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Invaluable urban planning experience in Sri Lanka_____

Invaluable urban planning experience in Sri Lanka

Tract volunteers its planning and landscape expertise alongside other Melbourne professionals in Mannar, northern Sri Lanka.

In March 2013, we stumbled upon a Request for Expressions of Interest in PIA’s e-newsletter. It sought applications from professionals to volunteer their urban planning, urban design or landscape architecture expertise for planning projects in the northern Sri Lankan township of Mannar. This advertisement was a modest paragraph at the bottom of the PIA newsletter; however it somehow caught our attention, and ultimately led to a unique experience.

Keen to apply our planning and design skills and to undertake a new adventure, three of us from Tract Consultants provided CVs to the not-for-profit organisation, Diaspora Lanka, without any clear understanding of what exactly was involved or what was required in a part of the world that none of us had explored. Tract, through its scholarship program, provided full support to those who applied; Saraid Mitten (Senior Town Planner), Sue Ozanne (Landscape Architect) and Rebecca Wardle (Town Planner).

Before embarking on the trip we were confident that our professional experience would hold us in good stead for our international volunteering debut. We were equipped with a positive attitude, open-mindedness and professionalism, yet the volunteer placement proved to be a more challenging, mind-opening and memorable learning adventure than we had anticipated.

There is no substitute for the professional and personal learning gained from practical experience and full cultural immersion in a foreign country. We were exposed to different values and behaviours and had to practice new skills in communication and community engagement in Sri Lanka.

About Diaspora Lanka

Established in 2010 by the current Director, Jeremy Liyanage, Diaspora Lanka is a not-for-profit organisation based in both Melbourne and Mannar Town in northern Sri Lanka. Emerging from 30 years of civil war which ended in 2009, Mannar is home to Diaspora Lanka’s first revitalisation projects.

Diaspora Lanka offers Australian planners, designers and landscape architects an unforgettable volunteering experience in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka

Diaspora Lanka’s objectives are to assist in regional Sri Lanka through the provision of livelihood support, business development, community advocacy, urban planning, and social cohesion initiatives. The organisation’s staff live and work ‘on-the-ground’ with the Mannar community, seeking to play a constructive role in the region’s post-war context, engaging people across all ethnicities and religions, and reducing the factors that could lead to further conflict.


To set the scene of our adventure, we must first understand Mannar. Mannar Island is located off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in a very hot and arid climate. Locals currently rely on basic agricultural processes for a living, mostly farming rice, fish, salt and coconuts. Mannar Town Centre is a brightly coloured fishing and services village inhabited by approximately 30,000 people, exotic baobab trees and a large population of stray donkeys and dogs. Amongst the people and wildlife are the iconic Sri Lankan features of palm trees, colourful laneways and fishing boats. The livelihoods of the people in Mannar were severely disrupted during three decades of civil war. The town has yet to establish a safe water supply, a hot water system, a consistent power supply, a waste collection system, and green shady spaces to escape the heat. Despite this, the island has a strong future due to it being the closest point to India, making it an important player in regional geo-politics.

The Internship

The internship began with a series of workshops in Melbourne for two teams of Australian volunteers before travelling to Mannar in October (Team 1) and November (Team 2) 2013. Diaspora Lanka and the seven volunteers were assisted in Melbourne and Mannar by a support group comprising Steve Dunn (Project Director, Metropolitan Planning Authority), Capire Consulting (community engagement training), David Lock Associates (design assistance) and Rebecca Jerram (Landscape Architect).

Upon arrival in Mannar, our role was to undertake community engagement and prepare and deliver masterplans for two important revitalisation projects – the Mannar Town foreshore precinct and a significant five hectare wetland area.

The volunteer work involved preparing and delivering community-focused concepts and implementation plans for the foreshore and wetland, as well as engaging and empowering local community members and authorities through the process to deliver long-term, sustainable planning and design outcomes.

