Rootless: belonging in an (un)planned world

By Julian Gooneratne / Year 2 BsC Urban Planning, Design and Management

Editors Note: Julian graciously wrote about three cities he is personally familiar with - the first is in this post after the introduction, and the next two will be posted later in the month. We are planning to make shorter posts on cities like this one a regular feature, and would love your help. The writing prompt is "Where are you from, and/or where are you going?" If you have experienced something in a city that you would like to share, please send us a brief piece and photos if you have them. Contact us with any questions you have through instagram or email!


Image: Colombo, Sri Lanka


Foreword

There’s one small question that I’ve heard repeated a lot throughout my life:

“Where are you from?”


If I’m being honest, in the last 19 years of my life, I have never known how to approach

answering those four words. Instead, my head is instilled with a sense of emptiness as I

struggle to put together the pieces of who I really am as an individual. Truth is, it just

feels like I am a citizen of everywhere and nowhere. I wrestle and scuffle with the idea

of where to say my hometown is (I can’t pick), where my accent is derived from (an

“international” accent, apparently), and which city I’ve lived in that has been my

favourite (the answer is never ever the same.)


When I do attempt to answer, I feel as if my answer has metamorphosed time and time

again, up to the point where I’ve devised a short answer at the ready. While it has been

hard growing up as a third-culture kid at times (and going through an ‘identity crisis’

monthly), I wouldn’t be myself without the endless multicultural experiences, the friends

and ‘family’ that have settled down in each stretch and patch of the globe, and the joy of

counting ahead 7 hours when you’re trying to celebrate your Mum’s birthday at the right

time.


My time in four (to be five!) cities has, nonetheless piqued my interest in the built

environment, especially in the way that these cities have been built, planned and

designed - the clear divide between the old and new, the rundown canal waterways and

extensive rivers, or the small, eroding roads juxtaposing the ubiquitous nature of

metropolises of glass, concrete and steel. Whilst most of my life has been situated in

the realms of Asia, each city has different, unique planning mechanisms that make them

the cities that they are; they have their charms (and their downfalls), but naturally, no

place that we live in can or will ever be perfect.



Chapter One: Colombo, Sri Lanka

While I don’t remember a lot about what Colombo was like back in the early 2000s, from

the times that I have visited - usually every 3-4 years - it seems to be a city that is slowly

(but surely) blossoming into its own character; to me, Colombo has never shaped up to

the label of a ‘city,’ but instead always reminds me of a collection of a sprawl of little

towns that all are bursting at the seams, unable to contain their own identity.

Its moniker was once “the garden city of the East,” consequently influenced by the

British town-planning discourse that was once prominent, but is now fading away with

the boom of foreign investment and the homogenisation of the urban landscape. From

what I’ve read, the concept of the Sri Lankan “garden city” first came about as a

reaction by the British after the Dutch were ousted in 1796 in order to enhance the city’s image through the construction of neo-classical style public and commercial buildings

and the inclusion of a major ‘green lung’ in the form of a park.


“...glorious gardens. No other capital in the world has such suburbs. There are avenues of palms with just a glimpse of the white sea between their crowded trunks, hedges ablaze with scarlet hibiscus, thickets of rustling bamboo, lanes that lead through banana groves, the apple-green fans of which shut out everything but the sky."

- Sir Frederick Treves, 1905


Nowadays, while it can ultimately be said that while us Sri Lankans have a dear love

and appreciation for nature, Colombo seems to be shifting towards a new soul when it

comes to planning in order to reach its aspirations of becoming an upper-middle

economy and a global hub, away from its green beginnings. During my last trip to

Colombo, whilst roaming around on a noisy tuk-tuk on a casual Wednesday, it was easy

to see how the skyline has been dominated by upcoming five-star hotels, mixed-use

skyscrapers and a plethora of construction cranes unashamedly in sight at every corner.

While I have always loved the idea of a ‘city,’ it feels as if Colombo never was meant to

be all of that.


Image: SEZ with full Chinese rights established 2021. Available here.


The charm of Colombo’s colonial past is starting to dissolve, with buildings like the

Dutch Hospital and a mental asylum repurposed as shopping arcades and hangout

spots for the vivacious vibrant youth. The half kilometre promenade of sandy beach,

hawker food stalls and flying kites now faces a new redevelopment of a new city

built on 269 hectares of reclaimed land from the sea (to be completed by 2041)

completely funded by China’s Belt and Road initiative. In the air, there’s a hint of

optimism, but more alarm - do we need another Dubai or Canary Wharf in the world?


Of course, that is to be decided. Sri Lanka, and Colombo, more specifically, is an outlier,

an alien among the burgeoning metropolises of South Asia - but I’ve always liked it that

way.