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Spatial Configuration as a Strategic Agent in the Growth of Urban Areas: the Case of a Small City in Sri Lanka

Sustainability has throughout been rhetoric in urban planning and strategic intervention is often discussed as the approach towards sustainable development. Yet, how sustainable and strategic are the urban planning interventions is a question that emerges when the state of affairs related to the physical developments in our cities is viewed in retrospect. This is noticeable in the South Asian cities where the growth patterns and development trends are quite contradictory to what was envisaged by their development plans. The main reason behind this situation may be the gaps in the understanding among planners on the means of strategic interventions. One of the important agents that the planners need to deal with in this regard is the spatial extent, which cuts across all critical aspects of strategic interventions and which formulates the ground for all affairs of urban environments. Urban space has been an area of interest to many studies in planning, but still demands more efforts for better understanding. Less strategic nature in the planners interventions with spatial dynamics is argued in this paper as a main reason for questions on sustainability of urban projects in the recent past. The paper presents the case from a small city in Sri Lanka where the implied objective of planning was to achieve a sustainable city development by redirecting its future growth through strategic action projects, but failed to accomplish the said objective. In this case of the small city of Rathanapura, located at a flood plain of Kaluganga River in Sri Lanka, a New Town was planned as a strategic project in order to evacuate the existing city activities into a safer site away from floods. Today, after about three decades from the implementation of the project, the old Rathnapura is still thriving as the city, irrespective of the damage caused by occasional floods, and the new town remains as the area exclusive for administrative activities. This study explores this development as a function of spatial configuration which plays a decisive role in directing the growth of a city. The citys spatial composition is analyzed in space syntax method at both pre-plan stage and post-plan stage. The location pattern of urban activities at present situation is examined in detail to test the mutual relationship between the spatial configuration of the city and its activity locations. The analysis revealed that the planned new city had strengthened the urban agglomeration potentials of the old city, instead of redirecting it, and this strengthening enabled the further growth of the city but, avoiding its expansion towards the new town. The question of how strategic the planning intervention to achieve the stated objective of sustainability is discussed.

Key words: Strategic intervention, Spatial configuration, Growth, Urban Activities