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Importing problems: The impact of a housing ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka

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Edward Said exposes how the U.S. stereotype of the Orient is constructed, hegemonized, and reproduced. The cities that the scholars talk about, the administrators administer, and the planners plan are also perceptions. This article investigates the construction of the perception of low-income areas in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as problems by its British colonial authorities in the 1910s-20s. It undertakes the cultural "unpacking " of this continuing colonial discourse. The article focuses on how the "concrete " living environments that had existed for many decades were re-presented as problems andas objective knowledge. It addresses a conflict and negotiation between two European groups: the British and British colonial authorities in Colombo. largue that the tipping point of this transformation was the introduction of the Housing Ordinance of 1915 and that the transformation has more to do with British town planning discourses, of which the ordinance is apart, than with local conditions or indigenous or colonial viewpoints. However, this social production of urban problems must be seen within layers of power stemming from the imperial-colonial structures but mediated by regional officers who varied the practice of colonialism while maintaining the ideology of the "orientalist discourse." It demonstrates that planners and authorities do not have a privileged vantage point to view the city, nor are their positions superior.
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe Vol 8, No 1-2 (2005) 63–XX
© 2005 by AWG – The Arab World Geographer, Toronto, Canada
Edward Said exposes how the U.S. stereotype of
the Orient is constructed, hegemonized, and repro-
duced. The cities that the scholars talk about, the
administrators administer, and the planners plan
are also perceptions. This article investigates the
construction of the perception of low-income
areas in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as problems by its
British colonial authorities in the 1910s–20s. It
undertakes the cultural “unpacking” of this
continuing colonial discourse.
The article focuses on how the “concrete” living
environments that had existed for many decades
were re-presented as problems and as objective
knowledge. It addresses a conflict and negotiation
between two European groups: the British and
British colonial authorities in Colombo. I argue
that the tipping point of this transformation was
the introduction of the Housing Ordinance of 1915
and that the transformation has more to do with
British town planning discourses, of which the
ordinance is a part, than with local conditions or
indigenous or colonial viewpoints. However, this
social production of urban problems must be seen
within layers of power stemming from the impe-
rial-colonial structures but mediated by regional
officers who varied the practice of colonialism
while maintaining the ideology of the “orientalist
discourse. It demonstrates that planners and
authorities do not have a privileged vantage point
to view the city, nor are their positions superior.
Key words: urban perceptions, colonial urbanism,
representation, urban problems, orientalism, Said
Edward Saïd a montré comment le stéréotype
américain de l’Orient est construit, hégémonisé et
reproduit. Les villes décrites par les scientifiques,
gérées par les administrateurs, et aménagées par
les urbanistes sont également des perceptions. Cet
article examine la construction de la perception de
quartiers à bas revenus à Colombo au Sri Lanka,
identifiés comme étant des problèmes par les auto-
rités britanniques durant les années 1910 et 1920.
Il entreprend de « défaire » ce discours colonial
Cet article se concentre sur la façon dont des
cadres « concrets » de vie qui existaient depuis
des décennies ont été re-présentés comme étant
des problèmes et des faits objectifs. Il discute le
conflit et la négociation affectant deux groupes
européens: les Britanniques et les autorités colo-
niales britanniques à Colombo. Nous montrons
que le moment d’inflexion de cette transformation
a été l’introduction du Décret sur le logement de
1915 et que cette transformation est plus liée aux
discours urbanistiques britanniques, duquel le
décret émane, qu’aux conditions locales ou aux
points de vue autochtones ou coloniaux. Néan-
moins, cette production sociale de problèmes
urbains doit être saisie dans le cadre de l’existence
de couches de pouvoir issues des structures impé-
riales et coloniales mais mitigées par l’interven-
tion d’agents régionaux qui ont diversifié les
pratiques du colonialisme tout en maintenant
l’idéologie du « discours orientaliste ». L’article
démontre que les aménageurs et les acteurs
publics ne sont pas des observateurs privilégiés de
la ville et que leurs positions ne sont pas supérieu-
Mots clés : perceptions urbaines, urbanisme
colonial, représentation, problèmes urbains,
orientalisme, Saïd
Making his most crucial contribution to our
knowledge—within the Western academy—
Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) exposes
how the modern U.S. stereotype of the Orient
Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing
Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka
Nihal Perera
Department of Urban Planning, College of Architecture and Planning, Ball State University,
Muncie, IN 47306-0315 U.S.A.
has been constructed, hegemonized, and
reproduced. Like Orientalism, the city is also
a perception. The cities that the scholars talk
about, the city administrators administer, and
the urban planners plan are all perceptions.
This article investigates the construction and
development of a particular perception of
Colombo, the former capital of Sri Lanka
(Ceylon until 1972), in the 1910s and 1920s.
Beginning in the early 16th century,
Colombo had been the capital of colonial
Ceylon under the Portuguese, Dutch, and
British for four centuries.iIt was built and
restructured according to contemporary
European urban norms and standards and was
seemingly well adjusted to the needs of the
colonial community in Colombo. Adapting to
its environment, the colonial community also
evolved with this colonial port city. Yet in the
late 1910s, quite abruptly, the British munici-
pal authorities of Colombo and the newspa-
pers published by members of the colonial
community and the Ceylonese elite reported
that the city was infested by urban problems
such as “bad housing” and “overcrowding.
This article examines this abrupt change in
the colonial perception of Colombo, its
causes, and its outcomes.
