Monday, October 26, 2015

Mega questions in the new Megapolis

Moratuwa University, where I'm spending part of my Fulbright, is one of two architecture schools in Sri Lanka and its urban and rural planning department has led the way here for decades. So it would have been natural for the Minister of Megapolis---yes there is such a thing in Sri Lanka--to have attended the upcoming conference on People, Places and Cities sponsored by Moratuwa University. 

It's a bit of a conundrum actually, isn't it? Blast into the future by building a "Megapolis," more roads, offices, and infrastructure to double the size of Colombo? Or ease into a future that people negotiate from their homes online. Sri Lanka will be the first country on Earth to have connectivity in every corner thanks to a google project that's coming in March. Why not take advantage of that and skip the huge urban growth mistakes we made in the West over the past two centuries? But big construction brings big money, opportunity, change. 

You can imagine that these questions resonate in the architecture department at Moratuwa. Likewise among the urban design folks. Or is it more of the same old same old in the halls of academe?

Well my friend and colleague Janaka Wijesundara sat in the staff room the other day disappointed that the Minister of Megapolis won't be joining us for the conference. The minister had his people call pretty much at the last minute to inform Janaka he was going on a junket to India instead. Last time that happened to me it was with a shortsighted dean (to put it nicely) who cancelled at the last minute on a lunch I had put together to promote her program with another department. More than the slap in the face that it was, I preferred to look at it as a lost opportunity. 

What about lost opportunities here in Sri Lanka? What are the stakes?  Or as my urban design colleagues put it, what about the stakeholders?

Comes to mind the concerted move to evict "squatters" from large tracts of Colombo City to make room for resorts, hydroplane landings, and mega-shopping areas. To accompany these, and well out of sight, mega-housing projects will be lined up in their blocks to re-house the displaced, who are at the bottom of the "stakeholder" pecking order.  We in the West are dynamiting the mega blocks for the poor that we constructed in the 20th century. As a social experiment it was dead wrong. Will it work better here? Why not ask the Minister of Megapolis!

Or ask my friend and colleague Asiri Dissayanake, a young architect trained at Moratuwa and in Belgium, who recently received a Perween Rahman fellowship to work with a small community in North Colombo--one of the communities of "slum-dwellers" that a second-year Urban Design student suggested we evict in favor of mega resorts at her crit yesterday. 

Thing is, they're not "slum-dwellers." They are a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, religion, and occupation of some 100 families who moved here three generations ago from different villages. They work, they send their kids to school, they are regular people. Thing is, they don't have proper deeds (Asiri's project is focusing on that as a first priority) and they don't have proper sanitation facilities (a close second on the to-do list). The Perween Rahman project (the award is small money, just USD2000, is aimed at building sustainable communities among under-serviced rural and urban populations in South Asia. It's not a handout. It's a ladder to climb to a little higher level of self-sufficiency. 

Of course the job as minister of Megapolis is political. And so are all the questions that surround Megapolis. There are high stakes. This is a stab at the future and no one can predict that future. It was political that the Minister backed out. And the conference itself is political. Bringing an international group to Colombo to discuss urban questions is huge. And it positions my colleagues as leaders in their own country and in South Asia. It's an opportunity. I've learned from it the past years I've attended. Too bad the Minister won't be there to learn something. 

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