Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian
Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian

Planning Colombo

Tracing the vision of Colombo as a garden city.

Ramla Wahab-Salman is a researcher in the field of history and Associate Director for programming at the American Institute for Lankan Studies in Colombo. Ramla completed her BA in History at Lady Shri Ram College for Women (Delhi) and MA in History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London). She can be reached at ramlaw.ails@gmail.com.

By 1918, H1N1 influenza A, more commonly known as the Spanish flu, had claimed the lives of between 20 to 50 million people globally, many of them between the ages of 20 and 40 years old. Ceylon was no exception. The virus entered the island through two of the busiest ports handling high volumes of international passenger traffic – Colombo in the southwest and Talaimannar in the northwest. Colombo linked Ceylon to ports around the world, and Talaimannar was a hub for maritime traffic from southern India.
Disease control (or the lack of it) during the 1918–1919 pandemic in Ceylon was similar to global patterns epidemiologically, in that the disease spread in distinct waves. In Ceylon, cases surged in the latter half of 1918. The Registrar-General for Ceylon recorded that the Spanish flu claimed 41,916 lives from 1918-1919 – the highest ever number of deaths recorded in the island in a single year. Approximately 6.7 percent of Ceylon's population was lost.

A century later, questions of epidemic, contagion and urbanism have reemerged with COVID-19.

In the 1920s, the suburbs of Colombo were experiencing a surge of cases of malaria (along with Bengal) and the effects of flooding. A deadly spike of malarial fever followed in the mid-1930s, affecting 1.5 million lives. In the 1930s, research by the Colombo Municipal Council pegged the spread of plague to plague fleas and shore rats as carriers, rather than to humans. Disease control in the city was a priority. Ceylon was also experiencing malnutrition due to drought, resultant food shortages, particularly of rice, and falling incomes which left more people vulnerable to disease and malaria. Groups such as the anti-imperialist and anti-war Suriya Mal movement too conducted voluntary malaria relief work in the 1930s.
Malaria treatment centre at a government dispensary. Courtesy "Discussion on the Malaria Epidemic in Ceylon 1934-1935"
Malaria treatment centre at a government dispensary. Courtesy "Discussion on the Malaria Epidemic in Ceylon 1934-1935"
A century later, questions of epidemic, contagion and urbanism have reemerged with COVID-19. The connections and paradoxes of development and improvement in a city (much like the City Improvement Trusts, which were set up in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras in the late 19th to mid-20th century to manage the task of urban development, housing and disease control) compel us to reckon with the histories, successes and failures of planning urban spaces in times of disease. The vision of Colombo as a garden city, with its streets lined with avenue trees; a city dotted with aquariums, paths and parks promoting garden spaces, horizontal living, health, wellness and house pride is an idea that lingers, and one that is rooted in history.
Geddes and the garden city
By 1918, city planning was in crisis. The Housing and Town Improvement Ordinance of 1915, which regulated the size and spatial arrangements of buildings in order to allow for direct sunlight and better ventilation, was at risk of being repealed or revised. This was partly due to lack of funding but also because the ordinance made poverty, disease and overcrowding in low-income settlements visible, as urban-planning scholar Nihal Perera notes. Shortly after the ordinance was enacted, for instance, the areas around Kochchikade were declared 'insanitary'. Rather than trying to improve living conditions, authorities were absorbed in trying to amend the ordinance to relax the regulations. This would allow urban growth and building requests to continue haphazardly and unchecked and potentially lead to sanitation and sewage issues. To remedy this, the Board of Improvements, which functioned under the Municipal Council and looked into the maintenance of thoroughfares in the city appealed to the government to support them in drawing up a 20-year plan for Colombo from 1919.
Patrick Geddes was a peripatetic figure in Asia in the interwar years and during the time of the Spanish flu. His 1921 report Town Planning in Colombo: A preliminary report centred around issues of planning for disease prevention, mitigating the effects of flooding and landscaping Colombo as a 'Garden City of the East'.

In the backdrop of the Spanish flu epidemic, Geddes's concept of gardens and horizontal housing planned ahead and promoted wellness and disease control.

