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To understand how our urban world is changing, we need to investigate how seemingly technical or natural objects are embedded in our understanding, or in brief, to acknowledge that knowledges (in plural) are political. There are multiple ways of knowing our environment and these multiple ways matter in how we engage with it. Understanding of some influential groups take precedence over other understanding, which we call knowledge hegemony. Therefore, it is important to understand plural knowledges, who produces them, and how some of them become hegemonic. We, the authors of this book, embarked on an investigation to uncover these different lenses and how they affect the way we live in our cities. The investigations were based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This illustrated book presents some of our findings and questions we engage(d) with.
This publication is based on research funded by the British Council (SSRP No 524891414).
The authors would like to thank Veranaga Wickremasinghe for her assistance in the eld.
People construct cities and our understanding of them changes
the way we build, operate, and live in/with them. Kirulapana
Canal, the central subject of this book presents these changes
very well. Early records show that the Dutch colonizers saw the
canal as a transport means. Probably due to the presence of a lot
of transport canals in and around the Netherlands, the colonizers
were conditioned to understand canals as transport routes. They
built bunds and other infrastructure to be able to use it as a
transport canal.
The British took over from the Dutch and colonized Sri Lanka.
The British colonial understanding of Kirulapana Canal was
as a drainage system. They altered the landscape to be able to
drain the marshy lands of the then Colombo. After Sri Lanka’s
independence, Kirulapana Canal remained a drainage system
and now the government intends to develop an inland water
transport system on it.
To understand how our urban world is changing, we need to investigate how seemingly technical or natural objects are embedded
in our understanding, or in brief, to acknowledge that knowledges (in plural) are political. There are multiple ways of knowing
our environment and these multiple ways matter in how we engage with it, e.g., from Kirulapana Canal being a transport route
to it being a drainage system. Understanding of some inuential groups take precedence over other understanding, which we call
knowledge hegemony. Therefore, it is important to understand plural knowledges, who produces them, and how some of them
become hegemonic. We, the authors of this book, embarked on an investigation to uncover these different lenses and how they affect
the way we live in our cities.
The project was to learn from Kirulapana Canal, from a health
and knowledge (what we call hydrorationality) perspective. The
project team members did participatory observation, more than
40 qualitative interviews, and archival research in 2020 & 2021.
This illustrated book brings some results of the project to be
shared with other researchers, policy makers, and as a teaching
How many Kirulapana
Canals are there in Colombo?
Dialogue 1:
Why do we nd something beautiful?
Philosophers in ancient Greece to mathematicians in ancient India, have dwelled into the question of beauty, to articulate a rational
mathematical model. They came up with something, which is now called the golden ratio. A perfect proportion, a number series,
which is considered divine and can be seen in nature. Ancient Greek architecture to modern architects has designed their buildings
in accordance with the golden ratio. The way they understood nature reected in the way they changed it.
However, can we dene beauty so objectively, with a formula?
Let us look at this pen. How will you judge this pen? Maybe on
its ability to write, its weight, or maybe its design? What if you
were told that the pen was used to sign the constitution of Sri
Lanka into effect? Will you then judge the pen for its design or for
its historic value? The moment the pen’s history is revealed, its
usefulness as a writing tool diminishes. The way we understand
the pen, leads to the way we treat it, e.g., maybe rather than
writing we will preserve it in a museum.
Dialogue 2:
Who construct the stories?
So stories behind objects matter on how we see and interact
with it. Who construct these stories? The pen used for signing
Sri Lankan constitution into effect is collective history. However,
your grandmother’s pen is uniquely signicant to you. Stories are
always associated with people, constructed by people, and has
different importance. In a similar way, we identify with cities and
objects therein. Let us explore how we construct stories about
the objects in the city and how those stories determine how we
interact with them.
Dialogue 3:
How do we know Kirulapana is a canal and not a lake?
Let us look at Kirulapana Canal. We feel it is a canal because we
see it in this way. However, can it be a long lake?. Whether an
elongated lake or a canal, how do we understand the canal? Let
us look at three examples below. Here, six different people engage
in a dialogue about the Kirulapana Canal (let us call it a canal,
because most people call it that way!) 5
Dialogue 4:
Can Kirulapana Canal be used for transportation?
There is a lingering smell which
comes from the canal. How can we
use it for transport, when we will
be smelling this all the time when
on a boat. It is not feasible.
