Published in 400 Years of Capital Dhaka, edited by Sharif Uddin Ahmed (Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2012).
Cities are strange things; they are neither given to us as found objects like a shell on the beach nor are they conjured up in a dream out of thin air. Cities are the destination of an assiduous search or a meticulous plan. We are not certain of finding them, yet we know that they can’t be found if we don’t start to found them. In the Latin classic The Aeneid, Aeneas, the hero of Troy, leaves home with an entourage to found a new city that came to be known as Rome; the journey for the city becomes the odyssey. The Aztecs wandered over mountains and forests following a sacred sign before they founded the city of Tenochtitlan on a lake (that later became Mexico City). And, in the Candi-mangal, Kalaketu builds a new city following carefully a visionary plan, and the city becomes a successful experiment in sociological formation. These narratives indicate that to find a city that one is looking for may take a prolonged wandering or bit of a sustained effort.
Even as we celebrate 400 years of the city of Dhaka, we wonder whether we have found the city that we have been looking for, or whether at all we have started a journey. For such a journey is preceded by a vision or a utopia. Where is Dhaka’s utopia?
The term utopia retains negative connotations affixed either to a fantasy of the bizarre or pathology of the unobtainable. But utopia is primarily generative, based on critiques of the present to propose a better future. From Thomas More’s humanist society and Renaissance ideal cities to modern urban visions, the image of the city and social utopia have been inseparable in imagining a promised and future landscape. Realism is usually invoked as a counter-thesis of utopia, but realism itself is a fiction we prop up to maintain and benefit from a debilitating status quo or hide our inability to come out of the shadows. Daniel Burnham, the 19th century American architect who designed parts of Chicago and Washington DC, said decisively: “We need to dream lest we become like owls accustomed to the night and thinking there is no such thing as light.”
Well-meaning detractors will ask why clamor for the city when apparently more crucial things are at stake. Bangladesh continues to be seen as a rural civilization (with some bursts of industrial islands at best), and therefore much of the cultural discourse, including political and institutional programs, champions the ideology of an eternal “gram bangla.” But in the last thirty years or so, something dramatic has happened: an urban movement has taken hold of the country. More and more people now live in cities, and if they do not, they participate in its dynamic, making cities and towns no longer minor parties in the national project but vigorous sites of human habitations, relationships and economies (the result places a big question mark on the “eternal” nature of “gram bangla”). If cities are the battlegrounds of our anxieties, they are also the decisive locus of our imaginations and capabilities. And that is why cities require a more imaginative and critical attention; they cannot be addressed through technical or legislative considerations alone. Cities do not begin from policies, but from dreams and visions.
The future of Dhaka city is the future of the country. While it is imperative to plan the urban landscape of the whole country, from primary cities to small towns, from the mahanagar to the mofussil, Dhaka will continue to play a vital role in impacting places far and wide. In the absence of any solid tradition of civic urban culture, Dhaka city remains the sole model of urban development in the country. It is ironic that every small town, every nook and corner in the mofussil, wishes to mimic a dysfunctional Dhaka. Buildings, grouping of buildings, roads, institutions and commerce in the small towns are all beginning to look like some pale imitation of things Dhaka. It is in that sense the future landscape of the country depends on what we make of Dhaka city. Cities, therefore, require the boldest thinking, especially when our cities – again Dhaka as ‘role model’ – continue to exemplify the ignoble conditions of a malfunctioning system. Why should we then not demand from the political elite a clearer vision for the future of our cities and towns, recognition of the importance of planning cities in the national agenda, and more definitive plan for Dhaka.
What a City is
The city continues to taunt us as we have not yet made peace with it. The notion of the city has not yet settled comfortably in our cultural imagination, as a result of which our urban discourse remains naïve and undeveloped. We see the city nothing more than a cauldron of crises and problems. But before we proceed to solve the city’s myriad problems, it is crucial to gather a consensus on what we mean by the city.
