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    Between Upgrading and Resettlement: Fieldwork reflections from locations in Colombo

    By Tim Wickson, on 17 September 2018

    This post was prepared by Balint Horvarth, Mateo Lu, Fernando Toro, Nada Sallam and Karlene Stubbs with editorial support from Tim Wickson and Barbara Lipietz

    (Ruth McLeod) Rapid urban development in Colombo

     

    Introduction

    It is not every day that 35 post-graduate students from 21 countries have the opportunity to travel to a new country, partner with local organisations and policy makers and learn from the urban policies and practices at play there. In May 2018, this opportunity was presented to us through our MSc Urban Development Planning field trip. After months of desk-based preparation, we left London for Colombo (Sri Lanka) with only one certainty in mind: we were going to learn, not to solve. Our ambition was to listen to the city and reflect on what the different voices were telling us.

    Guided throughout by Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), our work in Colombo focussed on exploring upgrading and resettlement in the context of an active state-led Urban Regeneration Programme (URP). The URP aims to deliver a slum-free Colombo by 2023 by moving 75,000 households out of so-called under-served settlements and into high-rise housing projects. Implemented by the Urban Development Authority (UDA), the programme’s financial model rests on a combination of end-user repayments and market cross-subsidy generated by the release of liberated land for private sector development.

    Working in collaboration with recent planning, sociology and social work graduates from three local universities, our research benefited from in-depth discussions with affected local communities; face to face meetings with government officials; as well as structured inputs from a host of Colombo based experts and activists. Based on these experiences, we were able to build up nuanced understandings of how urban and housing policies operate at different scales in Colombo; problematise the under-served settlement and slum-free discourses; and begin exploring cracks for alternative urban development approaches in the city.

    During our time in Colombo, we were encouraged to blend an appreciation of theory with an awareness of how urban practices get materialised in the city. This approach helped unpack relationships between different actors; and exposed the differential impacts of vested interests and influences at different scales. We worked with communities from across three sites in Colombo – Muwadora Uyana, Nawagampura and Mayura Place – and each contributed uniquely to our picture of the city.

    (Nada Sallam) Solid waste collection in Nawagampura

     

    Site 1: Muwadora Uyana

    In the case of Muwadora Uyana, we chose to investigate how the Urban Regeneration Programme had impacted the quality of life enjoyed by those families and individuals who had been moved from settlements across the city into the high-rise housing complex that is Muwadora Uyana. As far as possible, and given the limited research time available, our (action) research and propositions were guided by the ideas and themes that arose from initial discussions with residents themselves. This approach enabled us to identify what quality of life meant to the relocated residents; avoiding the imposition of a normative framing.

    High-rise housing blocks in Muwadora Uyana

     

    Building out from this embedded definition; we pursued a mixed-methods approach comprised of floor by floor spatial analysis; participatory mapping with young people and children; and semi-structured interviews with over 30 residents. In so doing, we were able to unpack why it was that some people who are relocated into high-rises are able to thrive, whilst others struggle to survive.

    As well as highlighting the importance of embedded research and face-to-face dialogue with effected communities, this project served to challenge the assumption that all people have the capacity to adapt to living in high-rise conditions. In fact, for many groups and individuals, their agency for adaptation is limited. As such, by introducing agency as a crucial determinant of quality of life, our research problematised the fairness argument often-used to defend a relocation policy based on standardised, one-size-fits-all apartments. Indeed, we argue that this reframing creates space to consider alternative options for both current and future residents alike.

     

    Site 2: Nawagampura

    Nawagampura is a thriving neighbourhood originally established as a relocation site under the Million Houses Programme in the 1980s. Over the past 35 years, the settlement has evolved and consolidated, stitching its residents into the fabric of the city. However, despite its centrality, the buzz of daily economic activity, and residents’ access to a range of services and facilities, the neighbourhood is still classified as underserved. In the main, this classification relates to the fact that many residents still lack secure tenure; although a number of structures also lack individual toilets and others suffer from periodic flooding issues.

