Colombo. Still emerging from the behind its guns
Colombo is livable. I’m not dead. Just not very much so. Colombo has been ranked among the worst 10 livable cities by the Economist which, while not entirely fair, is mostly on the mark. Colombo is not very livable for a few reasons (IMHO). Because nobody actually lives in Colombo, because the public transit is bad, and because neighborhoods and public spaces have problems as well.
Desertification Of Downtown
When I say that no one lives in Colombo, I mean that very few people live or work in the city center around the Port. This is the heart of the city, but after the Central Bank bombing, people fled. The area is still busy with some major banks and company offices, but many of the small shops and streets that would form the culture of the place are empty. I enjoy tromping around this ghost town, but it is not a living city. Colombo 1 and 2 should be the heart of the city, and they’re dead.
Since leaving the city, people and businesses have retreated to the suburbs. We think of Colombo 7, Kollupitiya and Bamblapitiya as being Colombo, but they’re actually not. They’re actually residential neighborhoods that are quite far away. Since businesses and people deserted downtown, they have moved to random places in the suburbs. These areas are not zoned for commercial or high density residential use and it makes everything far apart. You have to use a car or a trishaw, which ruins the city experience.
Poor Public Transport
To live in a city you have to walk it. That’s the only way you can get the feel and pulse of a place, on the streets. Colombo is not a walkable city. Let’s say you want to do some shopping and you take a bus to ODEL. So far so good. If you want to try another similar shop, however, you need to walk almost a kilometre down to what I think is Cotton Collection, or cross an insane intersection and then a dangerous pedestrian crossing to Paradise Road. Beyond that, you really need to get in a car and go somewhere else. Note that this is only one type of posh/touristy shopping, but it is striking that we have no neighborhood with a high or even low concentration of similar shops. The one exception is Pettah, but that’s only relevant if you A) know what you’re looking for, in which case anything is available or B) want plastic products or fake hair, which is all they seem to have on a casual browse.
What this means is that to have any sort of city experience, you need to take transport. Now, private transport is the worst option experience wise. In the country it’s great, but for short distances it just means traffic and parking, both frustrations. In Colombo, however, public transport sucks. In Montreal I remember that the buses had stops with posted schedules. In Colombo buses just kinda go, stopping when you flag them down, and by stopping I mean slowing down so you can jump on or jump off. The same bus that takes you across town also continues on to Matara on the Southern Coast, and they drive like madmen. The buses are also old, uncomfortable and hot.
More to the point, the roads are not designed for public transport. The one-way system has turned Colombo’s main thoroughfares into highways for people getting in and out of the city. They’re actually horrible for someone trying to get around within the city. Let’s say you want to get from Galle Face Green to the McDonalds, two places on the same road. You can catch a bus from Galle Face heading south. Half-way, however, the road becomes a one-way highway and the bus has to detour to Duplication Road. Then you have to guess what side road is close to McDonald’s, get down there, walk half a kilometer, and then cross five lanes of traffic with no clear crosswalk. It’s madness. Even if you’re taking a car the experience sucks and conceptualizing how to get from here to there is only really possible on an instinctual level.
Then let’s take the ideal form of city transport, walking or riding a bicycle. In most parts of Colombo there are no sidewalks and traffic is so chaotic that riding a bike is quite honestly suicidal. The only alternative is taking a car or a trishaw, which costs money, is stressful, and then necessitates finding parking, often quasi-legally and antisocially.
There are beautiful homes and garden in Colombo, but they are often down filthy streets, next to abandoned lots. There are no coherent neighborhoods in Colombo. The only ones I know are those that have been shut off for security reasons. Layard’s Road is leafy and green, largely because it was home to Red Cross and VIPs and off limits to most traffic and development. The same for the blocked off stretch of Baudhalloka Mawatha. The richest people still live in the shittiest neighborhoods which are only tolerable if you’re driving through them. I live in Dehiwela near Wellawatte and the canal. Jogging consists of dodging rat carcasses, cow poop, manic traffic, garbage, potholes and being chased by street dogs. It sucks.
I venture to say that you cannot walk for more than fifteen minutes in any part of Colombo without running into something that ruins the neighborhood.
Poor Public Spaces
Finally, and this is kinda a sum of what went before, public spaces in Colombo are either inaccessible or badly maintained. Vihara Maha Devi Park is nice, but the two story kids slide literally has steps missing. Galle Face Green is great, but only after they completely closed it for two years. Most movie theatres in the city itself have become crumbling soft-core porno joints and theatres like the Elphinstone are neglected while the Lionel Wendt was crippled by years of no parking and a one-way system that makes it difficult to get to.
Other public spaces are simply neglected and crumbling. The huge building near the Sports Ministry is abandoned and seems to have troops randomly barracked there. The Beira Lake would be a commercial wonderland, but it’s surrounded by abandoned buildings and slums. The same for downtown near the fort where lovely colonial buildings are becoming parking lots or lie vacant and falling apart. Also, the Marine Drive stretch is beautiful, but dotted by crumbling buildings, sleazy hotels and general dearth of stuff to do.
This is not to say that the city isn’t changing and getting better. One example is the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station, now a beautiful sight exposed by what I think was Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s plan to take down walls. Yesterday I saw the man himself walking down that lovely lane heading from Independence Square, the one walkable part of the city. He’s the man in charge of the city and he’s somewhat paying attention. Colombo has pockets of random cool, but they don’t really come together as a livable city. In time I think they will, but for now the Economist ranking is probably well deserved.