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A new City in the making

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Sri Lanka’s proposed Colombo International Financial City better known as the Colombo Port City passed an important milestone this week as it has now fully completed dredging and land reclamation, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Province Development said. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka toured the Port City this week in the company of the Chinese Ambassador and other guests to check on its progress.

The Port City also marks a new chapter in Sino-Sri Lanka relations as it is the biggest investment project ever launched in Sri Lanka. When it is finally completed by 2040, just 21 years away, it will be a US$ 15 billion mega investment rivalling any Asian economic hub.

The new city will function as a special jurisdiction area with its own economic and commercial laws to facilitate the operations of global multinational corporations. The completed city will have reclaimed 269 hectares with 116 hectares being handed over to China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which is the parent company of China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). The remaining land, which will be owned by the Sri Lankan Government and will be divided with 62 hectares to be used to set up a financial city and 91 hectares to be used as public spaces.

Last year, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd., presented the Development Control Regulations (DCR) for the Colombo Port City project to the authorities, signaling for the marketing team to sell it as real estate. The DCR was prepared by Surbana Jurong, a well-known Singaporean urban design consultancy and Atkins, a UK-based engineering consultancy.

The Port City spans 269 hectares, equivalent to 600 football fields, meaning 65 million cubic metres of sand needed to be reclaimed from the sea. The project is about the same size as central London, but its design resembles that of cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai. This, it is hoped, will attract the top companies in the world to set up base at the Port City. Through the development of a new metropolis inside the capital, authorities estimate that Greater Colombo could eventually double in size.

Even a decade ago, the idea of a Sri Lankan city that rivalled the world's leading financial hubs seemed implausible. The 30-year conflict which had stymied economic growth had just ended and the authorities needed an outstanding project that could garner global investor interest. It is in this backdrop that the idea of a Port City was mooted. However, there were certain criticisms on some aspects of the project, which were not entirely without foundation. Fears were also raised about environmental safeguards or the lack thereof. Thus the UNF-led Government that came to power in 2015 re-evaluated the project to make sure that it would be more beneficial to the country. The plans were recalibrated to present the Port City as a Financial Centre for the Asian region and strict environmental protection measures were also adopted.

According to the site's developer, China Harbour Engineering Company, the project is on track to complete the first phase of infrastructure by 2020. The development also calls for 110 acres of public parks and 300 acres for recreation and water sports. Port City would also have several specialized areas including a marine university area, recreation area, residential area and also the financial district. The new city is expected to host about 80,000 residents and 250,000 daily commuters. It will be connected to walkways, highways and the proposed new Light Rail Transit (LRT) project. It will also be of importance to the proposed Belt and Road Initiative of China.

There is an urgent need to promote this project in a bigger way. The Board of Investment, together with the Megapolis Ministry, must from now itself vigorously market the Port City as a separate investment destination to attract investors from all over the world. Since this is strictly a commercial (office space) and residential development with no industrial activity, high-end investors and global financial powerhouses must be the prime target.

It is also vital to attract the best names in contemporary global architecture to design the public buildings and spaces in the Port City. This will help differentiate the Port City from other such projects in the region and beyond. Conventional designs will not win any hearts and more crucially, investor interest. Since this is being built anew from the ground up, planners must learn from the mistakes we see in Colombo City pertaining to traffic, pedestrian access, public transport, infrastructure etc., and implement viable solutions.

There are those who criticize the Government for focusing on long-term projects such as Port City instead of resolving current issues such as the Cost of Living and Poverty. But a Nation that does not think ahead will not prosper. True, some of us may not be around to see the completion of this project, but the idea is that all long term projects benefit the next generation, not necessary ours. It is like planting a tree today – you may not be alive to taste its fruit one day. But your grandchildren will. That is the promise and essence of long-term development.

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