    (Nada Sallam) Municipal canal cleaning in Nawagampura

     

    The diversity in residents’ experiences and opinions of their neighbourhood served as an interesting point of departure for our research. In the context of state-led efforts to transform Colombo into a world-class city, all neighbourhoods classified by the state as underserved have been slated for future relocation. Though not under imminent threat of relocation, Nawagampura presented a rare opportunity to challenge the stereotypical depiction of underserved settlements and communities that underpins much of the state’s thinking around resettlement in Colombo.

    Working directly with residents, community-leaders, and members of resident-associations we sought to provide a more nuanced picture of the challenges and opportunities associated with living in settlements such as Nawagampura. By helping reframe underserved settlements as complex and varied communities, this approach allowed for the development of grounded strategies in defence of in-situ upgrading as a just alternative to one-size-fits-all relocation. 

     

    Site 3: Mayura Place

    Mayura Place (or Lakhmutu Sevana), sits at the edge of an area previously dominated by textile mills and weavers’ colonies. With the wider site long since shuttered and cleared for luxury real estate development, Mayura Place development is often depicted as a success story of the UDA’s Urban Regeneration Programme’s (URP); an exemplary demonstration of how underserved working-class communities can be successfully resettled into purpose-built high-rise towers. However, as our research unfolded, a more complex picture began to emerge.

    (Ruth McLeod) Inside Mayura Place

     

    On the one hand, the experience of Mayura Place residents reinforces the value of keeping communities together during relocation from horizontal settlements to high-rise apartments, as well as relocating communities as close as possible to their original homes. Such an approach, contrasting with larger URP projects that drew residents from across Colombo and constituted new communities through a lottery allocation process, has clearly limited the disruptive impact of relocation on the social fabric of Mayura Place and offers valuable learnings for the UDA.

    On the other hand, a number of issues were brought up in discussion with inhabitants, questioning the ‘success story’ of Mayura Place. In particular, many residents are grappling with the shortage of common and private space necessary to realise a dignified existence, whilst the appropriateness of high-rise living for certain household industries was raised by a number of our interlocutors. Importantly too, the extent to which the burden of management and maintenance is born equally between residents and the UDA remains unresolved. Meanwhile, there remain serious issues regarding the fact that not all of the original Mayura Place community received rehousing in this block, due to an inconsistency between the UDA’s apartment for a house replacement policy and the reality of multi-family occupancy in former dwellings. Additionally, for those who have received replacement housing, many still lack official documentation recognising their right to secure tenure status.

    Whilst our discussions with the UDA hinted at an apparent openness to debate and institutional learning, it remains to be seen how far this is constrained by the programme’s overarching ambition to liberate commercially valuable land and beautify Colombo. Overall, when considering the exceptionality of Mayura Place within the UDA’s broader urban regeneration programme, it is important to look beyond the façade and embrace this case in all its complexity.

     

    Closing Reflections

    Working across three distinct communities in Colombo provided a unique insight into the overlapping processes of regeneration, resettlement and upgrading at play in Colombo. Whether working in Muwadora Uyana – a labyrinthine high-rise housing complex home to 5,000 residents from across Colombo; Nawagampura – a vibrant working-class neighbourhood that is still classified as underserved despite significant upgrading initiatives; or Mayura Place – a former weavers colony now verticalised and stacked within Colombo’s largest luxury residential enclave – it was clear that the voice of Colombo’s diverse communities was almost entirely missing from formal plan-making in the city.

    Delving into this issue further, our time in Colombo focussed on exploring and elaborating the cracks for alternative policy and practice to gain a foothold in the city, proposing grounded strategies for change and laying a foundation for future fieldwork projects to build upon. Example strategies included:

    • Community-led Building Management – Increasing Transparency through Community Contracting: Building on Sevanatha’s existing experience with community-contracting models, this strategy was proposed for two reasons. First, to recognise the capacity of relocated residents to take ownership of common areas within high-rise developments; and second, to increase transparency around the way in which UDA-controlled maintenance funds are currently deployed.
    • Learning Platforms – Bringing People to Policy: This strategy was designed to help systematise and extend the existing learning practices employed by the UDA through the creation of multi-actor learning platforms. These platforms would institutionalise multi-directional communication between actors from the state (UDA, Colombo Municipal Council etc.), representatives from academic, activist and civil society organisations, and local communities. By bringing together conversations and relationships that currently exist in isolation, this strategy aims to build synergies between actors helping identify and resolve issues within existing housing stock and planning processes and allowing the lived experience of residents to inform forward looking policy and design decisions.
    • Changing Planning Language – Challenging the discourse of Underserved Settlements: Building on Sevanatha’s earlier mapping of Colombo’s underserved settlements, this strategy proposed the development of neighbourhood profiles (based on resident survey data, asset and risk mapping, documentation of upgrading etc.). These profiles would then be used to both challenge the idea that all underserved settlements suffer from an identical set of challenges; and strengthen the negotiation position of communities in the context of relocation.

