By 2020, the Urban Development Authority envisions a rationalized Colombo, activities divided into zones, markets in certain areas and squatters moved out so valuable land can be leased to developers. This plan includes redoing the chaotic zoning of the city and taking direct Ministry of Defence control of vital areas, including the historic and future downtown.
The port city of Colombo has been besieged by the Portugese, the Dutch, the British and finally the terrorist threat of the LTTE. The latter group never occupied the city, but they did target it with waves of suicide bombers, fracturing its natural development. Now, one year after wars end, the architect of the LTTE’s demise is planning the new city of Colombo.
The Urban Development Authority and all relevant departments are now under the Ministry of Defence and its Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Just as his Ministry used maps to document and marshall support for the conquest of formerly LTTE territory, they are now imposing a top-down plan to restructure the city.
Ongoing war in Sri Lanka stunted the natural growth of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, while terrorist attacks and security restrictions downtown scattered development outward. Even by 1985 mixed residential zones (mapped in grey) began to dominate as people travelled less into the inner city.
Fear, insurance rates and traffic restrictions choked development of the downtown area. Since the commercial district was a target, it decentralized. The mixed residential areas in the 1985 Zoning Plan came to dominate the city. The city expanded horizontally with an unplanned mix of commercial, residential and other activities in the suburbs.
With the end of war, the Urban Development Authority has released and begun acting on a new zoning plan. This involves rationalising the chaotic zoning of the war years into specific zones. As you compare the two maps, however, it becomes obvious that this involves upending thousands of residents around the Port and Slave Island areas. This has already begun with the Ministry of Defence getting cabinet approval to resettle (or simply remove) 66,000 people squatting on land, freeing up 78 acres for leasing.
These unauthorized shanties have sprung up around the north and east of the city, marked grey on the map at right. These cheap mixed residential areas may not exist in 2020 as the residents will live in government high rises or further afield.
The areas around the Beira Lake and Galle Face Green are an absolute jumble in the 1985 plan but a pristine white in the 2020 map. That is because they are UDA projects, controlled developments that will result in outdoor restaurants, walkways, shopping areas and public promenades. Some ideas being discussed include an underground mall beneath Galle Face and possible land reclamation from the sea.
The blue area at the center of Cinnamon Gardens is also a special UDA project. This includes largely abandoned and seemingly haunted Colombo racetrack grounds, as well as many green areas around Independence Square.
Many facilities are also being moved out of Colombo entirely. The prisoners at Welikada are being largely relocated, and the street hawkers and fishmongers are already being relocated to designated zones.
In the end, the Colombo of 2020 may look like the Colombo of 1750, at least in relative terms. The downtown will again be centered around the Port, buoyed by an oasis in the Beira Lake and surrounded by leafy suburbs to the south. In the process, the particular quirky character of Colombo’s back streets and random surprises may disappear, leaving a new port city, no longer under siege.