Would urban rejuvenation lead to a widening of social fissures?
Driving around Colombo on a balmy evening can be an overwhelming experience these days. Colombo, the city that gave birth to many of us, is growing, expanding and transforming in this post-war development phase. Much like a parent going through myriad emotions at the sight of a child blossoming into a teenager, you might catch yourself going through a range of sentiments about Colombo’s metamorphosis.
The grandeur of the restored Racecourse Complex – the magnificent white structure that announces its comeback with an assortment of expensive shops, a massive rugby field, and meticulously-planned recreational areas for walking and cycling – commands attention.
There are expensive cars in its parking lot, beautiful people in sophisticated attire sipping coffee at the cafés at Rs. 300 a mug, children nagging their parents to buy them unwholesome edible treats, health-conscious individuals enjoying the opportunity of outdoor activity and street sweepers laboriously trying to keep the neighbourhood clean.
While there are many reasons to be grateful that this area has been regenerated, the vibe of exclusivity projected by this urban space – much like many other new and ‘beautified’ structures of post-war Colombo – can make one feel despondent. We read promising plans for the city in the newspapers, such as the recent bid for the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in 2016.
Everyone should be happy that we now enjoy clean streets and user-friendly public spaces, but we should also be concerned that the concentration of power structures, productive systems and human capital – while generating new economic prospects for some – may create great inequality for others.
Urban regeneration worldwide generally means constructing or reconstructing city infrastructure in a way that accommodates a constellation of niche markets, seemingly accessible only to the better-off middle class and the elite. Colombo is no exception to this trend.
From Chicago to Rio, one segment of the population manages to integrate and thrive in performing networks in the economic sphere, while a significant other is excluded from such networks and prevented from benefiting fully from their basic rights as citizens.
We are already witnessing a twofold trend. First, certain spaces of the city have become the ‘winning areas’ (Fontan et al. 2003; Drewe et al. 2008) at the expense of others (i.e. area surrounding the Beira Lake). Second, one social segment enjoys the privileges of economic security, safe and aesthetically pleasing spaces, and social security, while another important segment is sentenced to vulnerability, poverty, or exclusion from the job market, services, and a high-quality living environment (Mandanipour et al. 1998).
This dual trend may widen existing social fissures that hinder unity, and instigate polarisation and fragmentation of our city. The ‘winners’ of Colombo’s regeneration will connect with global networks, economic and political hubs, and ultra-rich people. The new and planned dwellings of voluntary and involuntary settlers run the risk of becoming slums yet again. This eventually results in a fragmented city like Chicago, where the north end is inhabited by wealthy, upper-class whites, whilst the South Side is a sprawling, crime-infested ghetto of poor whites, blacks and struggling immigrants.
How can we counter these adverse effects of urban rejuvenation? Investment in healthcare, education and other important services that are conveniently accessible to the newly-resettled communities would be a place to start. An essential objective of urbanisation must be to take precautionary measures which minimise problems that are costly to the security of the resettled population.
According to some urban planners, the impending fragmentation of cities is a potential asset. They argue that if social empowerment takes precedence over physical beautification, some of the adverse effects of urban regeneration could be overcome by creating bottom-up social creativity which allows disadvantaged neighbourhoods to be re-branded into ones that are unique in the arts, architecture, recreational and socio-cultural activities, entrepreneurship, political participation and the environment (Landry, 2000).
Social fragmentation is an inevitable consequence of the current model of development. And urbanisation is but one important component of the larger scheme of things.
The challenge is to find answers to this burning question: how do we empower all citizens within this paradigm?
The article was first published in the LMD magazine's September 2013 issue
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