2 April, 2023


Sustainable City Planning & Sri Lanka: A Comparative Study

By Dr. Kokila Konasinghe and Samya Senaratne

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make up the blueprint to achieve a better and a more sustainable future by 2030, addressing socio-economic issues like poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. However, recent incidents in Sri Lanka have cast serious doubts on whether Sri Lanka is geared up to meet the challenges encountered on the way to achieving the national commitment to the SDGs.

Picture via www.uda.gov.lk/

It is with dismay and shock that the public hear that vested business interests have destroyed a section of the Anawilundawa Wetland Sanctuary using heavy machinery with the aim of constructing prawn farming tanks; that the 110 million rupees worth Mount Lavinia beach nourishment project with no tangible outcomes was conducted without undertaking an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) or an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to the project; that poor solid waste management led to man-made disasters such as the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage dump claiming the lives of 32 people; and that a section of the Assembly Hall of King Bhuvanekabahu II in Kurunegala had been demolished without any inquiry into its historical significance. The SDGs on climate action, life on land and on water as well as peace, justice and strong institutions (SDGs 13, 14, 15 and 16 respectively) have come under serious threat due to such disastrous and short-sighted actions, which unless remedied, could hamper Sri Lanka’s journey towards sustainable development. 

Historically, following the changes brought about by the industrial revolution, many socio-economic changes took place in human society. Transition from predominantly agrarian economies to more industrial-based economies, implementation of mass-scale development projects, and the migration of population from rural to urban settings are some of the significant changes during this era.  As a result, rapid urbanisation was inevitable. The world became increasingly urban, and by 2008, more than half of the world population or 3.3 billion people lived in urban areas. Local environmental problems arising out of rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and a polluted biosphere started to increase, and these were mainly related to industrial and municipal water, air and sound pollution, disposal of toxic and other waste into waterways and land; and overuse of pesticides- the effects of which upon the food chain was explored by Rachel Carson in her ground-breaking publication, ‘Silent Spring’. 

Sri Lanka – as an emerging economic power in South Asia, is holding a prominent place within the trade and investment agenda in Asia and under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With economic growth, and resultant increase in urbanisation, urban city planning is an inevitable topic assuming significance in the governance agenda of future Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is high time to revisit Sri Lanka’s sustainable city planning and look into the way forward on how to make a balance between environmental and development agendas to meet with the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The government of Sri Lanka will need to focus on achieving its new development agenda, giving much attention to the Paris Agreement obligations and the Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Sri Lanka will certainly need to focus on a strategic implementation of these two areas in the city planning policies for the next decade. The United Nations assessment of SDGs and the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, set a target of achieving certain levels of progress by 2030 and 2020 respectively.  However the questions remains; is Sri Lanka up to the task?  

Agenda for Sustainable Cities in Sri Lanka and the “Rata Hadana Saubhagyaye Dekma

It must be noted that reference to both of these components has been made in the Presidential manifesto ‘Rata Hadana Saubhagyaye Dekma’ (A Vision for a Resurgent, Prosperous Country). The strategies of facing climate change challenges and achieving sustainable cities and communities are mentioned in the ‘introduction’, as well as under chapter 7- ‘new approach in national spatial system’ and chapter 8 on ‘a sustainable environment policy’. Therefore, this commitment in the Manifesto can be utilized to promote the adherence to Paris Agreement Commitments and Sustainable Development Goals, as well as ideas for the promotion of the eco-city concept.

There have been success stories in terms of the implementation of climate standards and SDGs in creating sustainable cities. These lessons might provide guidelines for the proper integration of international standards at the national level for the sustainable city planning in Sri Lanka.  However, the authors are of the view that these may be used as lessons for improvement, while Sri Lanka should focus on finding suitable and realistic methods of implementation of sustainable city planning that will appeal to the Sri Lankan ground realities and lived experiences of its citizens.   

Sustainable City Planning  Success Stories from Sweden, New Zealand and China


Sweden boasts of environmentally-friendly urban areas, aiming to become ‘world-class sustainable cities’, such as the Stockholm Royal Seaport and the Hammarby Sjöstad. These include transformation and reuse of land to create attractive residential areas with parks and green public spaces, fast and attractive public transport, combined with carpool and cycle paths, the use of renewable fuels and biogas products, the reuse of waste heat, water saving, sewage treatment and waste recycling. 

Looking at the formula of success in Sweden, it can be seen that they possess three successful institutional aspects: (1) formal rulemaking, (2) informal rules, and (3) administrative management and organization. Land-use planning and decision-making are decentralized, and the 290 self-governed municipalities of Sweden have monopoly over land-use plans. The municipalities’ primary responsibilities include local development and the provision of a good living environment, as specified in the Local Government Act, Environmental Code (EC), Planning and Building Act of 1987 (PBA) and several other national laws and Ordinances.

