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Finding Spaces of Longitudinal Learning and Institutional Reflexivity

RuchikaLall28 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[1] – 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[2]. Between 1980 and 2010, more than 90 percent of the classified underserved [3] settlements have benefitted from some form of upgrading[4]. 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.

Figure 1 : The changing skyline of the city of Colombo

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[5], 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.

Figure 2: Nawagampura

Figure 2: Muwadora Uyana

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Figure 4: Multi-stakeholder Panel discussion at Moratuwa University

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.

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Ruchika Lall

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

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[1] Such as the Million Houses programme and the Urban Settlements Improvement project

[2] 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

[3] 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.

[4] As documented by a survey in 2012 by Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre, Colombo Municipal Council and Homeless International

[5] Western Region Megapolis Master Plan

Between Upgrading and Resettlement: Fieldwork reflections from locations in Colombo

TimWickson17 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).