This canal has the potential to be
used as a transport system. We
need to have a water management
system, which will account for
water uctuations due to rain and
regular dredging
NOTE: Note how for the same question of transport, the two people constructed different issues for the canal: sensory aspect of smell versus the engineering of water
management. (Two different canals)
who is an engineer
who lives close to the canal
NOTE: See how for one person, the canal offers an activity which is meditative. However, in contrast, the same activity is
laden with health concerns. Benets to mental health vs physical effects of eating sh! (again two different canals)
Dialogue 5:
Can Kirulapana Canal be used for shing?
It is nice to sh in the canal. I get
some sh, which comes from the
sea. However, it is a hobby. I enjoy
shing and it is very meditative.
Even when I do not catch any
sh, I feel good about shing.
Look at the canal, it is dirty. The
water is not clean. The sh in
it eat this pollution and are not
good for human consumption.
We should not allow people to
sh in the canal, it is dangerous.
who sh on the canal during weekends
who lives close to the canal
NOTE: See how the aesthetics of canal has been pictured differently. For one person it is visual, for the other it is physical access to the canal. (again two different
canals, contemporary versus historical/imagined)
Dialogue 6:
What aesthetic qualities does Kirulapana canal bring?
It is nice to have the canal here. I
know it is polluted, but we live on 8th
oor and it does not smell. However,
the view is incredible. The colour of
the water is different based on the
sun. I love sitting on my balcony and
viewing the canal. The canal used to be very different
when we moved to Colombo. There was
no embankment, the water used to
be clean. We used to often bath is the
canal, there were also people who used
to wash their clothes. That time, the
canal was a very active public space.
who lives in a rich condominium
who lives right next to the canal
Dialogue 7:
Knowledges are political
How we know the canal depends on who we are. Each of the six people above have their own Kirulapana Canal. Knowledges are
subjective (depending on the person) and in that way inherently political [1]. Based on the dialogues above, there are multiple canals.
The physical canal is the same, but is understood differently by different people and this matters on how they treat and understand
the canal.
[1] Palat Narayanan N (2022) Dislocating Urban Theory: Learning with Food-Vending Practices in Colombo and Delhi. Antipode 54(2): 526–544.
Do you know the crocodiles?
When people talk about the urban environment they mean things
both thought of as “natural” or quasi-natural such as plants and
non-human animals or even the air, and those often seen as
“unnatural”, for example water pipes, rubbish and air pollution.
Many social scientists argue that no part of the environment is
inherently “natural” or “unnatural”, nor is it neutral. The city
itself is the result of what we term socio-ecological transformation
- that is the circulation and reworking of the environment and
social systems to produce the city.[2] Thus for social scientists the
urban environments are inherently political, but it is also affective
and symbolic. Natural scientists on the other hand focus much
more on what is measurable and observable in the environment.
Ethologists working on urban animal life for example may focus
more on how life in the city shapes animal behavior and how
this may differ from life in the “wild”. These two understandings
(social and natural science) don’t negate each other but instead
emphasise different ways of knowing environmental change.
[3] In this section we focus on social ways of understanding the
environment, and specically on understanding Kirulapana’s
[2] Cornea, NL (2019) Urban Political Ecology. in Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press.
[3] See for example: Brua, M, Sinha, A (2019) Animating the urban: an ethological and geographical conversation. Social and Cultural Geography 20(8):1160-1180
The ways that people know the environment, the ways they
characterise it, understand it, and interact with it is thus loaded
with multiple meanings derived from multiple knowledges,
embodied knowledge, personal and collective memories, myth
making and different forms of observation and measuring all shape
how the environment is known. If knowledge is a construct, it is
also an assemblage, we know by drawing on a range of information,
each source of which is valid, real and useful to the knower. Here
we use the Kirulapana Canal and it’s non-human inhabitants as
a lens to think about the ways in which the environment is both
inherently political and politicised in its knowing.
While the Kirulapana is contained and controlled to avoid the
normal erosion from owing water it remains a living waterway,
inhabited by a range of non-human animals. Fish, birds, monitor
lizards and infamously crocodiles use the canal alongside
of humans. The estuarine crocodiles [4] are perhaps the most
famous residents in the canal but how they came to inhabit
the Kirulapana is point of contention. In thinking through the
crocodiles and what they tell us about knowledge, the canal and
the city more broadly we begin with what is generally known
and accepted about the crocodiles - the points that people agree
with, what some people might see as the “facts”.