The PBA, most recently revised in 2011, is the Swedish planning system’s central procedural regulatory framework pertaining to land-use planning. The main goals of the PBA are creating good living conditions and a sustainable environment for today’s society as well as integrating climate change concerns into environmental efforts.  This is achieved by a meticulous structure of planning tools laid down by the PBA, which includes four types of plans and three types of permissions regulated by the PBA. In addition, the self-governed municipalities should consider environmental quality objectives and ‘regional climate and energy strategies’ in plans and when granting planning permits. Other tools such as Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental licensing are also utilized to audit the environmental impact.

The process urban planning in Sweden includes extensive consultation periods with representatives from different sectors, authorities and other stakeholders, including citizens. Public participation is considered a valuable safeguard for democracy. 

In Sweden, since the 1980s, environmental issues have frequently been on the media agenda, the political authority on environmental promotion has been largely improved, and environmental policies have become more proactive. There have been various initiatives to stimulate environmental work among different actors and also public–private cooperation. Sweden’s Local Investment Program (LIP), which was active from 1998 to 2004, is one of many examples of state-funded sustainable projects. In 2009, the Swedish Government appointed a committee Delegation for Sustainable Cities (2009-2012) to promote better sustainable practices. The general consensus in Sweden is that the responsibility for environmental challenges is shared by all of society, which has been the cornerstone of successful Eco-cities in Sweden. 

New Zealand 

In New Zealand, an example of a sustainable city, is the ‘Waitakere City’, which has grown into the 5th largest city in New Zealand. In achieving this, a Long-term council community plan (LTCCP) from 2002, appointed local authorities as ‘supervisors’ of sustainable development. Recognizing the need for increasing urban sustainability, the eight largest cities in New Zealand participated in the ‘Big Cities Project’, while the ‘Healthy Cities Program’ introduced a multi-sector approach connected to the concept of sustainable development. In addition, private sector involvement was guaranteed through the strong New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Bob Harvey, the mayor of Waitakere city, introduced the vision of an ‘eco city’ in the mid 1990’s and accordingly the City Council adopted the plan ‘Greenprint’ in 1990 – “first example of a strategic plan with a holistic approach” towards sustainability through urban planning. The city council developed five strategic priorities and nine strategic program platforms for the management. These platforms are city parks, vegetation and water courses form a green network, water management (rainwater, waste waters and water supply), use of waste as useful resources; Sustainable energy and clean air, Strong communities; Urban and rural villages, Active democracy; Strong innovative economy, Integrated transport and communication.

Waitakere city was developed into a city with low carbon content, and was among the first cities to adopt the 5R approach for waste management. The city has wind turbines and photovoltaic panels on public buildings. It also contains a Sustainable Living Centre for raising awareness and educating the public on practical tools and skills that every visitor can apply in his/her own home. It also innovated with the establishment of a residential community; the urban ecologic neighbourhood ‘Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood’, which was a step ahead from eco-city to an eco-community.

The urban strategy of Waitakere city is supporting the development program, which aims to protect the natural environment while it develops city centres, combining a residential and working environment. Waitakere is thus an ideal example of how to introduce changes towards more sustainable urban life with an adequate vision, good planning, inclusivity and thoroughly implemented campaigns.


China’s history of environmental policy started with serious industrial pollution and international influence in the 1970s. Several Authorities and Ministries have responsibilities pertaining to sustainable urban development – mainly, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MHURD), and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). The responsibilities of urban planning and development are mainly allocated to the local level, where municipalities have the right to make decisions and approve land use, housing, public transport, landscape design, water supply and treatment, and sanitation. Urban and Rural Planning Law of China (2008) is the relevant central national law. 

The Environmental Protection Agency of China initiated and launched the first eco-demonstration program, the Demonstration Projects of Ecological Provinces, Cities and Counties, in 1995. Responding to the increased concerns on climate change, in 2008 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the NDRC of China initiated the development of low-carbon city projects in China, where Baoding and Shanghai were chosen as pilot projects. In 2010, the NDRC initiated the development of the Pilot Projects of Low-Carbon Ecological Provinces and Cities by signing agreements with five provinces and eight cities. In 2012, the Second Term of Pilot Projects of Low-Carbon Ecological Provinces and Cities was launched, this time including one province and twenty-eight cities. Besides the pilot projects initiated by NDRC, there is also a parallel project called the Pilot Projects of Low-Carbon Eco-City (Town). In 2012, the Sino-Swedish Low-Carbon Eco-City (Wuxi) and Tangshan Bay Eco-City were included as two of the first eight Green Eco-Cities by MHURD of China.

