In this post we’ll be looking at an alternative to the “Malé experience”, namely, suburbs. We’ll see how the idea can be applied to the Maldives and whether or not it is a viable alternative. Whereas Part I was more “here’s what’s wrong with the way things are now”, this part is more “here’s what we can do to maybe fix our problems”. This part will also look at how to bring development to the outer islands, based on the idea of suburban development.
The Concept of “Suburb”
I would say that most Malé people (and probably most Maldivians) do not fully comprehend the meaning of “suburb”. My evidence for this is purely anecdotal: I was visiting Hulhumalé with some family members and I mentioned that it is very suburban. They did not know what I meant. Later, back in Malé, I mentioned that the area we lived in was also relatively suburban.They still did not understand despite my previous efforts to explain.
I do not mean to be condescending by saying they do not comprehend its meaning. But the fact is, when you live in a city that is developed far beyond any other place in your country, and has the massive geographical constraint of being an island which forces people to upwards instead of outwards, “urban” and “rural” (or in this case “މާލެ” and “ރާއްޖެތެރޭ”) are the only concepts you’ll understand, without anything in between. Obviously, this is a general statement – individual experiences can differ greatly, with international travel experience being a key factor in a Maldivian’s understanding of the concept.
The Origin of “Suburb”
Suburb means “an area outside a town or city”, and comes from the Latin sub (“below” or “near”) and urbs (“city”). Suburbs are near to cities in a physical sense and they are below cities in a developmental sense. The literal Dhivehi translation of suburb would be “ދަށުރަށް”.
The Modern Suburb
The following images are examples of what people think of these days when they hear the word suburb. They are satellite images of suburbs around the world taken from Google Earth.
The common characteristics of these areas include:
- Low population density
- Typically no higher than two storeys (Of the pictures shown, Ankara is the only exception. Most of the buildings are 4-5 storey apartment blocks)
- Very few (if any) services or amenities within walking distance
Suburbs in a Maldivian Context
None of the characteristics I just listed apply to Malé or the surrounding islands in any way. However, if the level of development in Malé is used as the reference point, Villingili and Hulhumalé are, without a doubt, suburban. The outer islands (ރާއްޖެތެރޭ), while they do have those characteristics, can only be considered suburban in the sense of “underdeveloped”. Because they are not near any cities, they are not suburban in the usual sense.
Modern Suburbs for Modern Maldives
In order to avoid the “Malé experience”, development in the Maldives will have to resemble the cities shown above. Most people would think I am crazy to actually want suburbs (they have a bad reputation in other parts of the world), but they have probably never been through the “Malé experience”, and they probably have not considered how the Maldives’ unique geography works to its advantage. Whereas cities like Dallas and Riyadh have practically unlimited room for expansion, Maldives does not. This means that if suburban-type development were to take place, it would not be in the same soul-crushing fashion that modern urbanists despise.
So what would Maldivian suburbia look like?
Pretty Much the Way it Looks Now
A few things need to happen before Maldivian suburbia is fully functional, but most islands would look the same way they do now. Let me explain:
Here is what a typical non-island city looks like, with its urban core, suburbs, and surrounding rural areas:
Here is what the same city would look like if it were split into small islands:
The urban core is on one island and all the suburbs are on separate islands, but are connected to the core island by a public transport system. This is kind of how “Greater Malé” is right now.
Connectivity is one of the main reasons outer islands are not developing as fast as people would like. Any properly functioning city will have some form of transportation or transport infrastructure that connects its suburbs to the urban core and to each other. The only reason “Greater Malé” can be thought of as one city is because it is quick and easy to get from one island to the other. Once transport between islands becomes convenient, an “urban core island” will start to gain “suburb islands”. So really, everything that is required to avoid repeating the “Malé experience” is already in place. There just needs to be better connectivity between islands.
