Sri Lanka is more urbanized than we think!
by Nalaka Gunawardene
October 5, 2015

World Habitat Day logo

The first Monday of October is marked as World Habitat Day. With more than half the world population now living in cities, focus of this UN-designated day is on our urban realities and futures.

The Global Observance of World Habitat Day this year will be held at the UN Headquarters in New York on 5 October. The event will be a high-level discussion on key developments in public space design.

Beginning in 2014, the entire month is also observed as Urban October. It is meant to “raise awareness, promote participation, generate knowledge and engage the international community towards a New Urban Agenda”.

The level of urbanization is an indicator of a country’s economic development and living standards of its people.

So how urbanized is Sri Lanka? More than current official figures suggest!

Although the 2012 Census of Population and Housing categorised only 18.2% of Lankan population as being urban, the figure is misleading. That is because we currently use a narrow definition.

Currently, only those living in Municipal Council (MC) or Urban Council (UC) areas are considered urban. However, some Pradeshiya Sabha areas (the next local government unit) are just as urbanised.

Analysing the key findings of the 2012 head count, the Department of Census and Statistics says that the urban percentage “would have been much higher if the definitional issues were resolved”.

Sri Lanka's cities sorted by population size - From Census 2012
Sri Lanka’s cities sorted by population size – From Census 2012

In its Census of Population and Housing 2012: Key Findings, the Department notes: “Areas coming under all Municipal Coun­cils (MC) and Urban Councils (UC) are currently considered as urban sector in Sri Lanka. Prior to 1987, Town Councils were also included in the definition of urban areas. With the setting up of Provincial Councils in 1987, these Town Councils were absorbed into Pradeshiya Sabhas which fall into the rural sector since then. Although some areas were upgraded to UCs or MCs in recent times, many towns lost their urban status. This leads to underestimation of the degree of urban­ization and comparison becomes difficult over the years.”

The Department highlights the need to “introduce a realistic definition of urban areas taking into account of the characteristics of the population rather than based on pure administrative considerations.”

Sri Lanka’s urban percentage “would have been much higher if the definitional issues were resolved”.

Already, 30% of all South Asians lives in cities, and a massive rise is expected in the coming decades. Sri Lanka is no exception where this trend is concerned.

The total number of MCs and UCs in the country is 64. Right now, the country’s eight largest cities – Colombo, Kaduwela, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Negombo, Kotte, Kesbewa and Maharagama – make up nearly half the ‘urban’ population. All are located in the Western Province; only Negombo is outside the Colombo District.

The balance 56 urban areas include 26 small cities with population below 25,000. “This shows the uneven distribution of the urbanization” says the Department.

Sri Lanka - Urbanizaton by District, as found by Census 2012 (using current, narrow definition)
Sri Lanka – Urbanizaton by District, as found by Census 2012 (using current, narrow definition)

The Census found that in Colombo district, three out of four people (77.6%) already live in urban ar­eas. Batticaloa (28.7%), Ampara (23.6%), Trincomalee (22.4%) districts in Eastern province and Mannar (24.5%), Vavuniya (20.2%), Jaffna (20.1%) districts in Northern province all have urbaniza­tion levels higher than the national average.

Meanwhile, Polonnaruwa, Moneragala, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi districts have no urban ar­eas at all that fit the current definition.

Adopting a more pragmatic and realistic definition of ‘urban’ would be a policy priority. That can help better planning of our rapidly urbanising human habitats.


Nalaka Gunawardene