Like orientalism, which is a system of
representations of the “Orient” that is “out
there,” the city that we talk about, function
within, and act upon is also a representation
of a “physical” city that is “out there.” Yet a
representation is neither an authentic copy
nor a natural depiction of the original city. In
Colombo, for example, the authorities
viewed certain physical environments as
problems. Despite their apparent unity, there
are intellectual gaps between the representa-
tion and the represented. The correlation
between “ground conditions” and their depic-
tion, the “problem,” is constructed through
interpretations that employ intellectual
frameworks to mediate between the two. The
gap between the represented and the repre-
sentation is evident in Jonathan Barnett’s
complaint: “Unfortunately, architects and
planners have too often reacted to the evident
failure of their theories about cities not by
revising them but by condemning society, and
by indulging escapist fantasies” (1982, 8).
Despite both direct challenges and grad-
ual changes, the urban perception established
in the 1910s is still the dominant way of
defining and understanding cities in Sri
Lanka. Fifty years after the nation achieved
independence in 1948, the cultural “unpack-
ing” of this discourse has not yet been real-
ized. Paying tribute to Said, and building on
his work, which culturally “unpacks” Orien-
talism, this article does the same for the
discourse on Colombo’s urban problems
developed in the 1910s–20s. I shall argue that
the new perception was instigated by the
introduction of the Housing Ordinance of
1915, largely by the discourse of which it is
part and less so by a reading of the local
conditions from a Ceylonese or British colo-
nial knowledge base.
The City as Perception
Understanding urban and built environments
is central to both the scholarship of urban
studies and the practice of urban planning and
management. I shall begin by briefly
discussing the ways in which scholars and
practitioners employ representations to
understand and explain these environments.
In so doing, I shall develop an analytical
framework, approaching the issue of repre-
sentation from the standpoint of a social
construction of urban perceptions and within
the larger establishment of European cultural
hegemony. I focus on the “discourse,which
Michel Foucault (1972) defines as the system
of statements within which the world can be
known, but pay attention to “Said’s critique of
power in Foucault as a captivating and mysti-
fying category that allows him ‘to obliterate
the role of classes, the role of economics, the
role of insurgency and rebellion.’” (Said
1983, 243, as interpreted in Spivak 1988,
The “physical” city is accessed through
representations. The administrators’, plan-
64 Nihal Perera
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
ners’, and scholars’ cities are perceptions
constructed through the definition and identi-
fication of particular sets of social processes
and structures as well as the territory on
which these are believed to be concentrated
as “urban” (see Perera 1996). Paul Hirst
(2002) asserts that the contemporary city can
only be fully understood as a political institu-
tion. As Seymour Mandelbaum argues, the
city is not a system but is principally made up
of particular sets of processes that are classi-
fied as urban (1985). Each observer makes
sense of the city by using intellectual frame-
works of understanding that come with their
own “baggage,” including premises, assump-
tions, biases, beliefs, interpretations, and
narratives. As she perceives and describes the
city, she creates it. The city thus differs from
one observer to the next, depending on the
time and place from which it is observed (the
vantage point), the knowledge and the world
view (the framework) applied, and the
language (concepts) employed to build it.
Despite its partiality and the social power
involved in it, representation is a necessity for
the analysis, planning, and management of
the city. Representations are not false, but
quite the opposite; they give tangibility and
materiality to the city that is “out there.This
mediation enables the scholar and the practi-
tioner to understand, examine, and modify it.
What is false is the perception of “objectiv-
ity” attached to certain representations, thus
privileging them over the others.
This study concerns the establishment of
hegemony for a particular perception of the
city. I have demonstrated elsewhere that there
were four principal stages of European colo-
nialism in Ceylon: the military conquest, the
establishment of a colonial administration,
economic incorporation, and the establish-
ment of a European cultural hegemony
(Perera 1999). The Europeans not only built
cities but also taught the “natives” their ways
of understanding the city, although never
completely, establishing hegemony for their
cultural perceptions and practices. Identify-
ing certain environments in Colombo as
problems, scientifically defining and classify-
ing these, bringing the perceptions thus
developed into circulation, and making the
Ceylonese accept these have all constructed a
superior position for these new perceptions.
The questions are these: How did certain
environments in Colombo in which low-
income Ceylonese lived come to be seen as
problems? How did a view developed in
Britain become superior to the former views
of the municipal authorities in Colombo?
The investigation of the construction of
superiority for the colonial position requires
an understanding of the ideas, cultures, and
histories involved in it. From Said’s (1978)
standpoint, this superiority cannot be seri-
ously studied without accounting for the
configuration of power. Orientalism is a
profound study of the construction of the
“Other” as part of the imagination of the
West. Highlighting the effects of colonialism
on the colonies, Anthony King (1980) argues
that modern planning in post-colonial states
is a European product and colonialism was
the vehicle of transfer. By building on these
arguments and conducting a detailed investi-
gation, this article investigates the develop-
ment of a new urban perception of Colombo
by its colonial authorities in the early 20th
century. The key variable in such analysis is
social power, that is, the capacity of some
subjects to intervene in a given situation, to
impose their will on others by the potential or
actual use of violence, and to transform it
(Giddens 1987; Castells 1989).
Highlighting the significance of colonial
perception with respect to health hazards,
Atkinson (1959), Little (1974), and King
(1976) argue that this was the basis for deter-
mining a great number of the colonial poli-
cies. The central question is, Who represents
what for whom? Politics of representation is
precisely what connects this paper with Said’s
work. Orientalism is a system of representa-
tions framed by political forces that brought
the Orient into Western learning and
consciousness. The Orient is constructed in
relation to the West, as its inferior “Other,
Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka 65
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
66 Nihal Perera
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
and exists for the West. Similarly, the city and
its problems examined in this paper were
constructed for and existed for the British
municipal authorities in Ceylon.