    Embedded in the lived experience of three specific communities, the tentative strategies proposed during this project sprung from a common source – the need to reintroduce complexity, diversity and fluidity into a planning context intent on sorting Colombo into the static, binary categories of underserved and regenerated; world class and working class; planners and the planned for. By failing to account for the multiple realities and capacities of Colombo residents, this reductive framing shuts down the space to think differently about urban development in Colombo and encourages the proliferation of top-down, standardised development models. In contrast, a reframed understanding of Colombo’s communities as dynamic, diverse, capable and connected creates room to advocate, adapt and evolve planning processes towards the achievement of more just, people-centred development. This reading of Colombo planning resonates strongly with ongoing work by academics, activists and civil society organisations in the city, some of whom are already actively engaged in efforts to develop and convey this message onwards to decision-makers. In this way, the fieldwork project enabled the DPU to add its voice to a growing call for more socially, spatially and environmentally just development.

    Lastly, we would like to express our gratitude for the fantastic support provided by the MSc UDP staff team as well as all of our project partners in Colombo. In particular, special thanks is owed to Chularathna Herath (Executive Director of Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre) and Ruchika Lall (DPU alumna and DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professional).

    Mapping Everyday and Episodic Risks

    By Rita Lambert, on 1 December 2015

    The cLIMA sin Riesgo research project in Lima, Peru, adopts participatory mapping as a means to gather quantitative and qualitative information to capture varying degrees of natural and man-made conditions of vulnerability that affect women and men living in the center and in the periphery of the city. The process is designed to open up dialogue between various stakeholders, with the aim of informing the design of interventions that prevent and reduce risks.

    To better understand the everyday risks that inhabitants of the two case study sites are exposed to, we spatialise our inquiry capturing how these risks are distributed and where they accumulate in space (Figure 1). This is a necessary step in identifying how, and where, risk traps need to be disrupted. Preliminary findings suggest that actions taken in one place to mitigate risk may, in effect, externalise the risk to other locations. Hence mapping to make visible the interdependencies that constitute and shape a given territory becomes a vital step in our enquiry, particularly as we seek to devise solutions for an integrated, and co-produced planning.

    Figure 1. Drone image of Barrios Altos used to identify residential plots, cultural heritage buildings and other uses such as storage, which is defacing the historic centre. Photo: Rita Lambert

    Figure 1. Drone image of Barrios Altos used to identify residential plots, cultural heritage buildings and other uses such as storage, which is defacing the historic centre. Photo: Rita Lambert

    This notion of interdependencies materialise at different scales in both Barrios Altos (BA) and José Carlos Mariátegui (JCM). Therefore the analysis is undertaken at various scales. In BA, some of the quintas (multi familiar residential plots) that have private ownership, also present a weakened social organisation.  The quinta, which used to function as an identifiable unit, with common areas and the shared goal amongst residents to improve these areas collectively, now works as a group of individual structures.  The impact of such changes is noted as some households undertake improvement works and in doing so, move away from the traditional one storey structure made of adobe, replacing it with multi-storey brick and concrete buildings. As the structural integrity of the buildings are weakened due to the disparate materials used, the residents are differentially exposed to risk. Besides the increased physical risks that such practices bring, the weakened collective action and organisation also increases the vulnerability of residents to land trafficking activities.

