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Deurbanization: in search of beauty and serenity

Abdul Haleem Abdul Latheef

Urbanization took its momentum in Maldives from early 70s. From 1960 to early 70s, only 11.23% of Maldives population is urban. By 2021, it has reach over 41.10%. Perhaps, this must be the fastest urbanization rate in the world during the period.

Interestingly, Maldives become the most urbanised country in the region in 61 years while it was the most rural country in 1960. Indian’s urban population in 1960 is 17.92% while that of Sri Lanka is 16.43%

The sheer magnitude of the urbanisation in Maldives has led to unprecedented consequences and unimaginable constraints in one of the freest societies on earth.

The Maldives is heralded as a development success. There is no denial about it. But then, is it not fair to believe that that Maldives development model had the worse impact on social and cultural capital, at least when compared with neighbouring Sri Lanka and India. Where are our palaces, fortresses, mosques, stupas and alike. What happened to our ancestral home, where are our friends who grew up together. Why is there such a high level of income and wealth inequality?

Where is my peace. Every day I kept thinking, is there a greater manifestation other than the island of Male’ of ugliness of traded social and cultural capital for economic development. Male’, a beautiful Maldivian Island, just like any other in the Maldives, has become literally a 24/7 factory. It has lost its beauty, history, and its architectural heritage, inundated by inward immigration. It seems, that central planning completely collapsed in this Capital City under the weight of unprecedented “development”.

Let it be business as usual, the same factors that led to the demise of Male’ will slowly creep into the rest of islands; some would feel the impact sooner than expected than others. But eventually all will be consumed by the same fate. Without central planning and out-of-box thinking there is nothing other than doom and gloom in this sunny side of life.

The Maldives is expecting a target of 8 million tourist arrivals by the next 5 years, highly possible in an industry of over USD 9 Trillion with fastest growth rate. There will not only be added impact on our natural environment, but on physical environment.

It is inevitable that space for commercial and residential use will be created somewhere, in some other island. But then, it should be done in a way that is most efficient and effective. In the race for creating new space, shouldn’t we think actively vertical development instead of horizontal development rather than being forced into as happed and happening in Male’?

Planed vertical development would certainly enhance the aesthetic appeal of the Islands, create space for future development and avoid the destructive dredging and reclamation at least. It can also decrease the cost of public infrastructure per square basis and develop transport systems that are sustainable. At least conceptually, I see that such development would be less costly and best from a valuation point of view. After all beauty is all what we pay for!

Perhaps, the idea of horizontal organization of space may have stemmed from a time when our economic system was purely based on subsistence fishing and agriculture, without a need for a stationary settlement. We have seen how agglomeration happens; we have seen that it cannot be stopped. When we know the new factors that affect human movement, settlements and habitats, which were unknown during the time establishing settlements in Maldives, should we not start with a clean slate to develop our own space for us and for those to come after us as liveable and sustainable places of abode?

Believe it or not, the “agrarian phase” is long gone. The Maldives is entering into another phase of economic development; industry, services, knowledge and innovation. Let us not let ourselves become enslaved into worst living conditions in a country which is most liveable and sustainable. Let us not constrain our country of its natural progression into shared prosperity by our own ignorance and inaction. Let us look at our islands with a clean state to create space that are sustainable, liveable and loveable. Let’s make deurbanization natural just like the urbanisation. This time design and beauty as the central focus. Shall we live in paradise again!

Abdul Haleem Abdul Latheef is the Co-founder and Chief Investment Officer at First National Finance Corporation.

Haleem started his career as an academic and held the position of Head of the Department of Accounting and Finance of the now Business School of Maldives National University.


He served as the CFO at Pension Office for eight years, leading the investment management, investment operations, and financial management functions. Haleem worked in the banking, insurance and consulting practice before setting up First National.

He is also the current President of Maldives Red Crescent and a Board Member of the Pension Fund.

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