This will be the first in a series of posts in which I talk about issues of urban development and decentralisation in the Maldives. Having recently seen the blogs/websites of some people on twitter, I thought I might as well join in the debate. Even though I have had these ideas for a while, they were kind of vague and all tangled up with each other. This blog post by Muna Mohamed gave me a starting point. Yes, it’s six years old, but as far as I can tell, pretty much all of it remains true to this day.
The purpose of this current post is not necessarily to argue against the points she made, but to provide a different, perhaps new, perspective on current trends in Maldivian urbanisation which can hopefully allow us to determine the best course of action to ensure equitable, sustainable development.
This post looks at specifically at Malé’s urbanisation woes and at how life in the city can be improved, but does not go into detail about how the levels of development seen in the city can be brought to other islands.
So let’s get started.
The “Malé Experience”
Muna describes the “Malé experience” as what happens when you “squeeze everything under the sun” into an island which is to be developed. She supports meaningful regional development, but objects to the idea of putting other islands through this experience. I agree with her in that no island should be a brick-by-brick repeat of Malé, but I do not object to having everything under the sun squeezed into them, so long as it is done correctly. Many modern urbanists would see huge potential in Malé because of (not despite) the way everything is packed into it. I would also consider Malé to be a diamond in the rough. However, It would take a lot of work on the part of policy makers, and society at large to turn Malé into a shining example of what a modern city should be.
Conflating the “Malé Experience” with High Density Urban Development
I would say that at least 95% of people in Malé have at some point complained about the city being too crowded. I do not blame them – in fact, I was/am one of those people. However, it is illogical to attribute all of Malé’s problems directly to its high density. This is what Muna implied in her post and it leads people to the conclusion that high density cities are inherently a bad thing, which is not the case.
There is more and more evidence every day suggesting that when it comes to urban development, high density is good, and low density is bad. The benefits of high density development range from a reduced dependency on motor vehicles to an increased sense of community and belonging. (Read some of articles posted here and you will start to see some overarching trends.)
This is not to say that there are no negatives associated with high density development. The urban heat island effect and a lack of privacy are two that come to mind. However, with proper planning, the impact of these negatives on the lives of citizens can be greatly reduced. Proper planning is the key term here, as it is the main difference between the “Malé experience” and pretty much every other type of high density development.
Malé – An Example of What Not to Do
The main point of the previous section was that there is a correlation, but not a causation, between the social/political/economic problems of Malé and its high population density. Here I will list some of the points where Malé went wrong from an urban planning perspective. It is important to note that these are not inherent flaws of high density living even though they do greatly reduce the quality of such living.
- Lack of public spaces. If people are to live with each other, they need spaces outside their homes where they can gather and interact without any specific purpose and without feeling the need to serve any commercial interests. To use a metaphor, Malé is a hotel with several bedrooms, restaurants, spas, offices, a multi-storey car park, but no lounges or lobbies. This problem has been somewhat alleviated by the recent additions of Rasfannu beach and Tsunami Binaa Maizaan.
- Lack of greenery. This is of the utmost importance when it comes to planning urban areas. Not only do trees give people a small connection to nature (which is usually absent in cities), but they also provide shade, absorb rainwater, they are nice to look at, and they quite literally bring life into a city. Overall, people just feel better when there are trees around. Again, this problem is slowly being addressed, with street trees being placed in some parts of the city. I remember around 2012 when they lined Majeedhee Magu with palm trees only to remove them about a year later because of something to do with fanditha and politics. That is the kind of thinking that has to change.
- Lack of jobs. This is not an urban planning problem per se, but if you put a whole lot of people into a small space without giving them the means to earn a livelihood, you are asking for trouble. This trouble has already manifested itself in the form of drugs, gangs, violence, broken families and religious extremism. Obviously, a lack of jobs is not the sole cause of these problems, but it does not help. As a result of these issues, there now exists a population that is extremely suspicious of others and in some cases, afraid to go outside. Compare that to thirty years ago, when people did not care whether or not their doors were locked.
- Streets designed for cars/motorbikes, not people. I have said it before and I will say it again: MALÉ DOES NOT NEED CARS. Taxis are one thing, but private cars are beyond ridiculous. I would even go so far as to say that Malé does not need motorcycles. Walking from one point in the city to any other point takes no longer than 25 minutes, but for some reason, “walking distance” takes on a new meaning in Malé. The reason people do not want to walk (besides the fact that they could be assaulted at any given point in their journey) is that there is no space to walk. Sidewalks are painfully small, and they often disappear around corners, forcing people to share the street with vehicles. Personally, I would like to see a complete ban on cars and motorcycles, but I know that is quite an extreme view. At the very least, sidewalks should be expanded making it easier for people to walk. The narrower streets will also act as a disincentive to driving.
There are more points I could add to this list, but those four are the biggest ones which, if addressed, would make people rethink Malé life and high density living/development in general.
It is hard to find a place in the world similar to Malé. But the following examples of highly developed island cities can give us an idea of Malé’s potential. (Yes, they are all islands, but not in the same way as Malé)
These cities are not without their flaws, but proper planning is one thing they have in common. If such planning were applied to Malé, there is no reason it could not become the Manhattan of the Indian Ocean.
Nobody wants to repeat the “Malé experience”, but I believe that we must repeat the “Malé experiment”. If it is done correctly, with all measures put in place to avoid past mistakes, then the future cities of the Maldives would truly be something to behold. The people of the world are moving into cities in greater numbers than ever before, so it is incumbent on the Maldives to show other countries that sustainable, high density living can be achieved successfully and efficiently. In the end, it will be to our own benefit. It will take a lot of work to get to that point, as I mentioned earlier, but I believe that it is worth the effort. Hopefully there are other Maldivians out there who feel the same way.