Geddes was a Scottish Orientalist and town planner. He is perhaps best known for his design of the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh. His time in Colombo was spent between the University of Bombay and planning assignments in the city of Jerusalem. A critique of Geddes remains that his basic theories were not unique to India or Ceylon but in fact developed by the time he embarked in his first planning experiments in Cyprus as early as 1897, which revealed the rigidity of his practice. In Asia, he contributed to urban-planning design (even though his ideas were often not adopted) across Indore, Bombay, Madras and many other cities in the Subcontinent, as well as in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In Cities in Evolution published in 1915, Patrick Geddes drew a distinction between what he called the 'paleotechnic' present and the 'neotechnic' future. He argued that the 19th century was an age of 'carboniferous capitalism' based on polluting non-renewable resources. The paleotechnic age saw domination through machines, finance, militarism and as a consequence, the exhaustion of natural resources. Geddes's town planning reflected his hope for a new neotechnic age, relying on renewable solar energy and durable alloys to allow for resource efficiency. Geddes was convinced that Colombo was close to attaining the identity of a garden city and emphasised the need to carefully 'guard' the city as such. The 1921 census estimated a population of over 244,000 living in Colombo, to which Geddes applied the British town planning limit of 50 persons to the acre (or close) to prevent crowding as seen in cities like Bombay.

What panned out was a clash between Ceylon officials' expectations for a 'scientific layout' for street planning, vis-a-vis Geddes's commitment to following garden and garden village designs.

Deeply influenced by Ebenezer Howard's garden-city movement to prevent slums and overcrowding, Patrick Geddes designed a new system aimed at improving living conditions in cities, tailored to their specific cultural and natural backgrounds – Place-Work-Folk. Inspired by French philosopher and writer Auguste Comte and mining engineer Frederic Le Play, Geddes pushed for a 'third alternative', between unrestricted capitalism and socialist state intervention. Not limited to Geddes, many voices including the movement for socialist utopias of the time take criticism of capitalism as their starting point. Chronologically these ideas also overlapped with the American City Beautiful movement led by architects and reformers, intended to engage with and plan for urban and social issues, most prominent in Cleveland, Chicago and Washington, DC. Although an admirer of Le Play, Geddes was opposed to the emphasis on wealth accumulation that the Industrial Revolution encouraged as a marker of societal progress. Instead, he was influenced by the ideas of Russian anarchist and revolutionary Prince Peter Kropotkin in the idea of cooperation over competition. Geddes and Kropotkin met in Edinburgh over the study of Geddes's work on the Old Town and University Hall – the UK's first self governing student residence. Kropotkin's ideas aligned with Geddes in that only by studying nature and obeying nature's laws could humans reach a higher level of civilisation. Geddes measured success by the fullness of harvests.
Symmetry vs open space