Now, the only question which needs to be addressed is “which islands should be developed as ‘urban core islands’?” The answer to this is simple – the islands with the most people. Urban development should primarily be focused on these islands:
- HDh. Kulhudhuffushi
- K. Malé (Maybe not so much here – it has been focused on enough)
- S. Hithadhoo
With a secondary focus on these ones:
- HA. Dhidhdhoo
- Lh. Naifaru
- ADh. Maamigili
- M. Muli
- Dh. Kudahuvadhoo
- Th. Thimarafushi
- L. Fonadhoo
- GDh. Thinadhoo
Other islands will fall into the “greater zones” of one of these, and will become their suburbs.
Greater Kulhudhuffushi (“މާކުޅުދުއްފުށި”)
To give you a clearer picture of how Maldivian suburbia would work, let’s look at the hypothetical case where Kulhudhuffushi is the urban core.
The map below shows “Maakulhudhuffushi” – a multi-island city consisting of Kulhudhuffushi and the surrounding suburb islands – with the estimated time (in minutes) it takes to travel between islands. The travel times are calculated based on my personal experiences with launches.
There is a large number of islands even within a 25 minute radius, but the greater city has the potential to include islands as far as Utheemu, Makunudhoo and Milandhoo, which are all around one hour away.
People living in the suburb islands will have basic amenities for day to day living on their own islands. This includes school up to O level, primary healthcare, groceries, etc. They can easily travel to Kulhudhuffushi for things that are used less frequently, or things that require a larger number of people to be viable. This includes higher education, specialist healthcare, shopping, entertainment, etc.
The way the suburb islands are planned does not matter too much, so they can stay the way they are. As I said before, geographical constraints will prevent the soul-crushing suburb phenomenon typical of western cities. There are some islands in the Maldives beginning to resemble them, but like all islands, there is limited room for expansion.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Looking back at Greater Kulhudhuffushi, you will notice that some of the travel times are quite long. Such commutes for work/school/services are practically unheard of in the Maldives at present, but they are what people around the world routinely have to deal with (sometimes they can be around two hours long). I would say it is a small price to pay to avoid things like forced migration and perpetual neglect by the government.
Along with this one negative aspect, there are several positives about this multi-island, suburban development. One major advantage to the government is that it can continue to be very selective about where all the money goes. This means that there will be adequate development in a few places that everyone can access instead of substandard development everywhere. Also, because nobody is forced to move anywhere, the “Malé experience” can be avoided. People on all the islands can do what they please with the land they have, and no one has to live on a matchbox.
In fact, if the suburbs begin to have the same appeal as they do in other parts of the world, there could be a positive impact on Malé as well. People will start to move out of the city for a more comfortable lifestyle, which would ease crowding in Malé, and speed up the regional development process.
Of course, none of this can happen without some work. I said before that the only thing standing in the way of Maldivian suburbia becoming a reality is a public transportation system. That is only partly true. Technically, it is the only physical thing that requires monetary investment which stands in the way. There are some other things that need to change which may not be so easy.
These other changes are mainly to do with people’s attitudes towards development. I already mentioned that people will need to get used to commutes. This is relatively simple, considering that the alternatives are forced migration or nothing at all. What is more difficult is to get people to think differently about politics and government. This is vital if any of what I said is to be realised. I will not go into too much detail here, (partly because I am an outsider and partly because there are just too many issues that need addressing) suffice to say that we could do with less corruption and in-fighting, and more doing things that actually reflect the will of the people. But this is an issue in itself – if people cannot agree on what they want, the government will continue taking them for a ride.
Perhaps I have made things a bit too simplistic here, but it really does seem to me that this is a viable option for developing the country. Initial investment is relatively small, resources do not need to be stretched, development is equitable, and there is no forced migration. Once people sort out their relationship with the government (which would be the most difficult thing to do), then Maldives has the potential to become one of the few places in the world where suburbs are a good thing. Still, I cannot help but feel that this is all wishful thinking, and that future of regional Maldives remains as bleak as ever.