[4] Attanayake, Dimuthu. (2018) Colombo: The City of Crocodiles’. Sunday Observer,
19 August 2018.
Our respondents agree that the crocodiles are something new,
most remember seeing them only from the last decade, and
their stories have them being introduced to the canal over the
last 40 years or so. We are less interested here in discovering
how exactly the crocodiles came to be in the canal, and more
in how people understand their presence. Myths and “common
knowledge” do as much work in helping people to understand
and order their world, and express their socio-political realities
as “objective” facts. Generally agree on time, but most who could
offer an explanation of how they came to be there connected their
presence to political spaces or events.
If there is general agreement over the newness of the crocodiles in
the canal there is less on how they came to be there, though the
vast majority connect the crocodiles to political spaces or events.
The most common explanation, for those who could offer one, is
that the crocodiles were originally found in Diyawana Lake, the
waters that surround the parliament building and have in recent
years made their way further into the canal system. A number
of respondents explained that the crocodiles were placed in
Diyawana to protect the parliament building from LTTE ghters
who could enter Colombo by swimming up through the canal
system to the parliament itself. In this explanation the crocodiles
are enrolled into militant infrastructure intended to protect those
in power from those who might grasp it.
The second political event the crocodiles are linked to (though
less commonly) is the need to protect those whose power is newly
valued, namely the elite residents of Havelock City - a modern
high rise development situated at the corner of Havelock Road
and Kirulpana Canal. Havelock city is a contested development
that has displaced low income residents to enable a luxury gated
community [5] that according to the architect seeks to bring “New
Urbanism” to Sri Lanka [6]. A respondent in a nearby low income
settlement explained to us that a high ranking political actor
came to the opening of Havelock city and found the appearance
of their settlement lacking and elite residents they hoped would
invest and live there. Thus the housing department was ordered
to start the process of clearing the informal settlement and the
people were at risk of eviction and losing their homes. Not only
was the sight of their settlement unacceptable – but those who
lived there and people like them (the poor) were seen as a threat
to the residents of Havelock City. Thus, she insists the crocodiles
were introduced to prevent people from accessing Havelock via
the canal. Here to nature and non-human animals form a defence
assemblage one intended (or so the telling goes) at keeping those
with power safe from those with less.
[5] Nagaraj, Vijay Kumar. (2016) From Smokestacks to Luxury Condos: The Housing
Rights Struggle of the Millworkers of Mayura Place, Colombo’. Contemporary South Asia
24(4): 429–43.
[6] Dhammathilaka, Senaka. (2011) ‘Havelock City in Colombo: An Advocacy of “New
Urbanism” to Inculcate a True Urban Culture’. Sri Lanka Journal of Real Estate 5:
Both of these crocodile stories begin to capture the ways in which
myths, like any other discourse or imaginary are politically
active. Urban Political Ecologists and others have argued that
nature and social constructions of nature are “materially and
symbolically produce[ed]”.[7] Through the crocodile stories history
and historical conict in the former, and the politics of desirability
in the latter are understood through nature and the very presence
of non-human animals in the city. In knowing the crocodiles our
respondents produce ideas about politics and place, the war and
the ways it shaped urban socio-natures in Colombo and shifting
ideas of who and what spaces count in modern Colombo. Their
knowledge of the crocodiles intertwines with their knowledge of
place, history and contemporary dynamics. Crucially we don’t
seek here to validate or disprove the knowledge of the residents
we spoke to, fundamentally it doesn’t matter if their explanations
for the crocodiles align with any objective reality (if such a reality
could in fact be determined) what matters is what people know
and how this knowledge shapes the ways they navigate the city.
[7] Saguin, Kristian. (2014) ‘Biographies of Fish for the City: Urban Metabolism of
Laguna Lake Aquaculture’. Geoforum 54: 28–38.
Is the canal a healthy place
to live, work and play?
As we have seen, the canal means different things to different people at different times in their lives. One interesting aspect to
consider is how people living and working near the canal view its state of cleanliness.
Pollution is a serious threat to many urban rivers and canals and local people viewed the Kirulapana as polluted and dirty. Their
evidence for this was based on the garbage in the water; a bad smell; and reduced sh numbers, poor quality and higher mortality,
and this was blamed on pollution from local houses and businesses.