The historical moment saw certain European and Southasian cities grappling to combat the ill effects of industrialisation and overcrowding. In the backdrop of the Spanish flu epidemic, Geddes's concept of gardens and horizontal housing planned ahead and promoted wellness and disease control. It is not hard to imagine why his ideas in managing death, disease and overcrowding would have, in theory, appealed to Governor Manning. Perhaps there was another reason for approaching Geddes too. In December 1914, while attending an Indian National Congress session in Madras, British Governor Lord Pentland introduced the City and Town Planning Exhibition and its director, Geddes, to India. The move was calculated – Pentland was hoping to highlight the benefits of British rule in India to Congress. At a time when there was growing political consciousness, including a movement for independence, in Ceylon, it is not inconceivable that Governor Manning hoped Geddes would help make a similar favourable impression.
Cities Exhibition 1910. Courtesy Patrick Geddes Trust.
Cities Exhibition 1910. Courtesy Patrick Geddes Trust.
As an already established artificial harbour, the Colombo Port planners were looking to increase capacity and growth in more traditional terms. Geddes was in favour of balancing the war memorial designed by Edward Lutyens with an arch at the entrance of the Port of Colombo much like the Arch of Empire in Bombay, which he hoped in time would be designed in all of the ports between London and New Zealand. His focus on Colombo's Port wasn't accidental –increased shipping at the end of the First World War had brought Colombo to the unexpected position of the third port of the Empire and fifth in the world.
Governor Manning and the Colonial Treasury were cautious to financially commit to an experienced town planner but estimated the cost at 50 million rupees for a Town Improvement Scheme, expecting repayment from the Municipal Council. However, the Colonial Treasurer was not confident that the Colombo Municipality, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, could ever embark on such a project by itself. In the press too, the Daily News was intent on the need for town planning and welcomed Geddes, but the Ceylon Observer was lukewarm in its reception of a project that they saw as a drain on municipal resources.  
While it would seem that hiring Patrick Geddes indicated a general agreement to the Garden City models he was already well known for, what panned out was a clash between Ceylon officials' expectations for a 'scientific layout' for street planning, vis-a-vis Geddes's commitment to following garden and garden village designs.
Roadside scene on the way to Mount Lavinia. Courtesy South Asia Open Archives.
Roadside scene on the way to Mount Lavinia. Courtesy South Asia Open Archives.
The Board of Improvement Commissioners were in favour of bringing symmetry to Colombo to prevent haphazard growth. Geddes, on the other hand, was a strong critic of the idea of pervasive straight lines in obedience to the dictates of a grid pattern. Seeing the Indian and Ceylonese traditions, particularly in the railway, police and public works as generally continuing with 'standard plans' invented by the early sanitarians of English artisan towns in the late 1850s and 1860s which established more 'lines' instead of the garden villages and homes of the Town Planning Movement, he drew parallels to stalls in a horse stable. Geddes saw little space for promoting health consciousness and house pride other than through the garden city.
His Colombo plan aimed to preserve the "rural spirit" of Ceylon, fearing its destruction by unplanned urban development. Yet, he commented on the precarious financial situation of the Municipal Council, which he deemed was largely due to low taxation rates, particularly compared with others in the region. Assisted by Colombo Municipal Council engineers Cox and Ingram, the Geddes plan was confident that unlike many parts of India, "garden and village principles and method" were natural in the tradition of Colombo and Ceylon. The plan therefore assumed that it would take little effort by the Municipality and Board of Improvements to implement his garden concept of horizontal housing through cottages with open space in the suburbs of Colombo.

Garden cities, like modernist planning in general, are described to serve as tools of power in the colonies.

The Geddes plan for Colombo as an island garden was born out of a clear distaste for town plans influenced by the Industrial Revolution not only in Europe but in Indian cities which tended to crowd inward toward the bazaars. In Colombo, Geddes described that people had a love of gardens and flowers, which the climate and rainfall encouraged to a degree rare in India. Due to the plan centring on gardens and building public health-consciousness and pride in their surroundings, said to have been deeply influenced by Indian spiritual life, Geddes saw the need for developing knowledge of the island's landscapes and characteristic vegetation in his proposals for a geographical gallery and geography garden, to be supported and sponsored by the Geography Society and Planters Association, within the Colombo Museum.
In keeping with his assumption that Colombo was naturally more garden oriented, he further proposed and designed an urban garden to be maintained by the Horticultural Society, which he had not succeeded in producing in India. It was designed to open to narrow entrances and quiet hedges in an intentional contrast to the actual vast garden. The Municipality would grow avenue trees, which would lead into an English-style park view with a cricket pitch and pergola, and a large pond where larvicidal fish would naturally control mosquitoes in the park.
In the 1920s and 1940s respectively, Patrick Geddes and Clifford Holliday drew formal plans for Colombo which were not adopted and therefore the reason the city developed largely without reference to a plan until after World War II, as Bernard Swan argued in 1987. This would explain why varied vintage and modern buildings exist side by side, and why low-income housing and bazaars are not far from exclusive residential areas. Swan argues that the greenery that pervades through Colombo leads to many euphemistic references to it as a garden city.
Map from the Geddes plan. Courtesy Harvard University, Library of The School of Landscape Architecture (The Gift Of Ceylon Government Record Office, July 1923)
Map from the Geddes plan. Courtesy Harvard University, Library of The School of Landscape Architecture (The Gift Of Ceylon Government Record Office, July 1923)
A clash of visions
The government which sponsored Geddes and the Municipal Council of Colombo along with the Board of Improvements which were to act on the plan for the city did not expect or agree with the style and proposed scale of Geddes's preliminary report. Their planning visions, timeframes and budgets were not aligned. For instance, Rs 5 million out of the total Rs 50 million was marked as urgently required for budgeted street improvements to compensate house owners affected by changing street lines. Yet both the Government or Municipality were in no position to allow the overhaul of ongoing municipal duties in favour of a new vision for Colombo as the garden city.
The Municipal Council was steeped in debt, as Geddes had observed. Yet, he was not sympathetic to this situation and in his plan described the "municipal poverty" of Colombo as not indicative of a lack of general prosperity in the city. Geddes's long-term vision to redo the layout of Colombo housing extended outside municipal limits, requiring a competent regional authority with the ability to plan for the entire Greater Colombo area, which was far from being actualised. The adjoining urban and village councils within Greater Colombo (which in Geddes's conception ran from Mount Lavinia to Moratuwa and even beyond, towards Galle, and extended inland up to 'Cotta' 6 miles from the Fort) were not informed of Geddes's plans and did not have the necessary finances to collaborate on the project, as Perera describes.