The community and stakeholder engagement focused on capacity building and encouraged large groups of people across all ethnicities, religions, ages and professions to attend meetings. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to consult with United Nations representatives, the National Physical Planning Department, the Urban Development Authority and the University of Moratuwa lecturers and students. We also had the pleasure of meeting the Australian High Commissioner, Ms Robyn Mudie, in Colombo to discuss Diaspora Lanka’s efforts and future projects.
Many of the local community members we met were fascinated by our presence in Mannar and curious about the work we were undertaking. Our first meeting with Diaspora Lanka staff, Mannar Urban Council staff, and the local community attracted approximately 50 attendees (to the excitement and surprise of all of us). We had arrived in Mannar at an absurd hour that morning after an eight hour overnight bus trip from Colombo. The bus blared Bollywood music at full volume through blown speakers for the entire journey robbing us of any intentions we had of sleeping. However, as we sat in front of an eager crowd at the local Urban Council Hall with our microphones, our exhaustion was quickly cured with milo box drinks and an assortment of deep fried snacks, and our anticipation for the four weeks ahead was ignited.

Community Engagement

Diaspora Lanka had carried out a lengthy consultation program in 2011 and produced a comprehensive report: Mannarin Marumalarchi 2022 – the “People’s Plan” for Mannar (MM22). MM22 involved extensive surveying, workshops, and community forums. Altogether, a broad cross-section of more than 500 people participated, and together they debated and negotiated a common vision for Mannar. The comprehensive report can be found online here.

Following this extensive engagement effort, it seemed that a level of respect was carried with the Diaspora Lanka name around Mannar. The community understood that the organisation is genuinely committed to Mannar and hence showed interest in our projects.

Building relationships, building respect, and building trust are three important steps in community development projects.

The local residents continually surprised us with their creative and critical thinking on a broad range of issues. Our experience with Diaspora Lanka proved that meaningful engagement and active participation from the local community is essential and avoids a top-down approach where western ideologies are imposed and important local issues can be overlooked.

Our engagement efforts provided a lot of entertainment, particularly when information was lost in translation with our Tamil-speaking counterparts. An unforgettable moment was when the Urban Council Chairman, a formidable figure, was speaking animatedly to Rebecca in a mixture of Tamil and broken English in the Council Hall after one of our first meetings. Rebecca, in her enthusiastic nature, leaned closer to him with notebook and pen poised, ready to write down whatever was so important, until someone finally translated in English “Lady, get out of the way, he needs to go to the toilet”.

Capacity Building

It became clear that the focus of the volunteer placement was not to purely finish the writing of the masterplan reports, but to empower and enhance the capacity of the local community through. This was done by providing them with long-lasting skills and memorable experiences of best practice initiatives.

Capacity building, in our experience in Sri Lanka, has had a much more powerful and positive effect than purely focusing on producing a glossy report for a site-specific project.

During our visit to Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority’s (UDA) office in the northern town of Jaffna, we were given a significant opportunity to build relationships with local planners and engineers and consult with them about Diaspora Lanka’s efforts in Mannar. We also provided assistance by teaching them how to use new Microsoft programs and discussed the importance of effective preparation for stakeholder engagement.

It was a rewarding experience, not only in terms of the deliverables and skills that we passed on, but also in the process that we went through, listening to and learning from the Jaffna UDA, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and even drafting up maps the ‘old school’ way, on a big print out by hand. In a mutually beneficially outcome, the Jaffna staff felt re-inspired about their work, and they provided useful information and feedback on our Mannar projects.


Our presence in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka was hopefully part of an important catalyst for change and action on planning projects. I can say on behalf of all the Australian volunteers that Mannar will be sorely missed, for its buzz of tuk tuks, the friendly banter and laughter (generally at us) on the streets, the “Mannar colours” of pastel blues, oranges, pinks and greens on buildings, Sri Lankan banquets over long lunches, colourful sarees, and even the stray donkeys that inhabit the place (but not the incessant barking from the feral dogs).

Most of all, we appreciate the hard-working Diaspora Lanka and National Physical Planning staff who befriended us and taught us so much about life, work, planning, and their culture. The placement with Diaspora Lanka provided an invaluable experience. It may be an old adage, but it truly is the people who make the place.

A new team of Australian planners, designers and landscape architects are encouraged to volunteer their time to this worthy cause in 2014.

Rebecca Wardle is a Town Planner ( with assistance from Saraid Mitten (, Sue Ozanne ( and Diaspora Lanka.
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