Since when the humans decided on living in cities, the problems related to trash, flooding, transport and slums would have surfaced, but the administrations seemed to have worked out solutions according their spending capacities combined with the collaboration of the citizenry.  Today, individual-minded citizens expect the city administration to provide all the services according to one’s wishes, in return for a bill payment.  The administrators too have preferred to face the citizenry only during the election times, leaving the provision of services in the hands of technocrats who work isolated, each holed in one’s cubicle.  

Our reflections on these grave urban problems were inspired by the recent ‘military’ re-engineering of the city administration of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.  As every city is struggling to improve these services, we thought of offering you these general suggestions, with some specific examples on solving problems particular to certain localities.

All these issues are interrelated, and as such, the solutions too should be holistic.  They should be led by a city administrator with a broad and inclusive political vision, reconnecting the citizens in formulating and implementing them.

Solid waste collection:
First, clean up the city streets at any cost; goes a long way to educate people. I myself have to fight the temptation to dump trash at a dirty street corner.

An integrated approach to this problem should begin with educating the actors involved: the vendor, consumer, homeowner and the politician. Pavement hawkers and ambling vendors need to be assigned formal vending spaces because the informal sector carries the biggest responsibility for dumping garbage. City mayors fear political fall-outs, but if the intentions are made clear from the beginning, the citizens will support the actions. The recent recall vote against the mayor of Lima, Susana Villarán, failed because the citizens appreciated her continuing fight to clean up the mess. 

The current price of unrecyclable one-time-use bags, plates, etc., does not reflect the real cost to the society when they litter the streets, clog the waterways, fly in the air and fill up the dumping grounds. 

Putting a hefty tax on them will force the vendors to use alternatives.  Here the municipality should collaborate in subsidizing recyclable alternatives, at least in the beginning, so that the consumers won’t grudge. We all will gain at the end. 

Next, educate the consumers, shop and home owners to separate trash. Here I would include urban composting and gardening lessons too. Municipalities should promote urban organic gardening, on the ground or on roofs, with subsidies on seeds and other products. (Because, they will trap the rain-runoff onsite, reducing waste water treatment costs and urban flooding.) Accompany that with city regulations that oblige every flat, home or office owner to sweep one’s portion of the street, at least once a day. It makes them come face to face with what they throw away around the corner, and not simply pass-on the problem to the municipality.

If the municipality had hired an army of street sweepers, they can now be re-directed to daily collect the sorted trash in their carts and put them in large bins located at strategic points every few blocks. (If the municipality had been using gas-guzzling monster sweepers, better fill the dump with them first, where they really belong!) We will eliminate a major culprit for traffic congestion and pavement damage by making the garbage trucks approach only those collection points; and also those pathetic morning-shows of ‘garbage racing’.

The municipality can send the recyclable items (including organic matter) to rural villages near-by, and organize small business ventures with them so that they return the materials now classified for sale and also the compost.  Sorry, I may have reduced the profitable trash-traffic for the ‘vulture’ businesses, but don´t we have too many rotten politicians that nobody wants to recycle?

Nowadays, who wants to have in his backyard a landfill?  But isn’t every city boundary littered with large building material quarries, mostly abandoned without any vegetative restoration?  These are ideal locations for trash-dumping, as the soil cover there is scraped out to reveal the hard rock. As such, preventing the leachate (water seeping through the trash) from filtering into the ground becomes much easier and cheaper in those lands. After the landfill is closed, we can convert these eye-sores into beautiful public parkland.

Reducing urban flood risk:
The Cities that occupy low-lying river estuaries (e.g., Colombo, New Orleans and Guayaquil) may find it difficult to evacuate rain-runoff when it coincides with high tidal or river flows. Its wetlands which could have absorbed floodwaters may now be buried under many meters of fill.  Besides, bridges, culverts and retaining walls may encroach the water ways, with accumulated trash plugging exactly those bottlenecks, causing localized flooding.  The sediments, products of highland erosion, would elevate the river bed, worsening the flood risk.

City neighborhoods located adjacent to rapid-flowing streams may face flooding and erosion when the stream runoff overflows its banks (Caracas, Rio de Janeiro and Quito). Main culprits in this scenario are those civil works that encroach the water ways and the sediments and trash that makes them overflow.

