International conference on cities, people and places

Ambassador Gonggrijp had the honor to speak during the conference on cities, people and places organized by the University of Moratuwa. She spoke about how planning and cooperation are absolute key when it comes to urban planning drawing inspiration from our own capital Amsterdam

Dear all, let me start by saying that it is an honor to be Chief Guest at this 7th International Conference on ‘Cities, People and Places’ organized by the University of Moratuwa. The focus of this conference on urban design and city development is a very important one, as it relates to a lot of challenges that are currently relevant.

Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. This proportion is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050. With close to 90% of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa. We see megacities develop, of which many are located in Asia. These cities deal with huge challenges, like traffic infrastructure, water and sanitation supplies, ​electricity services, employment and other social and health issues.

But these are not just megacity problems. Many cities, also in Sri Lanka deal with similar challenges. Many of these challenges relate to urban planning. 

Let me first take you to my own capital, Amsterdam. Amsterdam certainly has challenges, thinking of crime, traffic, a livable city center. But many of the issues mentioned have been taken care of. Let me say a few words on the history of the city.

(1) Amsterdam found its origin in the 13th century. Most of the city’s territory is below sea level and therefore it lies on land that has been reclaimed from the water. The 17th century, also called the Golden Age, was crucial for the city’s development. The Dutch trading culture and the foundation of the VOC in 1602 played an important role in the economic growth of the city. Since the 17th century the city has also known a tradition of freedom and tolerance. Catholics, Protestants, Jews and ‘free-thinkers’ could live together in a coherent way and could stay true to their own beliefs and different opinions. So both economic and social possibilities led to an impressive increase of population.

Therefore the city developed rapidly and underwent a significant urban expansion. However, this expansion had to be planned as land had to be reclaimed, water drainage assured and fortifications had to be built. In 1613 the city built its first belt of canals. When the city had to expand, an extra belt of canals was constructed around the existing one, again assuring drainage, protection and also transport over water. This repeated a few times and this is where the current pattern of the city originates from.

So given the fact that  Amsterdam is situated below sea level, the actual existence of land depends on a technical intervention. By means of drainage, polders and finally dykes, land can be obtained. Obtained land was first cultivated and also used for construction. Dykes needed to be watched over for at least five years before the construction of buildings, and then checked by the municipality periodically to guarantee the safety.

It was and is not possible to just start building and it was exactly that constraint that made the Dutch strong in urban planning. Also most of Dutch world heritage sites are characterized by a combination of land design, water engineering and planning. 

This brings me to one of the most famous shared heritage sites in Sri Lanka: Galle. Even though we have not built Galle from scratch, when I visited the city last weekend, I noticed some typically Dutch characteristics: the strong Dutch style fortifications, the structure and the drainage system.  But also other heritage sites bear the hallmarks of Dutch architectural expertise and planning. Like the five point design of Jaffna fort, which is very common to Dutch fortifications.

So planning is key. But that is nothing new to you. As a layman I see three major challenges with regard to urban planning;

Firstly, what is your starting point? The people, economic activity, the existing city? Today we know that the state of a town has a great influence on the well-being of its citizens. This Conference intends to examine the ways in which cities exists as a ‘people’s place’ and how each city’s uniqueness is constructed upon the ways in which ‘urban life’ prevails and contributes to the making of places. I could not agree more that this is essential. But have we regarded and managed cities as ‘people’s places’ in the past? Of course cities consists of people, but the people have often not been the main concern and many cities have developed around people instead of with people. Not because that was the plan, but because that is the way it just happened.

Secondly, urban planning and design is multidisciplinary, which makes it complicated. This means different disciplines have to come together in order to develop one plan, which takes all different factors and challenges into account.

Thirdly, and closely linked to the other two is sustainability. In my opinion, the sustainability urban development is the most important aspect to focus on. When it comes to studying and changing life in a city, people tend to look a lot at the ‘here and now’. How can I, as soon as possible, arrange to get to work more quickly? Or how can I live as comfortable as possible? However, the plans should be future proof. It should not just be economically sustainable, but it should be climate proof, poverty proof. As countries, we all committed to the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal number 11 is about making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. It says:

For all of us to survive and prosper, we need new, intelligent urban planning that creates safe, affordable and resilient cities with green and culturally inspiring living conditions.

Given these challenges, I would like to encourage exchanges like these today. But also exchanges between our countries. Ever since I got here, I have heard great stories about benefiting from each other’s expertise. For example, it was only last year that a group of Sri Lankan officials from Urban Development Authority, Department of Archaeology and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau attended training in Rotterdam. I have been told that they used Colombo’s Fort and Pettah areas as a case study during the training.

I also learned that more than 60 Sri Lankan students have followed different study programmes at the ‘Institute of Housing Studies’ at Rotterdam. Rotterdam is a city in the Netherlands, with a rather young and modern history in urban planning as many parts of the city were bombed in the second world war. These students and alumni have realized the need to establish a formal organization to liaise with IHS Netherlands as well as to create a network amongst them. This IHS ALUMNI ASSOCIATION OF SRI LANKA is still a young organization but I trust it will strengthen the ties between our countries in the area of urban planning. 

So back to Amsterdam. We learned from the urban history that the city developed in such an organized manner, because central planning was necessary, given the circumstances. But also because different actors were forced to cooperate, in order to fight the water and built the city.

Planning and cooperation are key. Now it is up to you to use this conference to bring urban planning to the next level: people centered, sustainable, inclusive cities. I count on you and you can count on us to provide you with useful knowledge, if needed. I wish you a successful conference.   

Thank you

(1) Source: Amsterdam a Model of City Planning