Building the future


Around the world, new cities are being built from scratch at an unprecedented rate. This is, in part, simply because population growth and migration are feeding urbanisation. But it’s also partly because the problems facing older cities – pollution, climate change, housing shortages, inequality, congestion – now appear particularly acute.

People have been building planned cities, as opposed to ‘organic’ ones like London, Rome or Colombo, since ancient times. There are the remains of cities laid out according to unform plans dating back to the Mesopotamian, ancient Egyptian and Indus Valley civilisations.

Nations have built themselves grand capitals from Washington DC (founded 1790) to Canberra (1913) and Islamabad (1960). But since the early 20th century, when the British radical urban planner Ebenezer Howard founded Letchworth and Welwyn Garden cities in England, planned metropolises have taken on a markedly utopian character – from Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana in India, to Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian capital Brasilia, and even Milton Keynes – with its endless roundabouts and Concrete Cows.

Currently there is an unprecedented boom in planned cities. Sarah Moser of McGill University in Montreal has identified 150 city-building projects around the world. Saudi Arabia has unveiled plans for a 170 km-long linear city called The Line; Egypt wants to build a new capital for up to seven million people; the Maldives is planning a floating city for 20,000, a refuge from rising sea levels. The eco-city of Songdo in South Korea is the largest private property development in history. In Nigeria, Eko Atlantic is being built on reclaimed land off Lagos with the aim of housing 250,000 people.

Here in Sri Lanka, we have Colombo Port City, which is also being constructed on land reclaimed from the sea. “An economic game changer” is how officials describe it. The huge expanse of sand is being transformed into a high-tech city which officials hope,will host an offshore international financial centre, residential areas and a marina, prompting comparisons with Dubai, Monaco or Hong Kong.

“This reclaimed land gives Sri Lanka a chance to redraw the map and to build a city of world- class proportions and functionality – and compete with Dubai or Singapore,” Saliya Wickramasuriya, a member of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, told the BBC.

But critics question how much of an economic game changer it will really be for Sri Lanka.

For a start, in order to reclaim the 665 acres (2.6 sq km) of new land, the country needed the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) to invest US$1.4 billion. In return, the firm has been given 43 per cent of it on a 99-year lease. But other foreign investors are hardly rushing to back the project.

Sri Lanka has now been forced to offer 40 years of tax relief to investors in its China-built port as the Port City struggles to attract foreign interest.

“To be attractive for investors, it is important to offer appealing tax incentives to lure Foreign Direct Investments(FDIs) in a world recession,” Cabinet Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena told journalists.

He further justified the decision noting that countries like Oman had offered more competitive tax relief than Sri Lanka to port-related investments to attract investors.

“Following the world economic recession, attracting investors is challenging,” he added.

The Cabinet spokesman also pointed out that many local entrepreneurs are moving to countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya given the investment-conducive opportunities and environment.

“Exports, tourism, workers’ remittances and FDIs are the only avenues Sri Lanka can earn foreign exchange income. Thus, providing tax concessions to boost those inflows are a must,” Gunawardena explained.

Concerns over the scheme are numerous and include the environmental impact of a project of this magnitude. Others fear the benefits of such a development will not help the country as much as supporters suggest it will.

The tax regime has triggered other worries. The US has warned that the relaxed business environment could become a haven for money launderers.

The growing Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka is a worry for India. The Port City aims to lure away multinational firms and investors already based in India, which could dent investments and job opportunities there.

Officials estimate it will take about 25 years to complete the project, the first of its kind in South Asia.But I wonder how many of the 150 planned cities currently underway will actually be there in a quarter of a century?

By Michael Gregson