Since these issues of representation were
first raised by Said, scholars have not only
exposed the Euro-American vantage point
that most studies in colonial and post-colo-
nial urbanism have adopted but also
attempted to provide agency to the indige-
nous peoples (see Yeoh 1996; Spivak 1999;
King 1992; Perera 2002). Building on early
studies that engage in social and cultural
analysis (e.g., Redfield and Singer 1954;
McGee 1971), and approaching from a vari-
ety of theoretical perspectives, scholars of
colonial urbanism in the 1970s began to
expose the political and social power
involved in the historical construction of
social space and the connections between
colonial policies and spatial subjectivity (see
King 1990; Ross and Telkamp 1985; Saueres-
sig-Schreuder 1986; Metcalf 1989; Rabinow
1989; Mitchell 1991; Wright 1991; Al-
Sayyad 1992; Crinson 1996; Home 1997;
Yeoh 1996; Kusno 2000).
In this article, I focus on an environment
occupied by low-income Ceylonese and
problematize its interpretation by providing
space for the views of the colonial authorities
of Colombo by separating their views, devel-
oped as part of the colonial third culture, from
those “directly” imported from Britain. By
building on Said’s work and problematizing
the singular notion of “Orientalism” and a
single subject, I will address a conflict
between two European groups: the British
and the colonial authorities in Colombo. This
article focuses on the discourse and investi-
gates the interpretation and representation of
physical realities rather than checking objec-
tive facts for their truthfulness and the expla-
nation of empirical realities.
Necessary and Sufficient Conditions
Three principal factors were instrumental in
the production of these modern urban prob-
lems in Colombo. The first was the expansion
of British colonial involvement in the city
from the original colonial base to a larger
municipal area in the 1860s–80s. The new
municipal boundaries included areas that
were not directly planned and developed by
the colonial authorities, notably those later
viewed as “problem areas. Second was the
collection of census data, which began across
the empire in the 1870s. It provided numeri-
cal data necessary for the identification and
measurement of Colombo’s problems from a
Western scientific perspective. Third, the
Colombo Municipal Council, the authority
that became concerned about these particular
urban problems, was established in 1865.
However, none of the above conditions was
sufficient for the municipal authorities to
identify the problems they did in the late
1910s. Let us first briefly investigate the three
conditions from the British colonial commu-
nity’s standpoint.
In the early 19th century, Colombo
consisted of three principal zones: the fort,
the Pettah (the area adjacent to the fort), and
the outer Pettah (Figure 1). Since the British
conquest of the Dutch territories in Ceylon in
1796, the fort had been the principal domain
of the British colonial authorities. While the
descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch
lived adjacent to it in the Pettah, the
Ceylonese lived further away, in and around
the Aluthkade (New Bazaar). There were
gradual changes to this configuration, includ-
ing the establishment of residences to the
north of the city by a limited number of colo-
nial officials and the intrusion of the
Ceylonese into the Pettah area. Yet the colo-
nial regime mainly occupied the fort, and a
large part of Colombo and Ceylon lay outside
the principal colonial domain until the middle
of the century, particularly until the revolt of
1848. It was in the late 19th century, particu-
larly between the 1860s and the 1880s, that
the size and scope of the city expanded
beyond the fort for its British authorities.
During these decades, Colombo was
repositioned as the capital of the colony.
Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka 67
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
From the time it was established until the
whole island was subjugated to its authority
in 1815, colonial Colombo was contested by
(indigenous) Lankan kingdoms located in the
interior of the island. Even after the British
takeover of the entire island, until the 1848
revolt, Colombo was contested from outside,
principally from the capital of the last king-
dom, Kandy, located in the central highlands.
This pattern of contestation of the colonial
authority changed with the failure of the
uprising; the change was most evident in the
transformations of Colombo in the
1860s–80s. By the end of the 1880s, the
conflict had shifted into Colombo, making it
a contested city representing the larger
conflict between the rulers and the ruled
(Perera 2002). Thus the larger aspect of this
restructuring was mainly the political
centring of Colombo within the entire island
of Ceylon.
By the 1860s, the colonial authorities of
Ceylon opted to upgrade the ports to take
advantage of the new shipping, defined by the
more powerful and larger steam-powered
vessels introduced in the Eastern seas in the
1840s. The Colonial Office selected
Colombo, the port supported by the internal
geography of Ceylon, as the place to concen-
trate port investments, particularly the
construction an artificial harbour. This turned
Colombo into a significant coaling station
and port of call nicknamed Clapham Junction
of the East,ii thus out-competing its closest
rival, Galle, located in the south of the island.
Galle’s advantage was based on the geogra-
phy of the Indian Ocean and its winds, and it
dominated shipping until the 1880s.3
Economically, the success of the planta-
tions reproduced Colombo as the economic
and political centre of Ceylon, but within the
context of the world economy and the
burgeoning import–export economy of the
colony. This is evident in the establishment of
a system of roads to and from Colombo, first
developed for the purposes of subjugating
and administering the island, then supple-
mented with railway lines connecting
Figure 1
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo to other places of import, particu-
larly the plantations and the colonial hill
station of Nuwara Eliya. The port, which
occupied the centre of this transportation
network, connecting the domestic networks
to Britain and the rest of the world, was devel-
oped into a crucial node in the imperial trans-
portation network and the principal port of
Ceylon. This process is thoroughly addressed
in K. Dharmasena’s The Port of Colombo
Within Colombo, the most crucial
changes were the demolition in 1869 of the
fortifications, which connected the fort to the
rest of the city, and the establishment of the
Colombo Municipal Council in 1865, provid-
ing an administration for the expanded city.
