March 23, 2019

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    Urbanisation, not a panacea for all economic ills

    January 10, 2019

    Since mid-1970s, the professionals addressing the global forums brought into prominence three important global issues. The first was the worsening state of the earth’s bio-physical environment, the second was the process which we now refer to as ‘globalization’ and the third was the rapidity of urbanization taking place, particularly in the developing countries. Most of the developing countries have only little control over the first two issues but if they take due recognition to the third one, appropriate initiatives could be taken to mitigate its adverse effects.

    Sri Lanka, too, has a visibly high rate of urbanisation although statistically it is less than the rest of the South Asian countries. According to the official statistics, only 18.2% of the population lives in urban areas. Analysts believe it does not reflect the true picture. Even the World Bank notes that ‘while urbanisation data in Sri Lanka are much debated, there is consensus that the country is urbanising faster than the statistical figures suggest’.

    On the other hand, in many cities in Sri Lanka, the true extent of the city extends beyond its administrative boundaries, while as much as one-third of the population may be living in areas that ought to be classified as urban areas. Reinforcing these views, the Department of Census and Statistics confirms that the current figures seem to under-estimate urbanisation and that the urban population ‘would have been much higher if the definitional issues were resolved’.

    Spatial dynamics

    UN-Habitat who are currently assessing the spatial dynamics of Sri Lanka’s urbanisation covering 9 provincial capitals for the period 1995-2017 also believe Sri Lanka’s cities have expanded rapidly since the 1990s.

    For example, their initial spatial analysis suggests that in Colombo, the urban built-up area has increased from 41 sq. km in 1995 to 281 sq. km in 2017. This expansion is unprecedented in the city’s history. The trend is same across the other provincial cities. UN-Habitat believes that during the period 1995-2017, urban area grew by 9.57 per cent per year. At the same time, Sri Lanka’s urban to rural population ratio has registered a noticeable decline over the past 50 years.

    World Bank report

    The World Bank report – Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: “Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Liveability” makes some interesting comments on Sri Lanka.

    (1) Sri Lanka’s cities do not appear attractive to potential migrants from rural areas because of the country’s impressive progress in achieving spatial equity between rural and urban areas, particularly in the provision of basic public services and living standards. As a result, the impetus for “push” migration – rural residents moving to a city more out of distress than, say, for higher wages – is generally weaker in Sri Lanka.

    (2) Sri Lanka’s “messy” urbanization is reflected in patterns of sprawl and ribbon development with evidence of rapid growth on the periphery. This differs from most of the rest of South Asia. We do not find large slum populations and a high incidence of extreme urban poverty.

    (3) While the country’s total urban area grew at a rate close to that for the region overall, its urban population growth rate was much slower than for the region overall.

    (4) There are indications that as much as one-third of Sri Lanka’s entire population may be living in areas that possess urban characteristics, but are classified as rural.

    (5) Official statistics for cities produced by national statistical offices and other government agencies tend to be based on administrative definitions. Such administrative boundaries of a city, however, often fail to accurately delineate a city’s true built-up extent.

    Clear understanding

    The term “urban” is well-known as a loose and ambiguous concept without a theoretical consensus. In Sri Lanka, the concept still suffers from lack of clear understanding. The reports and other information listed above are proof of it.

    When the civil war was concluded in 2009, the country saw huge investments in “urban” development in the form of infrastructure growth and expressways, ports and airports etc. In April 2010, Sri Lanka’s National Physical Plan was presented which envisaged that by 2030, the country’s development will centre around five metropolitan areas. In 2015, the new Government decided to revise the National Physical Plan and launched the Western Region Megapolis Master Plan Project as their flagship project to cover the entire Western Province.

    A clear understanding of long-term urban development pattern is essential for effective decision-making, in guiding future urban development, efficient service delivery, among others, to ensure healthy urban growth.

    Key issues

    Throughout history, cities have been closely linked to the advancement of civilization in all world regions. Sri Lanka is no exception and it can be said, without exaggeration, that our proud history of civilization has been the history of our cities. Therefore, if properly planned and managed, cities are capable of providing solutions to the key urban challenges.

    Along with the urbanisation, there are few other areas of concern that should be addressed to be able to enhance the productive capacity and the quality of life of urban dwellers:

    * Creating enough jobs, especially in urban areas where population is growing fastest, is the single most important task that needs to be accomplished in order to significantly improve the quality of life of the citizens. Our urban areas have their competitive strength which needs to be fully utilized. These include continued English language competency, relatively high education level, and continued active civil society participation in governance.

    * The government needs to quickly take actions to address weakness in some urban areas to enable them to be competitive in a global economy. These include, deteriorating urban environment, urban security concerns, low capacity at local government level in economic development and serious local government fiscal constraints.

    * International best practice points to a series of actions that national and local governments can take to bolster the local investment climate and improve productivity and competitiveness. Many of these require cooperation between government, civil society and local business.

    * The urban income and productivity are high on average, yet the inequality is also higher. This is not only socially problematic but raises questions about the sustainability of current development patterns. Furthermore, because the urban population is increasing much more quickly than the rural, the share of urban poverty in national poverty is rising sharply. Therefore, policies targeted at the specific problems of the urban poor have become more important.

    * Significant proportions of the urban poor live in communities which lack access to basic services like piped water, sanitation, drainage, paved footpaths, electricity, etc. It is commonly held that lack of income is the reason why the poor lack basic services. However, this is not the case. Surveys indicate that low income slum and squatter communities have the resources and would be willing to pay for basic services if government programmes and policies were better designed to provide such services in these communities.

    The importance of urbanization for both growth and poverty alleviation calls for a coherent national framework toward urbanization. The objective of such a national urbanization framework should be to develop the Sri Lankan cities into liveable and globally competitive areas which can truly serve as engines of growth for the country.

    Such a framework should include the few key elements: (a) improving urban and metropolitan governance and management; (b) enhancing competitiveness of urban regions; (c) alleviating urban poverty; (d) developing infrastructure; and (e) managing rural migration.

    The framework would call for a comprehensive set of actions and policies both at the national and local levels. More importantly, it is clear that urbanization issues need to be integrated into national development policies and strategies. Addressing all of the urban challenges will require inclusive urban planning, management and governance policies, as well as, effective institutions.

    Urban poverty

    The slums are the most visible manifestation of urban poverty. Addressing the slum challenge will partly entail in-situ upgrading, focusing on improving water and sanitation, as well as improving the supply of adequate but affordable housing for low-income households. To achieve the latter, serious attention has to be paid to increasing the supply of affordable land, especially for the poor.

    Finally, addressing all of the current and future urban challenges requires appropriate and robust financing systems. It is in response to these requirements the government should place emphasis on innovative financing mechanisms and improved institutional capacity to leverage the contributions of communities, local authorities and the private sector, as well as of government and international organisations.

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