much more pleasant location. The historic city centre is presently in a high security zone that allowed only limited public access until recently. This area will be opened up for businesses, restaurants, museums and other public facilities. Work is in progress to make this a shaded, pedestrian only area that will restore the historic city centre to its original beauty.

Old buildings are to be renovated and preserved so that their character can be brought out. New developments can also be situated in this area, but only in such a way as not to clash with the existing buildings. A good example of this is the creation of luxury hotel and residential facilities within historic buildings such as the Cargills Building and the Grand Orient Hotel. The idea is to modify the interior while keeping the exterior intact. Discussions are already underway with the owners of these buildings in this regard. Through all these measures, the Colombo Fort area will be repositioned as a recognised world-class historic city.


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