China faced the challenge of increasing awareness regarding eco-cities, since the local governments and society in general were preoccupied with economic development. They promoted public participation, sharing of information, environmental education in schools and learning programs for officials. China also had to alleviate legal constraints by introducing the first local regulation on eco-city development in China – Eco-City Regulation in Taihu New City. China has to battle the sector-wise segregation and conflicting interests, which are endemic to the culture of centralized structure/sector-specific responsibility system in China. They achieved this by formulating local government regulations, and rearranging legally-binding plans and agreements to enforce environmental requirements. The overall strong political commitment and support for the eco-city development at both national and local levels became essential for facilitating environmental integration in the project. 

Recommendations for Sri Lanka

From the success stories described above of Sweden New Zealand and China, it is apparent that meticulous planning, a robust legal framework, institutional capacity, public awareness and democratic participation tools as well as political commitment is essential to ensure sustainable urban planning. Environmental integration in policy-making, thus must become and inter-organizational management process. 

It is also observed that a decentralized governing structure allows Municipalities or other self-governing institutions in these countries greater flexibility to decide on and manage local issues. Therefore, local governments and provincial council systems of Sri Lanka should be empowered under the aegis of the central line Ministries, to implement sustainable city planning. The conservative and expert-led ‘silo’ culture which creates cultural and institutional barriers for environmental integration should be discarded. To assure sustainable development, in a developing country like Sri Lanka, as opposed to above quoted nations, a delicate balance must be struck between economic drive and environmental concerns. Therefore management of resources and assurance of equal access to resources is crucial.

Three aspects of a holistic perspective of sustainable urban development are, (a) the need for stakeholders to share a common vision; (b) a clear follow-up process; and (c) strong political incentives and supportive measures. As the political commitment is laid down by the Presidential manifesto ‘Rata Hadana Saubhagyaye Dekma’ (A Vision for a Resurgent, Prosperous Country), Sri Lanka must now focus on laying down a comprehensive plan for eco-cities. The Manifesto conceives “Green and Smart” cities, and implementing Disaster Resilient Villages, as well as promoting Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA). These objectives are in line with the concept of sustainable eco-cities, which are urban areas adaptable to and resilient to climate change, which conform to the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) pledged by Sri Lanka under the Paris Convention on Climate Change, as well as SDG 11- Sustainable Cities and Communities.

However, in Sri Lanka, the general understanding of ‘cities as ecosystems’ is lacking, where we tend to view cities merely as results of migration patterns creating an urban sprawl. Therefore more research on the impact of urbanization and their limitations on Sustainable development is called for, along with public awareness and active engagement in eco-city planning, management and monitoring. Therefore it is also crucial to strengthen individual responsibility, and cooperation between the local government institutions and individuals to help future eco-cities attain the vision of a sustainable city. Thus it must be understood by all, that sustainability is not the end state, but a process which balances all elements of urbanism, and thereby preserves the health of the environment and of the mankind. 

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Thank you for Fantastic reminder where we should be as suppose to where we are still discussing ghetto politics.

    “It is also observed that a decentralised governing structure allows Municipalities or other self-governing institutions in these countries greater flexibility to decide on and manage local issues”….

    …..this was done in the form of introduction of “District Development Councils” in 1981 which was destroyed(Jaffna District Council) by FP/TULF/TC/Armed Groups the assassination child brigade from India belongs to the TULF.

    This had “qualified people” identified to take over these matters through democratic mandates for the said developments by our Late Hon Premadasa PM. They were all systematically assassinated by bunch of “SL Bar Council” oath taken lawyers using Indian trained children.

    Yes there will be Local Government involvement in the future (we have no such thing as Provincial Councils in SL in the near future a foreign concept) by nature but since we are a small Nation many things are easily managed with National Security at the heart of all due consideration from the centre.

    India also making head ways in Centre of Technical excellence in Sustainable living we should work with this in addition to all the National models you mentioned above…..we should scan the planet for more models and cherry pick the best from various places before finalising our modelling/city planning

  • 0

    As rightly pointed out by the authors among the sustainable development goals , SDGs 11,13,14.15 and 16 are important ,but Sri Lanka is going backwards in respect of these goals.

    2015 was the first year and all 17 SDG goals were requires to be achieved before 2030.

    Now five years had already gone.

    If we consider SDG 16 – Peace Justice and strong institutions. The aim is inclusive societies with strong institutions that provide justice for all.

    On the contrary the institutions are further weakened by the 20 A and the situations will be worse in time to come.

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