During the 1860s–80s, selected administra-
tive and social institutions and functions of
the colonial community were moved out of
the fort area. The larger change included the
building of a colonial residential “suburb” in
Cinnamon Gardens, the creation of a second
district for the British around it where the
new town hall was located, and the transfor-
mation of the large open “field of fire” (the
esplanade), the purpose of which was to
protect the colonist’s fort from its enemies,
into a seafront promenade in 1859. The
municipal area of the 1880s was about 10
times as large as the fort area (Hulugalle
1965), and within it, the former fort area
became known to the citizens simply as
“Fort.” The politically neutral term “Fort”
conceals the colonial power relations in the
fort area, naturalizing colonial perceptions
within the Ceylonese community. In short,
the period between the 1860s and the 1880s
was marked by the expansion of British polit-
ical and cultural space in Colombo and the
development of more authority over the areas
that the municipality would later complain
about, for example, the Pettah, and St. Pauls
In a 1920 report, the chairman of the
Municipal Council, T. Reid (October
1919–July 1924), highlights the new spatial
structure: “well-to-do people live in the
south, Cinnamon Gardens and beyond, …
[and] the poor [are] overcrowded in the north
and the center, where they live near their work
North and Central Colombo is tumbling
into the harbour on one side and into the
swamps on the other” (in Municipality of
Colombo 1923, 17). Like any map, this one is
also a politically charged perception that
established a way to view the city from the
standpoint of a spatial distribution of income
groups (see Edney 1999; Jacobs 1993;
Duncan 1990; Carter 1987). This was super-
imposed on the extant understanding of the
city in terms of racial and ethnic divisions but
gave prominence to economics.
Although the physical environments
identified by the municipality as problems in
the 1910s–20s may have existed before, the
areas with such conditions would have lain
outside the British quarter prior to its expan-
sion in the 1860s–80s. In 1920, Reid claimed
that “the Board [of Improvement] is dealing
with a comparatively poor city” (in Munici-
pality of Colombo 1923, 16). This statement
refers to the low-income neighbourhoods that
had come under the municipality. Yet this
expansion of Colombo did not make colonial
municipal authorities find the urban problems
they identified in the late 1910s.
Adding to the transformation of the colo-
nial perception of Colombo, the (Western)
“scientific” exploration of social problems,
particularly their quantification, also took
root during the late 19th century. Record
keeping through quantified statistical regis-
ters had been institutionalized in the British
Empire in the 1820s (Christopher 1988),
which was a major step towards the catego-
rization, classification, and objectification of
subjects for such purposes (see Cohen 1987).
In south Asia, beginning with estimates in the
early 19th century, census data collection
became a regular activity starting in 1871
(Cohen 1987; Hulugalle 1965). This data
collection was conducted throughout the
British Empire starting in 1891 (Christopher
1988). Still, it was only in the second decade
of the 20th century that the Municipal Coun-
68 Nihal Perera
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
cil employed these figures to identify particu-
lar urban and housing problems in Colombo.
One possibility is that the environments
identified as problems did not exist prior to
1919. However, the evidence does not
support this proposition. The overcrowding
of nine-tenths of the dwellings in the “poor
districts” could not happen overnight, unless
there was some major shift in demographics.
As the density of Colombo less than doubled
between 1871 and 1921, these problems
cannot have been not created by the increase
in population, as was often implied. The
Sessional Papers of 1920 refer to an “enor-
mous and rapid rise in population recently. In
1911 the population of Colombo city was
211,274 and that of Wellawatta [later incor-
porated] was 7,150.… the population of the
present city is nearly 300,000” (Munici-
pality of Colombo 1920, 6). However, the
census data do not substantiate this; they
show a population of 244 163, with the rise
of density for the same decade from 17 698
people to 18 872 per square mile. Moreover,
the 1898 report on overcrowding and the
proposal for “Haussmanization” (Municipal-
ity of Colombo 1923) indicate that these
environments existed before the turn of the
century.iv Yet, as the above report indicates,
there was a sense of urgency in 1920.
As most of the “overcrowded” neigh-
bourhoods were in the vicinity of the port, the
other possibility is that the expansion of the
port and the unequal distribution of migra-
tion, more concentrated in the port area,
caused the transformation. Yet the major port
expansion took place with the expansion of
the city in the 1860s–80s. The transformation
of the port to accept steamers began in 1875,
with the construction of a breakwater, and
was completed in 1883 (Dharmasena 1980).
According to the census, St. Paul’s and the
Dockland Area (later Kochchikade) had the
highest densities. Yet Dharmasena (1980)
observes that the remote parts of the city
grew as rapidly as the docklands until 1901,
after which they grew more rapidly. Accord-
ing to him, this trend is not surprising: As
both the political and economic capital of the
colony, the city drew a stream of migrants
from the rest of the island who had nothing to
do with the port.
The shaping of the particular class
configuration of Colombo described above by
Reid began with the European and Ceylonese
upper classes moving from north of Colombo
(north of the railway tracks) to the south, to
the Kollupitiya-Bambalapitiya seafronts and
Cinnamon Gardens. By the 1860s, the most
favoured location for the elite was Kollupi-
tiya, and by the end of the century it was
Cinnamon Gardens. With the development of
Circular Park (later Victoria Park), the
Colombo Museum in 1877, and the institu-
tionalization of leisure through sports clubs,
the focus of the elite and middle classes had
already established this new centre by the
1880s (Roberts, Rahim, and Colin-Thome
1989). As the lower-income population
replaced the elite and the middle classes and
even occupied their old houses, the north of
Colombo, particularly the area around the
port and railway workshops, was subject to
what was called “the ‘decline’ of the Pettah
and of Colombo North” (Roberts et al. 1989,
105). This change was facilitated by new
landlords who established working-class
tenement gardens as a lucrative line of rentier
capitalism. Patrick Geddes (1921), who
visited Ceylon in 1920, oddly called these
“garden villages.
