Click for PDF of the concept note

Urbanity has increasingly come to be equated with a concentration of physical, technological and social infrastructure. The idea that ‘world-class’ urban infrastructure drives economic growth and in turn human development and poverty alleviation has come to be considered axiomatic. Sri Lanka’s recent policy history, such as the National Physical Plan, and the post-war emphasis on urban-centric mega-infrastructure-led development is a case in point. It is in this context that CEPA is convening its 14th Annual Symposium on the challenges of realising equitable and inclusive urban infrastructure development in Sri Lanka.

The Symposium is part of CEPA’s thematic research programme on infrastructure and is intended to help plan, generate and draw together research and knowledge regarding key aspects of infrastructure and urban development in Sri Lanka, South Asia, and beyond. It will bring together scholars and researchers; policy makers and elected representatives; professional communities like architects, town-planners, and engineers; civil society and citizens groups; donors agencies; and the private sector from across Sri Lanka, South Asia and beyond to:

  • Enable a critical re-imagination of infrastructure in policy-making, planning, research and public discourses.
  • Review the experience of urbanization and urban infrastructure development in Sri Lanka.
  • Provoke informed evidence-based debate towards a new policy and research agenda on urbanization and infrastructure development.

The Symposium will focus on the following three key areas of infrastructure and urban development, considering them from the point of view of two cross cutting concerns, namely, ensuring equity and accountability in urban infrastructure development and democratising urban governance and planning:

  • Ensuring the right to housing of the urban poor and protection from forced evictions:

Housing for the urban poor is not always deemed to be a part of urban infrastructure development. Adequate housing for the urban poor, who often lack quality housing, security of tenure or lack of access to basic services, is a crucial element of social infrastructure because it has significant implications for social development outcomes. At the same time, it is crucial to account for the heterogeneity within communities of the urban poor and their own individual and collective investments in improving their housing—which are often connected to livelihoods—and habitats. Moreover, urban infrastructure interventions are often geared towards or generate significant land use changes, especially in inner city areas, and this often tends to affect the poor disproportionally in different ways. In a context where informal housing is widespread—the reality in so many parts of Sri Lanka and the global south—it is not uncommon for infrastructure development to lead to rising land values and in fact steadily push the urban poor out (Desai and Loftus 2013[1]). It is also not uncommon for infrastructure development in urban areas to lead to displacement or forced evictions as.  It is in this light of these concerns that the Symposium will focus on the right to housing of the urban poor and protection from forced evictions.

  • Inclusive, safe and sustainable urban transport and mobility

Connectivity and transport infrastructure tend to make cities, and the modes of transport available and accessed often reflect economic and spatial differentiation. Considering transport in relation to poverty engages at least two dimensions: a broadening of the way transport is considered to include concerns of those in poverty, and thinking through the causal links between transport conditions and poverty “in a comprehensive and critical fashion” (ODI 2000:8[2]). One of the challenges is that there are various frameworks and approaches, from ‘transport poverty’ to ‘transport hardship’ to ‘poverty of access’ that consider income-cost ratio/affordability, distance, time, and other factors (see Titheridge et al. 2014[3]). While affordability continues to be the dominant frame, it is often only responding to income-poverty. It is crucial to develop a contextually relevant conception of poverty in relation to transport. The extent to which the informal economy and non-motorized transport are accounted for in transport infrastructure policy are critical markers of its sensitivity to poverty and inadequate attention to them or their exclusion often reflects an institutional and structural bias  (Khayesi 2010)[4]. All of these concerns and issues assume particular importance in the significant post-war emphasis on transport-related interventions—completed, underway, or proposed—in Sri Lanka, including the transport master plan for Colombo.

  • Urban commons, land, and democratic and inclusive public spaces

Public spaces are an essential component of a city and maybe seen as a critical social infrastructure that defines the quality of urban associational life. It is also important to view public spaces as the urban commons, whose nature, quality, and accessibility are shaped by political economic and social relations. The urban commons are also under pressure to from ideas like building a ‘world-class’ city, rendering them vulnerable to the demands of the global place marketing race with its emphasis on the creation and scripting of a built or natural environment in line with dominant ethos of class and consumption (Fernandes, 2004). [5] It is in this context that possibilities of exclusion and inclusion of urban communities in poverty from such spaces need to be considered. A crucial shared resource that is implicated in the urban commons is land, including and its use and exchange values. But it is important to remember that the “metrics of valuation” often reflects who controls and defines acceptable uses, and “this in turn reflects the vagaries of power, sanitized by impersonal and supposedly fair market mechanisms (King, 2014).”[6]