A city is civilization. The city today has become harder and harder to define, yet that persistent, ancient idea is still conveyed by the popular English term. The term “city” is linked to the Latin word civitas and to civilization and citizen, and therefore describes the finest form of civic, collective life. To Jaime Lerner, former mayor of the miraculous Brazilian city of Curitiba, the future is in cities and cities can be the most beautiful collective dream. He rejects the notion that the city is a problem; it is, in fact, the solution to collective existence.
The city is the most obvious spatial condition of how we should live as social group in a civic and humanistic manner. Cities require buildings, but buildings alone do not make a city. Cities are socio-psychical facts; they express, according to the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, our being and consciousness (which led Lefebvre to write “the right to cities,” a manifesto for a transformed city and egalitarian participation in urban life). The first tag – socio – is comparatively easier to address, but the psychical facts are irksome to many trying to unravel the mystery of the city.
The comprehension of our own cities is far more rudimentary. In the grand sweep of our agricultural rhetoric, our deep and ancient sentiment for the soil, we continue to see the city as a curse, a sentiment that is old as the Vedic suspicion of the city. Most of our poets and writers sing only the song of the village, producing an unrelenting imagination around the mythic village; no wonder that most of the political elites are in a perpetual tension with the city. We fail to acknowledge the emerging truth that for the first time in human history nearly half of the planetary population is now urban dwellers, and in the context of Bangladesh, the city is now as essential and crucial as the paddy-field.
What Dhaka can be
Dhaka is not a city, yet. What is touted as “growth” in Dhaka is actually the pillaging of the city in the name of progress and development. Dhaka has no cohesive plan and proceeds only with bursts of ad-hoc decisions, usually taken by bureaucrats, ministers or half-baked professionals with no deep knowledge of and abiding love for the city. The city is being built furiously but without a language for building, that is, without a language for streets, a language for open spaces, a language for the river’s edge, a language for housing. The end result is the same as elsewhere where the city is left to such dysfunctionalism: remorseless development, curse of pollution, heightening social inequality, unpredictability of services, increasing break-down of community (moholla), wretched transport and road system, blatant occupation of land and waterways, ravaging of open spaces, and lack of models of how people should live collectively. Being in the top ten populous cities of the world, and one of the most densely inhabited places on earth is not an accolade but a passage towards an ecological and social cataclysm. Unless that is stemmed by desire and design.
The poet Shamsur Rahman wrote about Dhaka, “This city daily wrestles with the wolf with many faces.” Nearly thirty years of relentless greed, political nonchalance, and administrative inefficiency has positioned the city towards a calamitous future. From what was truly a garden city on water, Dhaka now faces a certain civic and environmental deterioration. With failures in urban planning and management, development has fallen largely to private interests, which often act without regard to natural resources, urban context, or community benefit. As a chaotic urban development places increasing strain on its social and environmental fabric, the people of Dhaka must negotiate a civic deterioration that is, ironically, aggravated in the name of progress and growth. Thus the paradox of city-building: one can destroy a city by building it.
A well-functioning city is designed and meticulously planned which then is diligently implemented; it simply does not happen on its own. While there should always be latitudes in design, a city begins and proceeds with a plan, one that has both poetry and pragmatism. Dhaka dearly needs a vision of what it can be, what is possible, and what is more profitable in every respect. Development and investment should follow that plan.
And the plan should be based on urbanism, on the quality of urban culture, and not urbanization, a set of abstract statistics and economic parameters. The term “urbanization” describes the dark side of the modern city: migration, malfunction and misery; it does not show how a city can be lived in its fullest human, social, aesthetical and ecological potential. Those ideas are taken up by the term “urbanism.” We have to overcome our ambivalence of the city, and declare a positive and proactive manifesto about our urban destination.
