Finding Spaces of Longitudinal Learning and Institutional Reflexivity
By Ruchika Lall, on 28 September 2018
Also by Ruchika Lall – Reflections on Waste, Informality, and Scaling Up
It is the Sinhala – Tamil new year, and my colleague (and friend) at Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre warmly invites me to her hometown, an eight-hour picturesque train journey from Colombo into the Sri Lankan countryside. For almost a week, I have the good fortune to meet her entire family and witness the rituals of celebration that bring multiple generations together in the same space to celebrate the new year. And in this celebration, I see how my friend explains to her Attamma (grandmother) about her work and her life in the city, as Attamma listens proudly. In the evening Attamma teaches us how to prepare her recipe for chicken curry. In many subtle examples, I witness, as is the case with numerous South Asian families, how families find spaces for conversation to share generational wisdom, and yet balance this with the freshness of the aspirations of the younger generation. Embedded in these rituals that make Sri Lanka – is an acknowledgement of the value of learnings compounded over time, and an evolving openness to new ways of living.
Move back into the changing urban-scape of development in Colombo, and my reason for being at Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre, through the DPU-ACHR-CAN internship programme. I wonder – as families continuously learn to balance and juggle old values and new – can Sri Lanka’s urban institutions similarly evoke a similar dialogue between old approaches and new aspirations – through spaces of institutional learning and reflexive conversations?
I write about longitudinal learnings, because Sri Lanka has a unique past of urban housing programmes – one which saw people centred urban development processes piloted, and then scaled nationally. These are approaches and conversations that the Development Planning Unit has very much been a part of. Between 1980 and 2010, more than 90 percent of the classified underserved  settlements have benefitted from some form of upgrading. However, times are changing in Colombo, and the current Urban Regeneration Programme (URP) seems intent on disregarding this legacy. In a distinct move away from earlier in-situ development models, the URP now looks to relocate settlements that have often engaged in years of upgrading processes, in a rush to transform Colombo into a world-class city, newly emerged after decades of civil conflict.
In 2018, the pulse of urban development in Colombo is rather urgent and anxious. Indeed, in the anxiety to create a strategic regional hub of finance and the knowledge economy, there has been much loss of institutional memory. This is paradoxical as such memory can be an inherently rich resource of learning through longitudinal reflection. In terms of housing policy, there is much merit in revisiting the past to reflect on the impacts, challenges and limitations of earlier housing programmes and asking how can these learnings inform current housing programmes?
This summer, the DPU field trip for MSc Urban Development Planning (UDP) students, facilitated by Sevanatha, attempted to recreate a space of reflection on settlement upgrading and relocation processes in Colombo. Founded in 1989 as an intermediary NGO between the state and communities, at a time when the state was clearly recognised as an enabler of people-led housing processes, Sevanatha were uniquely positioned to intermediate this project. Along with the experience of navigating almost three decades of shifting policies, overtime, Sevanatha have cultivated strong relationships with actors from within the state, communities, academia and civil society, making it possible to bring together multiple perspectives and open up a space of reflection on longitudinal learning.
For two weeks in May, UDP students were able to ground their research in three unique sites across Colombo – Nawagampura, Muwadora Uyana and Mayura Place.
- Nawagampura: Originally emerging as a planned relocation site in the 1980s, the interceding years have seen waves of informal appropriation, incremental self and state supported upgrading, transform Nawagampura into a community that belies its classification as an underserved Whilst not without its challenges, Nawagampura bears little resemblance to the underserved caricature put forward as justification for the URP.
- Muwadora Uyana: A multi-block, high-rise housing scheme, in which residents arrived from multiple relocation sites across the city, Muwadora Uyana is a recent URP project. The scheme offers many layers to unpack, including significant variance in the way in which each family (indeed each family member) experiences relocation.
- Mayura Place: Although officially existing as a URP relocation project, the twelve-storey development of Mayura Place could also be reclassified as an in-situ upgrading project given the site’s proximity to residents’ original dwellings and the active political engagement of residents throughout the process. This site offered a window into the value of maintaining social networks during relocation, whilst also opening up conversations concerning how different design, planning, engagement and management processes can impact residential experiences of relocation.
Within the three sites, and the larger context of urban development in Colombo, it was possible to observe a shift in the priorities and mandates of urban development institutions. With the facilitation of Sevanatha, a workshop and multi-stakeholder panel discussion was convened at the University of Moratuwa. The workshop enabled reflections from government professionals, academia and housing rights activists – each offering a different perspective on the challenges and opportunities of upgrading and relocation processes in the city of Colombo. Through these discussions, it was interesting to note how state programmes did engage in an internal reflection process that fed back into individual programme designs – for example changes to the apartment design across phases of the URP. The discussions however also highlighted the need for a space of cross-learning and longitudinal reflection on the shift in housing policies and programme approaches more broadly, taking a view that spans much further than electoral cycles or project tenure. As a long-term actor in Sri Lanka witness to these shifts over the last three decades, and as an intermediary between the state, civil society and local communities, Sevanatha has an important convening role to play in extending these much-needed reflections on urban development.
Ruchika Lall participated in the third wave of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme. During her time in the programme, she was embedded with Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Ruchika is also an alumna of the DPU’s MSc Building and Urban Design in Development (BUDD) programme
 Such as the Million Houses programme and the Urban Settlements Improvement project
 DPU engagement in the Million Houses Programme was started by Desmond McNeil, Patrick Wakely, Babar Mumtaz, Ronaldo Ramirez and Caren Levy. This involved capacity building with the Sri Lanka National Housing Development Authority, with funding from ODA from 1984-1990
 The term underserved settlements is specific to Sri Lanka’s classification of areas identified in the late 90s as low income with various constraints regarding access to basic services and tenure.
 As documented by a survey in 2012 by Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre, Colombo Municipal Council and Homeless International
 Western Region Megapolis Master Plan