Over 2000 years ago, our forefathers had shown us how to tackle such floods (  In humid regions, they lived far-between, to make the best use of natural resources, sufficient for every family to get-by.  Even in such rural settings, corporate efforts were needed to live in harmony with excess water and reduce risks.  Their strategies were simple: in higher grounds, they let the most amount of rain-runoff be absorbed by the soil itself; in low-lying areas, they diverted high river flows to wetlands through wide canals to reduce the risk of inundation.

By retaining most of the rainwater at the same location it falls, we reduce the erosion and also the runoff velocity. That, in turn, decreases sedimentation in rivers and their high flow levels. Current climate variations are inducing very intense localized rainfalls (like the 2-hour, 400mm of rain which deluged Buenos Aires in April 2013) and the ancient practice of trapping rain-runoff in soil gains upper hand in such situations.

In Colombo, Kelani River and Bolgoda Lake drainage basins are the most critical areas to begin such runoff retention works. Guayaquil, which suffers flooding most every year, should intervene at the headwaters of the great Guayas River, at least in its closest branches.That would give the municipality more time to evacuate the city-wide runoff, before the river level begins to rise with the arrival of upper catchment runoff.

The farmers in upper reaches will collaborate in reforestation and erosion control works in individual lands as they are the first beneficiaries.  Constructing small reservoirs that trap the runoff, irrigation and spring waters can be augmented. Providing improved irrigation facilities to highland agricultural fields, the municipality can swap or buy-out the less-productive, low-lying fields which really are better off as canals and wetlands. Around a big city, speculators illegally fill even the floodplains, inflating the land values. Thus the municipality should help neighboring local governments to forcefully apply the landfill rules. By linking the streams to wetlands through wide canal systems, you can store a huge volume of water there and prevent the big rivers from rising fast. Such temporary runoff-storage will also help reduce the influence of high tide in urban flooding.

If you can prevent the trash and sewer water from entering a wetland, its value to the society multiplies: beyond absorbing flood waters, it helps decontaminate the grey water; promotes natural fish, bird and plant habitats; moderates the air temperature; provides irrigation water in droughts; permits aquatic transportation routes and recreational navigation; and sends sky-high the commercial land value around it.

The other half of the urban flood issue is solved if we allow the soil to absorb the rain water, even within the city. In addition to home gardens, porous paved surfaces (like gravel walkways or parking lots) can temporarily store large volumes of water under intense rain, and when that water seeps out to the drains, the flood would have passed already.

Such water retention also reduces the peak flow a sewerage treatment plant would have to deal with. These cost savings merit property tax reductions for homeowners who consciously retain rain water within their land. The municipality too should replace as much of its impermeable paving areas. Creating small flower plots, green recreational areas, etc., even in traffic islands, a lot of rain water can be trapped within each city block. New home builders should be encouraged to collect, decontaminate and recycle the grey water, as it will automatically create runoff-traps.

Dikes and pump stations - New Orleans
After all that work, there may still be residential zones prone to regular flooding. If new landfill rules can be strictly enforced, converting these areas to wetlands after relocating the residents may make better economic and social sense. Generally, to ‘save’ such areas, the technocrats try to dike-off water ways and install pumping stations; New Orleans-USA and Babahoyo-Ecuador are two examples. This very costly solution also sets-up a time bomb within the ‘protected’ zone: in New Orleans this exploded during Hurricane Katrina with disastrous consequences. These dikes prevent the free flow of water between the river and the wetland, essential for nutrient transport, fish migration and preventing mosquito breeding; thus, they convert the wetland into a problem area.

There will always be flood-prone spots here and there, but fixed pumping stations won´t solve those problems. Maintain a few mobile pumps at strategic points, in case the need arises.

Easing traffic congestion:
An integral solution to this chronic problem needs to consider not just the poor, but the rich too. Private cars, buses, trains, pedestrians, cyclists: none should have priority over any other. People may shift from private, individual modes of transport to collective modes when the latter is cheaper, quicker and convenient; not because a law says so.

We should create free public transportation services around the worst traffic bottle-neck areas. Yes, travel FREE!  See how it grabs your attention? The same way, it will catch the eyes of the car owners.  Why would you burn gas, bump into crowds, pay exorbitant parking fees and expose your car to theft, if you can move about town, for free?

Travel should be free but only for short hops within the 15-20 block area of the most congested zone. This service can be provided by frequent, small buses running on electric battery-packs (for better maneuverability and reduced emissions) that crisscross the area.  The municipality should install 4 or 5 small transfer stations around this zone for fee-charging feeder-buses. This feeder service may operate between:
1. Transfer stations around other congested areas;
2. Long distance bus/train terminals at the city perimeter; and
3. Cheap and secure car-parking lots, again located along the city perimeter.

