Leveraging Urbanization in Sri Lanka

September 24, 2015

Sri Lanka Highlights from the World Bank Report, Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability


Although they have made progress, South Asian countries have struggled to make the most of the opportunity urbanization provides them to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations in both prosperity and livability, according to a new World Bank report – Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.  

Difficulty in dealing with the pressures that urban populations put on infrastructure, basic services, land, housing and the environment lie at the heart of the relative lack of livability of the region’s cities. That fosters what the report calls “messy and hidden” urbanization that constrains the concentration of economic activity that could bring about faster improvements in prosperity.

Here are 10 key findings for Sri Lanka made in the report:

  • Within South Asia, urbanization has been relatively slow in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and, for somewhat different reasons, Sri Lanka. For Sri Lanka, official estimates indicate the share of the population living in towns and cities actually fell slightly between 2000 and 2010. 
  • As elsewhere in South Asia, Sri Lanka’s cities appear unattractive to potential migrants from rural areas.  However, unlike the rest of the region, in Sri Lanka this is not so much because of poor urban living conditions as because of the country’s impressive progress in achieving spatial equity between rural and urban areas in the provision of basic public services and living standards. As a result, the impetus for “push” migration – rural residents moving to a city more out of distress than, say, for higher wages – is generally weaker in Sri Lanka than it is for other countries in the region, which may help explain the stability of the country’s urban share.
  • Sri Lanka’s “messy” urbanization is reflected in patterns of sprawl and ribbon development with evidence of rapid growth on the periphery of, in particular, the Colombo metropolitan region and along major transport arteries. This differs from most of the rest of South Asia where messy urbanization is also associated with large slum populations and a high incidence of extreme urban poverty. The share of Sri Lanka’s urban population living below the national poverty line in 2012 was only 2.1 percent, while the share of the urban population living in slums is among the lowest in the region. 
  • Sri Lanka was the country in the region with the fastest expansion of urban area, as measured using nighttime lights data, relative to urban population, with a ratio of more than seven. While the country’s total urban area grew at a rate close to that for the region overall, its urban population growth rate was much slower than for the region overall. The rapid expansion of urban area relative to urban population reflects the sprawl and ribbon development that are characteristic of Sri Lanka’s urban development. 
  • Sri Lanka is one of five nations in the region – Bangladesh, India, Maldives and Pakistan are the others – where official estimates of the urban share of the population are well below other estimates. That suggests large hidden urbanization – in other words, sizable portions of their populations are living in settlements that, although they may exhibit urban characteristics, are governed as rural areas. There are indications that as much as one-third of Sri Lanka’s entire population may be living in areas that possess urban characteristics, but are classified as rural. 
  • Official statistics for cities produced by national statistical offices and other government agencies tend to be based on administrative definitions. Such administrative boundaries of a city, however, often fail to accurately delineate a city’s true built-up extent. In South Asia, Colombo is an example of a city that is “under-bounded,” meaning that the true extent of the city extends beyond its administrative boundaries. 
  • Beyond differing definitions of “urban,” complicating cross-country comparisons is the fact that definitions of “urban” within a country can change over time. For example, in 1987 Sri Lanka tightened its definition by reclassifying town councils as rural areas (pradeshiya sabha). This contributed to a fall in the country’s official urban share to fall from 21.5 percent in the 1981 census to 14.6 percent in 2001. 
  • South Asia is home to a growing number of multicity agglomerations, where an agglomeration is defined as a continuously lit belt of urbanization containing two or more sizeable cities. In 1999, there were 37 such agglomerations in South Asia; in 2010, there were 45. Over this time-period, Sri Lanka saw the emergence of the Galle-Matara agglomeration to add to its agglomeration of Colombo. 
  • Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte ranked highest among Sri Lanka’s DS-divisions (administrative sub-units) on the report’s “prosperity index,” a new metric of subnational performance that measures success in achieving low levels of extreme poverty, high productivity and strong dynamism.  Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte earned a “very strong” rating, while Thimbirigasyaya, for example, was ranked “strong.” The rankings mean these areas outperformed the country average and represent cases of positive relative performance. More generally, DS-divisions in the districts of Colombo and Gampaha dominate the top of the rankings. Karandeniya, in Southern Province, and Koralai Pattu North, in Eastern Province, provide examples of DS-divisions with “average” and “weak” ratings, respectively. 
  • The 2015 livability index of the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Colombo 127 out of 140 cities. New Delhi was the highest of the six South Asian cities in the Index at 110, followed by Mumbai (115), Kathmandu (125), Colombo, Karachi (135) and Dhaka (139).  The average ranking for all developing country cities outside of South Asia was 103.