I wrote in an earlier blog that Colombo is a beautiful city. This has generated discussion with my colleagues, and in one instance, I’ve found myself defending my comment. What makes a city beautiful?
Colombo has a tropical climate, it hugs the Indian Ocean, there are examples of ornate temples, colonial architecture, and some fine modern glass skyscrapers. These are qualities associated with a stereotypical version of beautiful cities. But there is another element, open to debate of course, that I want to explore: the working class districts of developing or middle-income cities, away from the glitz, glam, and bright lights of the tourist hot spots. There is beauty in these communities, because together their community elements are beautiful.
I’ve been meaning to write properly about this subject for some time. Ever since my dad took me fleetingly to Bangkok when I was 13 and we strayed off the beaten track I’ve been fascinated with shanty towns, for want of a better term. That experience sparked an obsession with big, mad, foreign cities.
Two experiences from a trip to Mexico in 2008 stand out: flying from Tijuana airport, when the plane circled like a metallic bird over the shanty towns that covered the landscape; and driving with a friend from Mexico City to the nearby Aztec pyramids, where the shanty towns spread out and up the mountainsides for miles on end. In both instances I was struck by their strange beauty. From the air they are colourful, haphazard, chaotic; from the ground they are teeming with life and community, organic almost like a living, breathing entity.
From an ethical rather than an aesthetic point of view, shanty towns can also be successful places to live. Firstly, the natural power and importance of community cannot be underestimated. Many theorists have written on this subject, highlighting the mutual benefits through community linked to law, order and social capital. Resettling and displacing people in purpose-built schemes or otherwise breaks these systematic and social bonds. In short, community is the glue that keeps any place together. Secondly, it is my view that municipal authorities should not fear the shanty town, but should embrace community power and offer basic services that all city dwellers need. They should consider subsidised schemes that provide basic services such as refuse collection, clean water, and sewage disposal. These schemes exist in Mexico City’s suburbs to good effect.
Every day in Colombo I walk to work through the backstreets of Rajigiriya District. Thin un-paved streets are lined with ramshackle huts and small houses of varying styles. Children play in the streets, adults wave and smile; the streets are warm, colourful, lush with foliage, and there is often incense or wood smoke hanging in the air. Nowhere in the stereotypical beauty spots of Colombo is community life so evident. To me these places are beautiful and make Colombo a beautiful city.