Garden tenement–type development
produced a higher number of dwellings per
acre in Pettah, reducing the number of inhab-
itants per dwelling (Dharmasena 1980). The
number of houses in the Docklands grew
more rapidly than the population, and the
average household size declined from 5.6 to
5.2 occupants (Dharmasena 1980). If this is
the condition identified by the municipal
authorities as a problem, it already existed
from the 1880s. This was not a part of the
municipal discourse. The densities were
perhaps greater than those reported in census
data because, among other reasons, the immi-
grants who occupied the central areas of
Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka 69
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
Colombo, especially the Docklands and
Pettah, moved back and forth between
Colombo and home, while the dock workers
did night work, making it difficult to deter-
mine occupancies. Yet there does not seem to
have any special way of knowing the same
information in the 1910s.
All of the above evidence points to the
conclusion that the environments identified
as problems gradually evolved from the
1860s and were, most probably, substantially
present at the turn of the 20th century. Dhar-
masena (1980) is confident that the city was
less healthy than the countryside by the turn
of the century, but from when is uncertain.
The evidence suggests that the spatial and
statistical insights provided by the expansion
of the city and the census data, the knowl-
edge, and the analytical frameworks that
existed during that time were not sufficient
for municipal authorities to recognize the
particular living environments as the type of
problems they identified in the 1910s.
The Crucial Factor
The crucial condition (the fourth factor), I
shall argue, is the exporting of urban legisla-
tion from the metropole, the United King-
dom, to the colonies, beginning in the early
20th century. It was the exporting of the
Housing Ordinance of 1915, which followed
the British Town Planning Act of 1909 (Hulu-
galle 1965), that produced the extra vision for
the municipal authorities. Whatever the
conditions that Colombo may have presented,
the knowledge developed in the metropole
made the municipal authorities see those
particular conditions as problems. The new
vision is evident in the language the authori-
ties used: the problems of poverty, disease,
overcrowding, bad housing, and the absence
of sanitation (Municipality of Colombo
1923; Hulugalle 1965). The focus turned on
the low-income population, particularly the
quality of their housing and living environ-
ments, which were identified as problems.
Urban problems were not new to
Colombo, but they belonged to a different
genre and discourse before the 1910s. During
its early decades, the municipality discussed
issues of public health and engineering and
concentrated on roads, water supply, and
sanitary conditions as they affected
commerce and administration. In 1903,
Governor West Ridgeway stated,
The prosperity of Ceylon is dependent on the
prosperity of Colombo, practically its sea port.…
When I assumed charge of the administration of
the colony in February, 1896, I realized the neces-
sity of promptly dealing with the urgent questions
affecting the welfare of Colombo, and … the defi-
cient and precarious water supply and the grave
insanitary conditions of the city (Ridgeway 1903,
These remarks are more concerned with
economic growth and municipal services
than with the unsanitary living conditions of
the poor and the public good. They are more
about the colonial port city of Colombo than
the later-imported discourse on housing the
poor in industrial cities (in Britain).
Yet the discourse was not pure and exclu-
sive. In 1906, the medical officer of health of
the Colombo Municipality, Dr. William
Marshall Phillip, wrote regarding sanitation
the greatest bar to the effective carrying out of
these works is, as I pointed out in my report for
the fourth quarter of 1903, the almost hopeless
manner in which the land has been covered with
houses, no regard having been paid to the sanitary
requirements in the matter of light, ventilation,
drainage, and access for scavenging purposes.
The houses of poor classes, more particularly in
the central parts of the town, are crowded together
in a way which is scarcely conceivable, many of
them being imperfectly lighted and ventilated,
sometimes not at all, while drainage scarcely
exists. All this … is the result of lack of legal
control over the erection of buildings (Municipal-
ity of Colombo 1924, 25).
70 Nihal Perera
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
This demonstrates that the city was
divided, the poor were conglomerated near
the port, and their housing environments
were questionable. Parts of the statement
resonate with the post-1915 discourse, indi-
cating some continuity. As I shall demon-
strate, there was no direct continuity, but
some of these ideas may later have been
incorporated into the new discourse.
The municipality was interested in deter-
mining the level of “unhealthiness” among
the poor. In view of using the death rate as a
criterion, the Act of 1893 required the
production of a death certificate before
burial. Yet the statistics had no relationship to
the health conditions, as the Pettah district
had a disproportionately high number of
young adults (Dharmasena 1980, 137). This
corroborates Dharmasena’s observation that
“Colombo does not appear to have been a
remarkably unhealthy town; nor does the
Pettah stand out as an abnormally unhealthy
district within it” (Dharmasena 1980, 136).
Public health was also discussed in
newspapers, but more as a health issue than a
planning issue (see Ceylon Observer, 27
August 1915, 1468). The suggestions
included proper vaccinations, administration
budgets, charges for rubbish (Ceylon
Observer, 27 August 1915, 1491); proper
light and ventilation were only briefly
discussed. Other issues discussed in newspa-
pers include town guards (Ceylon Observer, 2
September 1915, 1495) and police (Ceylon
Observer, 10 September 1915, 1573), but
there were no editorials on housing issues.
Even the editorial on the Colombo Munici-
pality meeting of 3 November 1915 did not
discuss the Housing Ordinance (Ceylon
Observer, 4 November 1915).
Overcrowding was an issue, but the type
of concern was different. It was something
that the municipality was trying to determine.
