The United Nations (UN) has chosen the theme of ‘Harmonious Cities’ for World Habitat Day 2008.
‘Harmonious Cities’ can be described as habitable urban human settlements. These could generally be brought about by the integrated planning and development of the socio-economic, physical and environmental aspects of urban settlements. Such a promotional effort will include urban development, poverty alleviation, improved land and housing and the provision of basic amenities, facilities and urban services. World Habitat Day is being celebrated worldwide on the first Monday in October of each year in terms of the UN resolution.
The objective of the UN initiative is to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of human habitat and reflects on the state of urban settlements and the basic right to adequate shelter for all. While the global observance of the occasion was to be held in the Angolan capital of Luanda, the UN expects every nation to organize events to bring about maximum awareness of the conditions leading to harmonious urban settlements.
As stated at the outset, harmonious cities should be socio-economically, spatially and environmentally harmonious. Socio-economic issues, in this context relate to unemployment, poverty and social conflict. To be socio-economically harmonious, it is necessary to achieve inclusiveness and equity to overcome poverty and social conflict. Spatially, it is necessary to avoid conflicts in the different activities carried out on land. It is necessary to categorise compatible land uses together and separate them from non-compatible land uses. Planning being a part of the organization of society, some control over the use of land is and will be important for the creation of a harmonious living environment. Land use planning, essentially seeks to influence change and control the use of land for sustainable and conducive human settlement development.
There are some critical issues connected with the urban environment. Those relate to the high incidence of slums and shanties, environmental pollution and problems of solid waste management. Slums and shanties are occupied by a significant number of low income urban dwellers. These unhealthy and overcrowded settlements could be seen as the cause and effect of environmental degradation and pollution. Solid waste management and pollution are crucial factors adversely affecting city dwellers, particularly those living in slums and shanties under unhealthy and harsh conditions, often deprived of safe drinking water and other urban services. Thus, the goal of achieving environmentally harmonious urban settlements is indeed a challenging task.
The problems detailed above are basically the result of rapid urbanization worldwide, where people in increasing numbers move into towns and cities looking for a better life, creating in its wake the growth of slums, shanties and the urbanization of poverty. The adverse impact of this phenomenon is felt more severely in the Asian region. In fact, two thirds of the world’s poor are found in Asia and the Pacific and one in three Asians lives on less than one dollar a day. Of the world’s population without access to safe drinking water, almost two thirds live in Asia and even a greater number lack adequate sanitation.
Sri Lanka has not witnessed a rapid movement of people into towns and cities as is seen elsewhere. However, in the past decade, there has been a steady movement of people into urban areas, aggravating the problem of the scarcity of habitable urban human dwellings. Sri Lanka has several key national agencies dealing with various aspects of human settlement development and matters connected therewith, to ensure harmonious human settlements. These comprise the Urban Development Authority (UDA), the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA), the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLRDC), Coast Conservation Department (CCD), the Board of Investment (BOI), National Physical Planning Department (NPPD) and the Mahaweli Authority among others.
These agencies come within several ministries at national level. The subject is also dealt with at regional level under the purview of Provincial Councils and by Local authorities, at grass root level. All these agencies have been in existence for decades.
With such an array of specialized agencies at national, regional and local levels, one would expect a clean slate in all operations pertaining to human settlement development. In practice however, it has been observed that these agencies often function in water tight compartments with little or no co-ordination or integration among each other, resulting in the overall weak enforcement of meticulously designed measures. There is therefore a felt need to remedy problems associated with administrative co-ordination, institutional integration, policy direction and monitoring progress on all matters connected with and incidental to human settlement development. Most of the agencies mentioned above have not developed logistics for implementation and monitoring of policy measures intended to achieve goals and objectives of human settlements development.
A case in point is the recent measures instituted to evict squatters residing at Station Passage, Glennie Passage and Garden Stuart Street in Slave Island, prior to the SAARC summit. Their unauthorized dwellings in Slave Island were ordered to be demolished and the 359 households with a total population of about 1770 persons were to be re-located. In a rights violation petition to the Supreme Court, the respondent agencies cited comprised the UDA, the NHDA, the SLLRDC and the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), among others. These squatters had been living in the location for well over 20 years. Several obvious questions that arise in regard to the modus operandi of the re-location process are:
1. Why were the squatters not prevented from putting up unauthorized dwellings in the first instance?
2. Why were they allowed to remain in the location for such a long period?
3. If they were allowed to squat temporarily on humanitarian grounds, why were they allowed to put up permanent structures?
4. Why didn’t the relevant authorities take action as a matter of priority to re-locate these families who were facing imminent danger from accidents, being so close to the rail track?
5. Why did the CMC indirectly acknowledge their right to dwell in the location by allocating assessment numbers to the unauthorized dwellings?
These depict the downright inaction of the relevant agencies to take appropriate and timely action. The inaction on the part of the agencies and the sudden eviction of the affected people had caused immense distress to them. On the other hand, they have lived for decades in these unauthorized dwellings without adequate urban services, thus causing tremendous pollution problems in the entire vicinity. It is unbelievable that the relevant agencies had to wait till the eleventh hour to bulldoze these unauthorized settlements, having been passive observers for nearly two decades.
A harmonious human settlement should be free from all types of pollution. This would mean that the living environment is free from water, noise and air pollution. The protection and management of the environment in Sri Lanka is mandated to the Central Environmental Authority. In terms of Part II Section 10 (e) of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980 the CEA has to specify standards, norms and criteria for the protection of beneficial uses and for maintaining the quality of the environment. According to the Chairman of the CEA, there is apparently no standard or norms fixed by the CEA regarding the permissible noise levels. This is unfortunate for an agency which has existed for well over 25 years. Performance standards pertaining to noise levels vary from country to country and in different locations within a country. The table below gives the intensities of noise and thresholds of effects in terms of a Nigerian Study.
As the tolerable noise level differs from country to country, depending on cultural and other traits, the above can be taken as a guide in determining the noise levels which would also differ in primary residential, mixed commercial and industrial zones and during day time and night.
This country has indeed a long way to go before it could achieve harmonious urban status. Solid waste management is an islandwide problem of nightmarish proportions. Not many of the towns and cities have sewerage facilities. The sewerage system in the Colombo city is nearly 150 years old and is at bursting point. Not many urban communities are assured of a source of safe drinking water. The implications of all these aspects need separate treatment and had been dealt with only briefly in this article. The multiplicity of agencies dealing with these several aspects lacks co-ordination, integration and logistical facilities for monitoring and evaluation and therefore need a complete re-appraisal of the respective roles and their social costs and benefits.
Intensities of noise in decibels Threshold effects
25 - 35 — tolerable
45 – 55 — causes annoyance and irritation
60 – 80 — interferes with normal speech
85 – 95 — reduces working efficiency
100 -120 — gives pain in the ears
130 – 150 — may result in deafness(The writer is the former Head of the Department of Town and Country Planning, University of Moratuwa, Director of Post Graduate Studies and Senior Professor of Town & Country Planning)