Sunday, January 27, 2013

The wetland wonder at Nugegoda

An exceedingly charming and functionally well-conceived, designed and planned park was built and donated to the townsfolk of Nugegoda by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) a few days ago. It’s aptly named Nugegoda Wetland Park (NWP).

When entering the park from the Nawala Road, the first thought that strikes one is what a rich potential the wet landscapes of our country possess as areas for relaxation and leisure for urban dwellers in Sri Lanka. There could be many other locations of this nature in close proximity to towns and urban centres in our motherland. However, the excellent concepts in urban development need excellent leadership to be turned into reality.

Fortunately, the country now has such a leadership to implement sound concepts in urban development into reality through real public goods such as parks, safe roads and markets. The efforts of Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who took over the additional responsibility of the UDA, and the members of the Security Forces in the delivery of public goods and services to urban dwellers in the country deserve much praise.

A park for urban dwellers, though initially appearing as a low-priority project which most people believe can be implemented by anyone, has many potential benefits as a public good. As an asset, it is multi-dimensional. Basically, the park provides a secured space for leisure-related activities such as walking and jogging, or even day-dreaming, relaxing while seated on a garden bench or chatting.
Benefits for residents

The wetland park in Nugegoda has gone far beyond these basics and offers a range of benefits to urban residents: A park with a beautiful setting to grace the otherwise concrete jungle, a planned natural setting with water-filled ponds and canals, providing a sense of peace and tranquillity for the visitors and neighbourhood dwellers, and finally a protected conservation area to attract birds and other wild species. The lotus pond constructed at the headland of the park is most appropriate and attractive. All this in a highly congested urban area in Nugegoda, to address the many needs of the people living in and around the town and commuting to the town centre.

Nugegoda, as a small town outside Colombo, has grown to a major conurbation, recording high density housing and commercial activities with a high growth rate in recent times. During terrorism in the North and bomb scares in Colombo, many small businesses took up residence in Nugegoda as a safe haven. The town grew haphazardly, with little or no physical planning, under the dictates of local authorities. By early 2000, it had become virtually a free-for-all buying and selling market place, with all manner of retail trade.

However, Nugegoda has some unique features for the properly oriented urban planner and developer. It is a hilly area close to the town centre and a flat area that stretches beyond the railway station, originally with an open space as a small park, to serve as a green lung for the townsfolk. This was the original setting in the 50s and early 60s, but bad planning had destroyed its potential for proper urban development.
Nodal point

The town had developed into an important nodal point, linking a string of small towns in the region and joining it to the Colombo metropolis.

Taking advantage of the location, a cluster of girls’ schools had come up in the 50s to meet the educational needs of a rising middle class that had settled in the surrounding areas to commute and work in Colombo. Thus, Nugegoda has also become an educational centre in recent times and some even call it a tuition centre.

Following these developments, the town attracted a large number of retailers and banks to cater to the increasing population. By the late 90s, the town had reached saturation point, thereby creating traffic congestion and other related issues. Poor physical planning coupled with corrupt politics in the local authority led the town to become almost an urban slum. It became a nightmare to drive through the town. Fortunately, the recent construction of an overhead pass on the High Level Road has greatly reduced the traffic congestion in the Nugegoda town.

The shifting and improvement of the market away from the main road and the beautification project had brought a new outlook to an otherwise drab town. The intervention by the new UDA leadership had given Nugegoda townsfolk a respite and indeed a feeling of better things to follow. Thus, the establishment of the wetland park is a great boon to the townsfolk who waited long for some improvement to their urban living.

The NWP has the features of an artistic creation, reflecting a high sense of beauty and elegance that a wetland scape can be put to at the hands of good leadership and craftsmanship. The visitor to the park will understand the layout of the park as he/she walks about it. The peace, harmony and tranquillity will engulf him/her for a moment. For a tension-filled small town this is indeed a unique pleasure.
Glorious days

On my first visit to the park, as I strolled along the jogging track, by the placid canal that joins the Diyawanna Oya at the edge of the park, I was suddenly reminded of the glorious days of the Sri Jayawardhanapura kingdom in the past as vividly described in the Selalihini Sandeshaya.

Inspiring poetic images of the Diyawanna, crafted by the great poet Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Maha Thera, came to my mind: The lotus-covered ponds where white swans glide in the sparkling waters and where the village damsels play on the banks of the river, the temples and the king’s palace rising above the horizon in the distance. As I reached the edge of the park, the wide Diyawanna came into full view as it flowed to join the mighty Indian Ocean some distance away.

Heading home, I reflected on what I saw and experienced. It is no doubt a national asset worth preserving for all times. The people of Nugegoda must appreciate its unwritten values and its multi-dimensional benefits.

Beyond the charm and beauty the park adds to Nugegoda, it has certainly increased the property values in the neighbourhood and enhanced the residents’ living conditions. Replacing a dump-yard with a well-planned park containing waterways and ponds would also enhance the health of the residents. The positive psychological impact of the park would be felt by the people as time goes on.

What does the future hold for this new park? With wear and tear, would it go to rack and ruin in the face of bad management and maintenance? Many good projects in this country have ended that way.

Therefore, I urge the UDA leadership to give serious thought to the operation and maintenance of the park, so elegantly established. The Local Authority may lack the know-how and the vision for this.

Two important issues here are funding and operations. Some form of public contribution and introducing a tax of some sort need to be considered in this context. It is crucial that the UDA leadership take the responsibility and set up a special mechanism for the purpose.
by Prof. Bernard W. Dissanayake - Sunday Observer