In 1901, for the first time, a systematic
inspection of all buildings that were likely to
be overcrowded was carried out by health
inspectors. Yet there were no specific criteria
for determining overcrowding, nor was there
a legal definition of this term. As the size of
the dwellings varied, the inspectors were
given the authority to decide which were
overcrowded. Although notices were issued
to people ordering their departure from those
buildings that were believed to be “over-
crowded,” the conditions (“overcrowding”)
continued (Dharmasena 1980).
Thus, the urban problems discussed
between 1865 and 1915 had some similarities
to the problems that would be identified after
1915. The discussion of overcrowding and
Haussmanization indicates that problems
somewhat similar to those identified later had
existed at the turn of the century. Despite
some exceptions, such as the 1898 report, the
principal concerns, goals, and objectives of
the municipality were clearly different before
1915, and the focus was on the overall city,
the economy, commerce, health issues, and
engineering as a means to solve problems.
The post-1915 discourse thus represents a
leap in thinking that was not developed in
New Discourse, New Perception
The discourse took a sharp turn with the
introduction of the Housing Ordinance, and
the perception of the city’s problems radically
changed for its leaders. In place of
commerce, engineering, colonial community,
and transportation, the focus shifted to the
unsanitary housing conditions of the urban
poor, which—it was believed—deserved the
intervention of the local government. The
urban poor were thus transformed into the
Other, the opposite of those who lived in
healthy environments; they should be helped
and disciplined, bringing the city to order.
Within an year of the passing of the Housing
Ordinance, the Kochchikade area was
declared unsanitary. In certain respects, this
classification and its remedy are similar to
crime and punishment. This new position
taken by the city leaders amounts to an inven-
tion (or creation) of urban and housing prob-
lems. The ordinance had paved the way for
Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka 71
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
the authorities to view the low-income settle-
ments in Kochchikade as illegal and to
assume the responsibility to intervene in the
situation. This new knowledge—the frame-
work provided by the ordinance—made the
authorities see old conditions as new urban
and housing problems.
The language resonates very much what
the authorities in Manchester and Leeds had
discovered half a century earlier in their own
cities. Most significantly, it was to the Board
of Improvement, which had been created to
implement the Housing Ordinance, that the
Chairman of the Colombo Municipal Council
began reporting these problems in 1919, just
three years after the enactment of the ordi-
nance. In a report in 1922, he wrote that nine-
tenths of the dwellings in what were
identified as “poor districts” are “over-
crowded.” In 1926, the Director of Statistics,
L.J.B. Turner, published a “census of
poverty” in the city. He collected data from
394 family budgets, addressing 1 313
persons, and concluded that in “congested
areas” 30 % of the families lived below the
“poverty line.” The poorest in Colombo spent
30 % of their income (15 to 20 Rupees per
month) on housing, and the average number
of persons to a room was 3.8. The “over-
crowding” was on the same scale as that of
Bombay and much greater than that of
London (Municipality of Colombo 1926).
The Administration Report of 1916
addressed the Kochchikade area directly:
It is not only extremely overcrowded and congested, but
it is also covered with badly constructed buildings
which are generally in a dilapidated condition. This
quarter is one of the plague-infected areas. Running
through the middle portion of the block, there is an
extremely foul open drain which receives sewage from
the tenement latrines and cattlesheds and is a source of
constant complaint (“Town Planning” 1919, 2; my
In comparison to pre-1915 discourses,
the above statement represents a qualitative
change in the municipality’s perception of the
city within a very short period: race-based
evaluations were overlaid with a class-based
understanding of Colombo. The emphasis on
the poor is closer to the discourses in Britain
than to previous discourses on Colombo. The
problems were a clear invention, produced
through the classification and categorization
of certain environments in Colombo.vThis is
quite evident in the context of the later hous-
ing discourses of the 1960s and 1970s, in
which housing experts such as John Turner
highlight that self-building by poor inhabi-
tants of Third World cities is not a problem
but a solution to the lack of affordable hous-
ing. Although the condition discussed by the
municipal authorities may have existed, the
problem did not; it is a re-presentation, an
interpretation of certain conditions via a
particular discourse. It is a reconfiguration of
knowledge, map, and control based on a new
paradigm, developed in England and repre-
sented in the Housing Ordinance.
The premise necessary for this exporting
is that the world is objectively knowable, and
the knowledge so obtained is generalizable
and exportable (see Apffel-Marglin 1996).
This generalizable knowledge was viewed as
superior to the local knowledge of the colo-
nial authorities in Colombo, which was
locally produced and not generalizable.
According to Stephen Marglin, the knowl-
edge system of management in the West is
not only by impersonality, by its insistence on
logical deduction from self-evident axioms as the
only basis of knowledge, but also by its emphasis
on analysis, its claim that knowledge must be
articulate in order to exist, its pretense to univer-
sality, its cerebral nature, its orientation to theory
and empirical verification of theory, and its odd
mixture of egalitarianism within knowledge
community and hierarchical superiority vis-a-vis
outsiders (Marglin 1990, 24).
The information acquired by the British
did not represent any empirically known
truths. Instead, it constituted contested
72 Nihal Perera
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
knowledge of a socially constructed reality. It
is not simply that history occurred; the
British constructed this urban perception and
transformed the city into a well-defined,
knowable geographical entity that can be
fully understood through its classification
system. This incidence of interruption in the
discourse, the process of authorities identify-
ing problems in Colombo, highlights the
displacement of the extant concept of “prob-
lem.” For its perceiver, as Matthew Edney
(1999) argues with respect to India, the new
knowledge reduced Colombo to a rigidly
coherent, geometrically accurate, and
uniformly precise rational space within
which a systematic archive of knowledge
about Colombo and its people could be
This representation was characterized in
the interests of the ruling power more than
those of the local conditions. By emphasizing
the moral and intellectual superiority of
Western culture, Europeans were able to
justify the violent project of imperialist
expansion as a civilizing mission whereby the
British believed they were rescuing the poor.