We perceive using our senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. However, our perceptions also take into account our knowledge
and experiences, and the knowledge and experiences of others passed on in stories and reports. These rumours might be from a
different time or place, they may have changed in their multiple tellings, and they might be unconnected to any evidence but they
are powerful and affect how we understand environments and behave in them.
When we look at the river we can observe objective signs of
pollution such as garbage and dead sh or animals, but perceived
pollution can have an important impact especially when the causes
are unclear, mysterious or based on speculation. For example,
some people living around the Kirulapana canal considered that
sewage was no longer entering the water from local houses but
that ‘the germs are still there’. These considerations would have
been important when deciding whether to eat sh caught in the
In the case of the Kirulapana canal some people considered that
industrial chemical pollution harmful to sh was present and they
linked this to specic factories upstream. However, there was a
lack of agreement on this and other people did not consider that
harmful chemicals were present in the water. A lack of evidence
and transparency in such circumstances can fuel rumours and
affect behaviour, for example around eating food from or playing
in the water.
Throughout the world there are different perceptions and beliefs
around food safety and what is good or not good to eat. These can
be based on many factors including religion, cultural practices
and ideas of what constitutes a healthy diet. A further factor is
the enjoyment we gain from an activity that might be risky; in
some cases the enjoyment or thrill is directly linked to the risk
It is possible to objectively assess the quality of water and the safety
of food, for example testing for the presence of certain chemicals,
bacteria or heavy metals. However, without this information the
communities living and working around the canal have to rely on
other factors which contribute to their perceptions of risks and
how they interact with the environment on a daily basis.
When we think of Kirulapana in terms of health, we can take
a broad view in-line with the World Health Organization which
denes health to be a state of physical, mental, and social well-
being and not merely the absence of disease.
Perceptions of the canal are closely connected to health and ill-
health ideas and beliefs, and the idea of Kirulapana as a healthy
place for recreation has changed over time and particularly since
the 1970s, with older local people reminiscing of their happy
childhoods playing in and around the water. Some older people
mentioned that they felt the canal had deteriorated over time
and this was a loss for the current generation of children who
could not play in the water saying, ‘kids don’t have the childhood
we had’. Nostalgia and happy memories around the innocence
of childhood can be powerful, but may or may not necessarily
accurately reect conditions then and now.
Some residents connected their negative perceptions of the
canal in terms of smell to physical health impacts, for example
child sickness. Some reported unbearable smells and reported
‘sometimes we cannot even eat as it’s very smelly and disgusting’.
The smells thus also have an impact on mental health and
wellbeing in that they affect people’s enjoyment of their homes,
and there is no control or respite from this situation for those
affected, all factors which can amplify the effects.
The smells were attributed to various sources including sewage,
garbage accumulating, mud and boats- some of these such as
sewage could have serious physical health implications. However,
further investigation is currently needed to nd and address the
causes and to return the canal to a health-promoting environment
for those who nd it to be a negative factor for physical and mental
Whilst access to green space has long been recognised as positive
for physical and mental wellbeing, blue (watery) space is also
increasingly seen as important. Living near to blue spaces,
whether fresh or salt water has been reported to benet mental
health and wellbeing, and for the benets to be greater for poorer
communities. Indeed, one person reported enjoying the ‘cool
breeze and good air’ from the canal area. Some local people
reported a loss of trees/ green space and a loss of bathing facility
over the years and restoring this could bring health and wellbeing
benets to the local communities for the long-term.
In this book we have tried to illustrate the ways that knowledges
are plural and always political. To do so we have focussed on the
Kirulapana Canal in Colombo, Sri Lanka and given primacy to the
everyday situated knowledge of those who live and work along the
canal’s path. As you can see there are many Kirulapanas, for some
it is a space of leisure or beauty, for others the focus of nostalgia
in contrast to its present state which they see as less than it was
before. It can support health or threatens it. The crocodiles who
inhabit it are not neutral neighbours but symbolic of moments
of political upheveal. While we focus here on the canal, these
ndings reect broader insights into the ways that people know
and interact with the city as a whole. For each of respondents their
Kirulapana is the real Kirulapana, it is the canal they perceive,
live with and know; in turn these understandings shape the ways
they interact with the canal. Each of these understandings is as
valid as the next.
In reading this book you may have noticed that each section
presents information in different forms and with a different tone.