Conceptions of a green city and more long-term planning visions for public health and wellness over symmetrical city plans and temporary sanitation measures bears a long history.

At the time, the Municipality was also receiving numerous applications to build in Colombo which they did not want to pass without a comprehensive plan for private streets, which were haphazardly laid out. Geddes's plan did not propose a solution to this immediate problem, although it identified many markers for disease prevention.
Colombo was in need of a plan addressing practical solutions to housing problems, disease mitigation and prevention, establishing it as a port city of the future. However, the proposed plan reflected an ideologically driven point of view on the part of the Garden City Movement which took a negative view toward towns and urbanisation.
The government saw the proposed plan as beneficial to the taxpayers of Colombo only, whereas calls on the Treasury for agricultural purposes would be beneficial to the entire island. However, the Colonial Treasury did suggest that the Municipality float a loan repayable via a sinking fund over a few years, so that the costs for improvement would be borne not just by present but by future generations as well. Geddes's plan did hold a fair degree of long term impact, including legislation for a town planning office which was set up by 1947. More so, it was his planning language that placed the idea of Colombo as a garden city for every citizen on record, regardless of how far his plan was formally adopted by the governor and the Municipality.
Planning and colonial power
Elsewhere in Asia too, Geddes had a reputation for disagreements with officials. From 1915, he was met with growing hostility by British administrators and the Indian Civil Service who acted in response to his criticisms of their work. Globally, the municipal movement in the 19th and 20th centuries was a structured system of colonial municipal governance. Geddes's work on planning an urbanised coastal section of the old city of Jaffa named Ahuzat Bayit, later named Tel Aviv, for instance, sits in contrast to the ideological expectations of him in Colombo, though it was completed during the same time period. His work in Palestine engaged with the pastoral overtones of early Zionist ideology and a general disregard for the city, which had no blueprints in the future of Jewish society. It was an ideology that scholars suggest receded to wishful thinking by the 1940s.
Nihal Perera cites architectural historian Anthony King in arguing that planning was a discourse developed in Britain and exported via colonialism. Garden cities, like modernist planning in general, are described to serve as tools of power in the colonies. It is argued that in colonial capitals in West Africa, West Asia and Southasia, planning was an instrument of social control through segregation and regulation of movement. The discourse beginning in 1840s London also shows how parks opened by the municipal authorities tried to contain cities which represented a "thinly disguised instrument of crowd control" which would cut down crime, encourage 'moral' behaviour and reduce discontent which would theoretically lead to less criticism or attacks on the state. Such a project in Colombo via the Geddes plan was broadly a failure.
Conceptions of a green city and more long-term planning visions for public health and wellness over symmetrical city plans and temporary sanitation measures bears a long history. Perhaps, revisiting this history from a hundred years ago offers an opportunity to rethink the context of the 'Garden City of Colombo'.
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