As Said has demonstrated in Orientalism
(1978), the colonial will to know and under-
stand the non-Western world is inseparable
from the will to exercise power over that
world. The production of these problems
defined and established an epistemological
space and a discourse (an “Orientalism”) that
transformed the conditions in Colombo into
objects with European The
conditions thus acquired a specific referent
for the English as a problem.
This process produced the view that low-
income neighbourhoods such as
Kochchikade are abnormal, establishing the
need to do something about them. Moreover,
it transformed elite housing into a model that
everyone should follow. Although the British
did not act directly on the indigenous popula-
tion, by displacing the extant knowledge of
problems, replacing the process of identify-
ing problems, and thus breaching the extant
system of representation, they caused what
Gayatri Spivak calls epistemic violence
(1988, 1990; see also Morton 2003). Tariq
Banuri argues that the intellectual dominance
of the “Western model” derives not from its
inherent and unequivocal superiority but,
rather, from the political dominance of those
who believe in its superiority and who have
been able to devote attention and resources to
legitimizing modernization as Westerniza-
tion (Banuri 1990). As the municipality’s
responses suggest, the purpose of making the
environments of the poor visible was to make
them invisible, a problem to be solved. This
opened up two principal options to transform
these housing districts: either to eradicate
them or to make them “normal,” that is, simi-
lar to the housing of the middle classes. In the
1920s, therefore, Kochchikade was selected
for an Improvement Scheme.
The Agency of Colonial Officers in the
Newspapers in Colombo also got involved in
the debate from 1915, publishing not only
reports but also editorials on housing and
town improvement issues. The publication of
the Report of the Select Committee on the
Housing and Town Improvement Bill in the
British-owned Ceylon Observer of 7 October
1915, marks the beginning of that newspa-
per’s long engagement with these issues. In
this way, the ordinance drew the attention of
key stakeholders in the city—those belonging
to the then growth coalition in Colombo (see
Logan and Molotch 1987)—to the problem of
low-income neighbourhoods. The ordinance
also defined the contours of the discourse.
The hegemony this discourse achieved has
continued into the 21st century.
The incompatibility between the ordi-
nance and the extant institutional and legal
frameworks and discourses within which it
was expected to take effect soon became
evident. Prior to its enactment, a committee
appointed by the municipality made certain
amendments to the original bill. It adapted
selected details to “the circumstances to
Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka 73
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
which these principles will be applied”
(“Housing and Town Improvement Bill”
1915, 1743). With respect to overcrowding,
the committee reduced the enforced stan-
We have considered very carefully the question of
the standard for overcrowding. The Medical Offi-
cer of Health of the Colombo Municipality
informed us that the standard which is at present
enforced by the Police Magistrate is that of 400
cubic feet per adult, and strongly pressed us to
give this standard statutory force. We decided,
however, after careful consideration to adopt the
standard of 360 cubic feet per adult, which is
slightly in excess of the standard adopted in the
Straits Settlements where conditions of life
approximate to those of Ceylon (“Housing and
Town Improvement Bill” 1915, 1744).
Despite the changes it made, the
committee was more faithful to the main
principles and standards underlying the bill,
which followed British planning discourses.
With respect to minimum volumes of habit-
able rooms, despite the adjustments, the
committee leaned more towards imported
standards than to those already being prac-
tised in Colombo, particularly the standards
set by the Medical Officer of Health of the
Colombo Municipal Council. It also required
that every inhabited room receive a minimum
amount of light (“Housing and Town
Improvement Bill” 1915). Despite the
changes, the committee’s intention was to
strengthen the main principles of the bill.
Hence, disregarding the municipality’s own
complaints about overcrowding, the commit-
tee reduced the standards already being
enforced by the municipality. The changes
included the insertion of “inhabited room,”
“habitable room,” and “public building,” but
these were based on the definitions in the
London Building Act, and the definition of
“owner” was taken from the Municipal Coun-
cils Ordinance, No. 6 of 1910, of the United
Kingdom (“Housing and Town Improvement
Bill” 1915). Despite some terms, therefore,
there is very little direct continuity from the
extant discourses to those in use after 1915.
Soon the authorities and the newspapers
began observing the mismatches between the
Housing Ordinance and local environments
in Colombo. By 1920, the municipality
complained that “the chief immediate cause
of the shortage, especially in the better class
of houses, is the Ordinance No. 19 of 1915.…
[Its] passing … stopped the erection of insan-
itary roads, buildings, &c., but it also tended
to stop the building operations so greatly
needed” (Municipality of Colombo 1920, 6).
From 1916 to 1919, building applications
were low and 262 were rejected.
One option was to amend the ordinance
to suit the local conditions. In a report in
1920, the Chairman of the Board of Improve-
ments observes that the ordinance, “with its
numerous amendments, is not an effective
instrument. It needs revision, if not re-model-
ing. Applying its provisions to the plan of
action set above [in the report of 1920], the
Board will reach a legal impasse at every
hand’s turn as it and the Municipal Council
already know by experience” (Municipality
of Colombo 1923, 18).
Rather than adapting the ordinance,
however, the municipality began amending
the infrastructure (the context) to suit it. It
began borrowing and adapting other laws,
such as the Land Acquisition Ordinance, to
fulfil the Housing Ordinance’s “planning”
The Kochchikade Slum Scheme progressed to the
extent that a competition for the lay-out was held
and a design was selected. By this time, however,
the Council had [found that] … the Town Improve-
ment Ordinance dealing with schemes … [is]
unworkable. It, therefore, decided to proceed under
the Land Acquisition Ordinance. Although this had
been done with great success by the Kandy Munic-
ipal Council, it was indicated that there were
doubts as to the legality of such undertaking. The
project, therefore, awaits an amendment of the law
(Municipality of Colombo 1926, 9).