    Figure 2. Surveying team in action in BA. Photo Rita Lambert

    Figure 2. Surveying team in action in BA. Photo Rita Lambert

    Moving out of the quinta and analysing the scale of the manzana (block), it is possible to capture the increasing threats which are claiming the Historic Centre. Land speculation is leading to the slow eviction of  many vulnerable tenants. Moreover, the cancerous growth of storage facilities, also increases the likelihood of fires with the storage of highly flammable materials. If a quinta is adjacent to any of these conditions, it is also more vulnerable, as different land use types interact to increase risk.

    In JCM, the interdependencies materialise on the slope. Risk is unevenly distributed with those higher up the slope having to pay more to mitigate risk and make the area habitable. However the occupation in the higher parts, as well as the opening up of roads by large scale land traffickers to capitalise in this area, also increases risk for the lower parts e.g rock falls etc. The latter also have to invest to cope with this risk. Hence mapping at the scale of settlements can make visible where risk mitigation strategies are taken and where risk is externalised to.

    Figure 3. Undercutting of slope to create a habitable plot led, in this case, to the partial collapse of the foundation of an existing structure. Photo: Rita Lambert

    Figure 3. Undercutting of slope to create a habitable plot led, in this case, to the partial collapse of the foundation of an existing structure. Photo: Rita Lambert

    Having analysed how risk is mapped by various institutions in Lima, the project acknowledges the need to work at a finer scale. Many of the official maps homogenise risk painting large areas in red, whilst a more grainier and differentiated understanding of everyday risk is sought in this project. For this purpose, the base maps used also need to be at a level which show subdivisions in built structures. As the Cadastral Institute of Lima only provides the information at manzana or plot level, the SEDAPAL maps are hereby used as a base because  they show water connection in every household and thus capture subdivisions. Furthermore, in the process of data collection, high resolution drone images for each area are used in a process of manual mapping (Figure 1) undertaken in parallel to digital mapping using EpiCollect+, a free application on smartphones which enables the digitalisation of surveys as these are collected.

    Figure 4. Inhabitants of JCM indentifying their plots and the limits of their settlements. Photo: Rita Lambert

    Figure 4. Inhabitants of JCM indentifying their plots and the limits of their settlements. Photo: Rita Lambert

    Departing from the need to map everyday risks at various scales, the project will undertake geo-referenced surveys in both areas at: 1) the household level, to assess the individual investments made to mitigate risk; and 2) at the quinta level in BA and the settlement level in JCM, to assess the collective investments.  The data collection takes a significant representative number: in BA, 30% of quintas in a manzana (40 manzanas in total are chosen, representing half of BA area) and in JCM, 30% of occupied plots for each of the 11 settlements under study. The participatory nature of the process involves capacity building in mapping, the integration of residents in data collection, and the co-design of the survey to include information that inhabitants deem important to them. This means that the method is also used to strengthen existing processes of change, particularly supporting social mobilisation and integrated planning. In BA, community leaders, accompany the fieldwork, sharing information and communicating with others in their neighborhood. This is a necessary step to promote collective action and resist unwanted changes. In JCM, on the other hand, identifying the various investments made over time in each settlement, and making visible the increased investments that need to be made to continue this form of urbanisation raises consciousness of the ripple effect created by atomised actions upon the territory.  This paves the way for an integrated planning between settlements but also more coordinated actions between inhabitants and state agencies.

    For more information of the research project cLIMA sin Riesgo please visit the site: http://www.climasinriesgo.net/

    You can also access some of the outputs released so far in the following links:

    Newsletter No 1, June 2015 “Reframing Urban Risks”

    Policy Brief: No 1, June 2015 “Urban Risk: In search of new perspectives”

    Video Interview with Principal Investigator of cLima sin Riesgo, Adriana Allen, about the importance of amplifying knowledge of everyday and episodic risks and the objectives of the project

     


    Rita Lambert is a teaching fellow at the Development Planning Unit, UCL, where she is primarily engaged in the planning and delivery of the practice module of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development.

    Originally from Ethiopia, she undertook her university studies in Edinburgh and London. She graduated from the Architectural Association in London, where she later taught for 4 years in the final years of the Diploma in Architecture.  In 2009, she studied in the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development, at the Development Planning Unit , UCL.

    Her particular interest lies in mapping, as a tool which can be adopted by ordinary citizens to navigate institutional barriers and expand the room for manoeuvre towards environmentally just urbanisation.