To get around the city, people may have to transfer to several buses, so a single fare should take a person to the final destination.  A less frequent, circular bus service is also needed for people carrying heavy packages and for those who enjoy sitting in one bus.  Between more distant points within the city itself, express feeder services can be organized, but at a slightly higher fare.

Providing exclusive lanes for collective transportation is a great idea, but at the end, benefits only those who sell subway systems! Such lanes, in theory, provide its commuters with the quickest and most convenient travel. But their negative effects accumulate: from day-one, they make life inconvenient for other users of the same roads. Half the service on exclusive lanes runs empty, even at peak hours. Since the alternatives become nightmarish, more and more passengers are trapped and squeezed into the exclusive-lane traffic. Slowly, the jam-packed service pushes the better-off back into their cars or taxies. Cursed now by both groups: the jam-packed inside, and the traffic-jammed outside, the exclusive-lane system collapses. So, the citizens clamor for the ‘savior subway’, forgetting its exorbitant costs, as they see no other way out. In only 15 years, Quito is now abandoning its exclusive lanes for the subway.

Within Colombo, the surface train service demonstrates how pathetic the exclusive lanes can be. (I am a great fan of the train, but only for long distance travel.) Within the city, it disrupts the traffic flow; occupies valuable ground above flood level; and makes life miserable for those living close-by. Yes, it moves a lot of people, but mostly packed like sardines, and the same commuters, to reach their final destinations, need to fight the traffic-chaos created by the same train lines. Because, you simply can’t extend exclusive lanes to every corner of the city.

Water ways, while easing flood risks, can provide transportation services too, but I would rather not see speed boats competing for passengers, as seen in Amazon and Orinoco. They destroy the aquatic life and natural stream banks, while creating a noise nuisance, as recently noted by Venice. I would advocate only leisure travel on water, unless you can find an economic hovercraft.

Alternative housing for slum dwellers
This issue is generally considered a social problem, not requiring any infrastructure modification, and the typical treatment just relocates the problem to another area. Every city has its own version of slums, located in the periphery and/or right in the middle of the city center (like in Colombo, Chicago and Bogotá.)  At times, these are in swamp lands, illegally occupied by the poor; alternatively, uncontrolled commercial developments would have grown around islands of dilapidated housing.  The moment any of these slum areas is razed, its land value skyrockets because of its proximity to the city infrastructure. That explains two fundamental characteristics of slum dwelling: in spite of the unsanitary and difficult conditions of living, slum dwellers dearly cling to their tiny, slimy pieces of land; outsiders quickly identify the slums with extreme violence, because that’s the only weapon of self-protection the dwellers have against the speculators circling overhead, looking for an excuse to push them out.

Thus, whatever alternative one offers to slum dwellers should consider not just housing, but also the whole set of facilities they now have easy access to: jobs, schools, transportation, markets, hospitals, shops, etc. One ‘easy’ solution some cities (like Colombo) promote keeps the people in the same location, but packs all of them into high-rise, compact (shoe-box) apartments. Rest of the area is sold for commercial ventures, to pay for the housing blocks. 

In this ‘solution’ publicly funded new infrastructure are not needed, but unless the low income housing area is satisfactorily buffered from the commercial zone, plummeting land values would soon doom the project. Teaching the slum dwellers follow apartment-living norms would not be achieved by clustering all of them together, but by interspersing some role models. Middle-class families can be lured into the buffer areas through subsidized housing, which may also open up domestic helper jobs, small shops, etc., within the community. The new low income apartment owners may not have the means or the experience to maintain the blocks either. So, sufficient initial funds need to be reserved for housing administration till such time when the owners themselves can afford to pay for that.

Complete relocation of slum dwellers may provide lot more funds from redeveloped lands, but the new location may demand a big share of those funds for infrastructure development. Again, only an integrated community, with an intermingled presence of all social classes, may lead to a successful relocation and rehabilitation of former slum dwellers.

All these ideas may not be applicable for all the cities; each idea needs to be polished to fit into each location and each society. However, we would like to emphasize the need to find integrated solutions to these problems, all the while sharing the responsibilities between the administrators and the citizenry.

Kashyapa A.S.Yapa
Riobamba, Ecuador.
April 2013.

If you would like to start a discussion on this theme, please write to me.

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