These differences reect the three authors who contribute to the
book and are intentional. There are multiple ways of knowing and
multiple ways of sharing what we know. We invite you to consider
how these different styles of communicating knowledge shaped
your engagement with it. In turn to question why that is.
This work is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International. To view a copy of this license, visit
Suggested citation:
Palat Narayanan, N., Cornea, N., & Dhesi, S. (2022). Ways of Knowing (P. Shreshta, Illustration.), DOI : 10.5281/zenodo.7022902
Natasha Cornea is an Associate Professor
in Human Geography at the University of
Birmingham (UK). Her research explores
everyday governance and the politics of urban
environments in Southern cities.
Surindar Dhesi is an Associate Professor in
Environmental Health and Risk Management
at the University of Birmingham. Her work
focuses on health inequalities and protection
of vulnerable members of society.
Nipesh Palat Narayanan is an Assistant
Professor at the Institut National de la Recherche
Scientique (Canada). His work explores
knowledge hegemonies by investigating
everyday infrastructures, informal practices,
and culinary cultures.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
This paper outlines continuity and change in official spatial practices in Colombo, Sri Lanka, by weaving together two narratives. The first is the story of the transformation of Sri Lanka’s first textile mill, also a crucible of working-class struggles and the Left movement, into the country’s largest luxury residential and commercial enclave. The second is an account of the struggle for housing and land rights of a community of former mill workers and their descendants. The paper highlights the importance of histories of particular places and communities in illuminating processes and politics of planned urban transformation. It underlines the importance of grasping the dynamics of official spatial practices through the lived experiences of those most exposed to these practices as opposed to understanding them through mainframes such as planning or aggregated citywide impacts. The paper concludes by critically positioning the current spatial practices of the Urban Development Authority in a post-war context and considering their political implications and the possibilities of framing resistance and alternatives.
Architect, Havelock City Project Urbanity is characterized by the agglomeration of human beings into specific geographic locations in pursuit of collective solutions to common problems; and to achieve common aspirations. These aspirations may include security, economic opportunities, physical and social infrastructure, as well as the rich human interaction that is facilitated by the physical structuring of urban space. Thus, the density of habitations that is an inherent characteristic of urbanity facilitates the economization of urban infrastructure. Such economization facilitates the concentrated deployment of physical resources as well as the concentration of public transportation networks and the discouraging of individual vehicle usage. However, the contemporary trends of urban development that give rise to "urban sprawl" through aspects such as zoning codes and the development of suburbs appear to work against this nature of urban living. The American movement of "New Urbanism" that originated in 1980s can be seen as a reaction to such trends that threaten the survival of distinct local community cultures that depend on the primary character of urbanity. New Urbanism can be seen as an argument for "high density development" as opposed to the "sprawling megalopolis" 1 that characterizes contemporary urbanization (Lewis, 1961). The spread of a low density urban development over a vast area is seen to necessitate the individual vehicle usage, increase the demand for transport related land-use and also the disruption of the urban culture. Thus, New Urbanism advocates mixed-use neighbourhoods as in European cities and encourages "walk-able" neighbourhoods where vehicle usage is discouraged. Proponents of New Urbanism favour traditional neighbourhood design. They share the views of Lewis Mumford who observes medieval city design as a suitable basis for urban development and advocate a pedestrian oriented growth of urban habitations. In view of the above, a strategy to incorporate the ideals of New Urbanism in the Sri Lankan urban context may only be practiced in mixed developments of mega scale. These may provide a suitable mix of civic activities within a sustainable neighbourhood that will reduce the dependence of residents on the automobile and create sustainable urban neighbourhoods. If proper design strategies are incorporated, these pedestrian oriented neighbourhoods may effectively separate pedestrian pathways from vehicular traffic and feature a healthy component of public spaces. Such well designed "urban housing" in contrast to rural or suburban houses, would foster a spirit of community. Such design should reflect how the strength of an urban community is harnessed to create an environment where the urban dwellers can relate to each other. The spatial structuring of such urban habitats would create spaces that are conducive for congregation and interaction that would counteract social isolation and alienation that characterize contemporary city life.
To view a copy of this license
This work is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International. To view a copy of this license, visit Suggested citation: Palat Narayanan, N., Cornea, N., & Dhesi, S. (2022). Ways of Knowing (P. Shreshta, Illustration.), DOI : 10.5281/zenodo.7022902