The Report provides an analysis of the spatial attributes of Sri Lanka’s urbanization, an overview of its people and functions and examines city economies, urban housing, municipal services, urban connectivity and municipal transport, climate risk and resilience, and governance.

Spatial Attributes of Sri Lankas Urbanization

This chapter assesses the spatial attributes of Sri Lanka’s urbanization, drawing on research conducted in the nine provincial capitals. First, the chapter gives a brief historic perspective of urbanization. Second, it provides an account of the urban growth over time and compares approaches for monitoring urban growth and urban form. Third, it provides an assessment of the morphology of Sri Lanka’s cities, highlighting the challenge of urban sprawl and opportunities offered by compact cities. The assessment reveals some key findings requiring policy responses at the national and local level.

Sri Lanka’s urban areas in 2012

No. municipalities

Urban population

Population of capital
North Western
North central
Sri Lanka

Source - Data from Department of Census and Statistics

Notes: In the following cases the Capital is not the largest town in its Province: *The largest town in the Eastern Province is Kalmunai (pop. 99,893), followed by Batticaloa (pop. 80,227); ** the largest town in the North Western Province is Puttalam (pop. 45, 511).

Sri Lanka is currently at an urban paradox. According to the last census (2012), the small island was populated by 20.359 million people, including 3.714 million urban residents (or 18.1 per cent of the population), living in 64 municipal areas (Table 1). This small urban population meant that the country ranked as the 11th least urbanised country on earth in the 2018 United Nations World Urbanisation Prospects (UNDESA, 2018). There is considerable evidence, however, that official urban population data masks the true scale of the country’s urbanisation. According to the agglomeration index, an alternative measure of urbanisation that uses multiple indicators, Sri Lanka’s urban population is between 35 and 45 per cent of total (Uchida & Nelson, 2010), while recent Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) policy documents estimate a 50 per cent urban population (GoSL, 2017a). There is also evidence of significant urban growth from night-time light analysis (Ellis & Roberts, 2015).

Sri Lanka’s urban paradox is most readily apparent in the representation of its capital, Colombo: the primate city and economic centre of country. Colombo’s official population is 586,000. However, the  boundaries of the of the ‘Western Megapolis’, the conurbation associated with the city, registered a population of around 5.8 million in 2012 – ten times that of the official population, and larger than the country’s total official urban population (GoSL, 2016).  This report provides evidence that Colombo is associated with a large urban conurbation, which has experienced rapid spatial growth over the past decade (Fig x). It also shows large conurbations and rapid urban growth across the country.  

Urban areas in 1995 (L) and 2017 (R) in Colombo Metropolitan Region (Western Megapolis)

Source - SoSC Project

Resolving Sri Lanka’s urban paradox and developing a better understanding of the country’s cities is an important issue because policy makers are increasingly focused on urban development. Indicative of this trend, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development was inaugurated in 2015 to promote the Colombo Metropolitan Region as a sustainable urban conurbation and regional hub of trade and investment. In addition, key strategic documents, including Vision 2025 and Public Investment Programme 2017-2020, have positioned cities at the heart of the country’s development, and urbanisation as a powerful tool to rebalance economic opportunities to the conflict-afflicted Northern and Eastern Provinces  (GoSL, 2017a, 2017b).

Planning for a better urban future requires evidence-based policies that address challenges and harness the opportunities of urbanisation. The most obvious indicator of the urban data deficit is the widely ranging figures of the size and rate of growth of the urban population. The difference between an urban population of 18 per cent and 50 per cent suggests the absence of an appropriate, accepted definition of what constitutes an urban area. Such ambiguity presents significant barriers to understanding urban systems and so constrains effective urban policy making.   

Sri Lanka's urban population (as per cent of total) 1963 to 2012

Source - data provided by Department of Census and Statistics

Today, a low official urban population means Sri Lanka is still considered (mistakenly, as this chapter shows) one of the least urbanized country’s on earth. According to the recent 2018 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) World Urbanization Prospects, which is based on national census data, Sri Lanka’s urban population is 18.5 per cent of total, placing it as the 11th least urbanized country on earth (UNDESA, 2018). Its rate of urbanization is also exceptionally low in relation to its South Asian neighbours: during the period 2000-2010, Sri Lanka’s urban population grew at less than 0.5 per cent per year – by far the slowest in South Asia. Past underestimations of urban growth also have implications for future projections, limiting understanding of key urban trends: drawing on past trends, UNDESA predicts that Sri Lanka’s urban population will increase by less than 1 per cent per year from 2015 to 2020, and by 2050 will remain the 12th least urbanized country on earth.

Average annual rates of urban expansion (per cent) across the globe*

Source - Sri Lanka, SoSC Project ; Others, Seto et al. (2014) * Sri Lanka reference period 1995-2017 for 9 provincial capitals; Others, 1970-2000

The SoSC spatial analysis revealed that the built-up area in and around Sri Lanka’s provincial capitals has expanded rapidly over the past two decades. On average, the 9 provincial capitals expanded at a rate of 6.48 per cent per year (Fig 2.4) driven by economic growth and population increase (See Box 2.1) The rate of urban expansion was faster than those observed in the cities of Europe, North America, Africa, India and, slightly lower than China (Seto et al. 2014). 


Annual growth rate of urban built-up area 9 Provincial capitals 1995-2017 (per cent)

Source - State of Sri Lankan Cities Project

The AoI of all capitals were found to be far larger than the MC area, with large fringe areas lying outside the MC boundaries. When the fringe areas are taken into account, Sri Lanka’s the populations of the Provincial Capitals were far larger than official statistics suggests. In all cases, the fringe population was more than double the size of the MC population. In the case of Colombo the fringe of the agglomerated MCs of Colombo, Kotte and Dehiwala accounted for an estimated 2.3 million people, resulting in a total estimated population of 3.17 million people in the Colombo AoI. If the CMR (i.e. the Western Province) is included as the total urban area, then the city’s population doubles again. These results strongly suggest that city boundaries need to revised, and appropriately demarcated, to enable evidence-based urban planning. In the cases of Colombo, the definition of the city extent varies between 550,000 and over 6 million: the urban management implications for these different definitions are highly significant, particularly in terms of the delivery of public services (see Chapter 6).


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