A crucial concern with respect to the engineering of public spaces and the urban commons is that they in effect redefine not just the built environment but public and political cultures. The post-war ‘beautification’ and urban regeneration project of UDA underlined the complexity of the transformation of the urban commons. The creation of new and upgradation of some older public spaces, with their social and aesthetic benefits, was also accompanied by serious questions over militarisation, and in some cases ‘exclusive’ and in yet others overly-scripted character. New forms of sociality emerged but subject to specific regimes of control and discipline. However it is important not to overstate the reach of the state, as Perera, (2009) [7] argues, people often script ‘lived’ spaces out of ‘abstract’ spaces and thus can adapt and adjust the built environment rather than always being adjusted by it.

Some of the key questions and concerns the Symposium intends to address include:

  • Can urban infrastructure development dictated by visions of ‘world class’ metropolitanism be inclusive and pro-poor? What are the contours of a ‘pro-poor’ orientation to urban infrastructure in a context when cities are increasingly seen as nodes of growth in the global political economy? What kinds of policies are needed to establish the enabling preconditions?
  • Given that urban infrastructure embodies major economic interests and is at the heart of large flows of domestic and global capital what are the implications for equity, accountability and sustainability? How do models of financing, and policies of public provisioning, deregulation and privatisation impact on equity and accountability?
  • Planning for urban infrastructure development in a complex and multi-layered process and ensuring participation of the poor poses a number of challenges, what lessons have been learnt on this front? How can we deepen the democratization of urban governance and infrastructure development?
  • How can we integrate equity concerns in urban infrastructure development? How can the transformation in social and political economic relationships and dynamics wrought by urban infrastructure development be designed to work in favour of the urban poor and in particular women and other vulnerable sections?
  • How do infrastructure development interventions in relation to housing as well as mobility and transport impact poor communities and access to land, public spaces, social networks, and economic opportunities and spaces?
  • How does urban infrastructure engage, activate or alter the different vectors of exclusion and inclusion and what are the attendant social and political-economic effects? How do these relationships signify particular articulations of the relationship between state, market/capital, people and rights?
  • Infrastructure development often radically transforms existing relationships and generates new dynamics between people, and the built and natural environments. How do we anticipate, map and trace these transformations and dynamics as a result of infrastructure investment? Working through these issues brings to the fore questions of planning and participation.
  • How do the social and the subjective activate physical infrastructure and conversely what forms and modes of subjectivation does the latter generate?

[1] Vandana Desai and Alex Loftus (2013), Speculating on Slums: Infrastructural Fixes in Informal Housing in the Global South, Antipode, Vol. 45 No. 4, pp. 789–808.

[2] Overseas Development Institute (2000) Poverty and Transport: A report prepared for the World Bank in collaboration with DFID, David Booth, Lucia Hanmer, and Elizabeth Lovell, Final Report.

[3] Helena Titheridge, Nicola Christie, Roger Mackett, Daniel Oviedo Hernández, and Runing Ye, Transport and Poverty: A review of the evidence, University College London available at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/transport-institute/pdfs/transport-poverty.

[4] Khayesi, Meleckidzedeck., Heiner Monheim, and Johannes Michael Nebe (2010), Negotiating “Streets for All” in Urban Transport Planning: The Case for Pedestrians, Cyclists and Street Vendors in Nairobi, Kenya, Antipode, Vol. 42 pp. 103–126.

[5] Leela Fernandes, The Politics of Forgetting: Class politics, state power, and the restructuring of Urban spaces in India in Urban Studies, 2004. Vol.41, No 12. Carfax Publishing.

[6] Loren King, Use and Exchange Values: a Framework (or, what can Cities Teach us about Territorial Justice?), Winter 2009, available at http://eis.bris.ac.uk/~plcdib/territory/papers/King-LandUseJustice.pdf accessed 28 April 2014.

[7] Nihal Perera, People’s Spaces: Familiarization, Subject Formation and emergent spaces in Colombo. 2009. In Planning Theory: Special Issue: Strangely Familiar Vol 8(1), 51-75.  Sage Publications.


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