74 Nihal Perera
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
In this sense, the ordinance
prevailed and directed the urban perception in
a new direction. Instead of theorizing the situ-
ation, as the authorities had done prior to
1915, a “theory” was applied to a situation.
As King (1976) demonstrates, the colonial
community has its own third culture, which
results from the transformation of metropoli-
tan cultural institutions as they come into
contact with the culture of the indigenous
society. Within this colonial third culture, the
colonial administrators had been attempting
to develop their own perceptions of urban
problems. But the identification of these
particular urban problems and the develop-
ment of the larger urban perception took
place in the late 1910s, and this change was
directly instigated by the Housing Ordinance.
Nonetheless, the municipality soon realized
the significance of supplying houses rather
than following a negative policy of imposing
legal controls on the construction of what the
ordinance considered “insanitary dwellings.
It became aware that, in the short run, bad
houses are better than no houses—the result
of the controls put into effect by the ordi-
nance. The municipality began appealing to
large-scale employers of labourers to follow
the example of plantations in providing hous-
ing for their own labour force. The public
sector responded favourably and also began
several housing schemes (Dharmasena
1980). In this case, the municipality was
compelled to respond to the situation created
by the ordinance.
Problematizing the duality of colonizer/colo-
nized, this article has exposed different levels
of power and discourses that operated within
imperial-colonial structures of the British
Empire, highlighting the spaces of the metro-
pole, the colonial officers, and the indigenous
population and the interaction among these.
Despite the agency that each group had,
within the unequal power structure of the
Empire, British colonial perceptions in the
colony were periodically renewed by
discourses developed in the metropole. In this
example, such renewal was not actively and
intentionally carried out by any imperial
authority but, rather, was developed through
epistemic negotiations that were strongly
influenced by the imperial structures then in
place. The municipality was also concerned
about what it saw as problems in the city—
mainly related to roads, water supply, and
sanitary conditions—in its own way; the
introduction of the Housing Ordinance of
1915, however, drew local officials’ attention
to the living environments of the poor, but
framed these as a problem calling for official
intervention. The Housing Ordinance was not
simply an isolated document, therefore, but
carried with it a different perception of the
city and a larger discourse through which the
municipal authorities began to see in
Colombo what their British counterparts saw
in English cities. The changes brought about
in Colombo are evident in the municipal
authorities’ realization that the enforcement
of ordinance may have created a new prob-
lem: it reduced construction of houses in
Colombo, making the authorities think that
bad housing might be better than no housing.
Nonetheless, as the narrative reveals,
there were no authentic views operating inde-
pendent of one another, nor were the
discourses always hierarchical and top-down
in direction; rather, they were negotiated,
hybrid, and there were continuities that
blurred lines between categories. The ordi-
nance provided the colonial community and
authorities with a capitalist middle-class
perception of the city developed in Britain,
which, in the colony, was overlaid on racial
and ethnic discourses but gave primacy to the
class discourse. This discourse absorbed the
municipal authorities and various experts,
turning them into objects within the narra-
tive. It renewed colonialism, as it invigorated
the British authority’s power over both
indigenous and British colonial communities
in Colombo. Most crucially, this imposition
of a British perception of the colony violated
Importing Problems: The Impact of a Housing Ordinance on Colombo, Sri Lanka 75
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
the epistemic structure of the locals, both the
colonial administrators and the Ceylonese.
This study also reveals a periodization.
The 1860s–80s were a turning point in the
colonial perception of Colombo, as well as in
the urban development of this city.
Colombo’s authority was accepted by its
contestants, and its authorities expanded and
restructured it as the capital. The next turning
point was 1915–21, when a new urban
perception based on the housing ordinance
was developed and hegemonized. This ended
the urban discourses of the first period of the
Colombo Municipal Council, from
Most crucially, this study has highlighted
the incongruence between representations
and represented in urban discourses and the
significant role played by interpretations in
connecting these. It has also demonstrated
that what the planners plan and the authorities
authorize is a perception built upon interpre-
tations that employ certain frameworks that
are not politically neutral. Besides being
informed by a professional framework, the
planners and authorities do not have a privi-
leged vantage point to view the city, nor is
their position superior. Hence, the study of
the social production of urban perceptions is
central to understanding urban management
and urban planning. The particular social
production discussed in this paper must be
seen within layers of power stemming from
the central administrative structure of colo-
nialism but mediated by regional officers
who vary the practice of colonialism while
maintaining the ideology of the “Orientalist
I wish to thank Wes Janz, Arijit Sen, Gardner
Smith, and the anonymous reviewers for their
valuable comments on the manuscript.
1For the broader context of this argument,
see Perera (1999).
2Clapham Junction was a major railway
intersection in south London, and
“Clapham Junction” serves a similar
rhetorical function as “Grand Central
Station” in U.S. vernacular.
3In 1860s and 1870s, more shipping used
Galle than Colombo (Dharmasena
4Haussmanization was a large-scale
urban renewal program carried out in
Paris under Baron Haussman in the mid-
19th century.
5For a similar discussion on the invention
of places through naming, see Carter
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78 Nihal Perera
The Arab World Geographer/Le Géographe du monde arabe 8, no 1-2 (2005)
To explore how Asian cities are transforming.
The examination of "International development" after the demise of the development discourse established under the US hegemony in the context of discourses such as "post-development," "Development …" [more]
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