Dhaka needs a bold and creative plan that addresses its tropical, hydrological, and civic conditions. We need to conceive, first of all, the idea of a tropical city in the twenty-first century. Far from being a situation of calamity, Dhaka can become a tropical model that responds to the particular geological and environmental conditions of a deltaic place. Even until the 1950s, with its spacious green spaces, majestic trees, crisscrossing canals, civilized riverbanks, and boats plying through the heart of the city, Dhaka promised to be both a garden city and a place by the water. With buildings in a setting of lakes, gardens, orchards, and parks, Dhaka can still set the model for a tropical city. Only then it can be billed as a Bengali city, and a truly sustainable one.
And, secondly, any vision for Bangladesh will have to consider the emerging urban landscape not as a cause for crises but as vast opportunities. Dhaka can be a city for change, a smart city positioned globally in the age of trans-nationalism. Cities are not merely dire sites of institutional and social failures that need constant remedial attention; if properly organized, they can be economic, social, and cultural dynamos. Bangladesh's potential for utilising its human resources in the new era of global economy remains largely untapped, and yet there are ways by which Dhaka (and other towns and cities) can be oriented towards a unique development programme merging urbanism and economic growth.
For all that is wrong and all that is calamitous, Dhaka can still be a laboratory for a balanced urban dynamic. The profile of a new Dhaka may emerge from the following considerations:
A Liquid Landscape
Dhaka is a child of the Buriganga, and yet it turns its back to the fundamental reality of being part of the world’s most dynamic hydrological system. Too few planners, no city fathers, and even the people of the city remember that Dhaka is a tender land-mass framed by three rivers and a fluid landscape. This is the most central issue for beginning any discussion on the future of Dhaka. Dhaka cannot forget its genealogy, for that forgetfulness will be reciprocated by dreadful environmental effects. An audacious vision for Dhaka has to begin from where Dhaka began at the edge of the water: To think about Dhaka not from the center but from the edge. The edge is where the solutions are. The Dutch urbanist and architect Rem Koolhaas considers the edge (of the city) as a beautiful urban form. Although Koolhaas meant the ambiguous edge of the post-industrial European city, the important implication is that the edge is the new urban challenge.
What is that “edge” that will help us to re-conceptualize the city? The edge describes the rivers and the hydrological and aquatic landscape that frames Dhaka. The first task is to consider carefully how the edge should be defined and what should be the language of that edge condition even if it is a fluctuating one. We need to re-think that Dhaka is a precious land-mass surrounded by rivers, canals, wetlands, and agricultural landscape; how Dhaka, in fact, is like an island. It is clear that the battle for Dhaka is being fought over the edge, what with encroachment of rivers, filling up wetlands, buying off of agricultural lands, and the wholesale transformation of a precious ecological system (in the name of “housing societies”). New models of urbanism that respect the ecological requirements of Detailed Area Plan (DAP) of the master plan and embrace the economic desires of development are possible through creative propositions. It need not be an either/or situation; there could be options that do not see the ecological ethics in simple conflict with development models.
Dhaka is a deltaic city, and water forms the matrix of the city. It is not a simple image of a picturesque landscape; it implies communication, drainage, economic life, festivity, and a certain way of being. Working with water and embracing wetness mean working with a total environmental relationship: The rivers, the wetlands, the flood plains, the eighty inches of rain per year, the drainage are all tied in an intricate relationship. A deltaic city cannot be developed by economic desires alone. We have to evolve our desires and imaginations from the mathematics of the delta.
Planning around land and water (and not land versus water, which is how conventional planning thinks) could give Dhaka a very unique characteristic distinguishing it from the other cities of the world. As co-writer and architect Saif Ul Haque notes: “Water could provide inexpensive transport solution for the city, it could serve as reservoirs for containing monsoon rains, it could provide for valuable protein for the city dwellers by fish farming, and it could help in keeping the underground water table stable by way of percolation and other methods.” A new vision for Dhaka has to begin from the precious landscape of wetlands and agricultural terrain, ushering a conception of a city that integrates urbanism, agriculture, and flood. We need to realize that we can try to take the city out of the delta, but we cannot take the delta out of the city.
A city that is dispersed and a city that is contained
The foci of Dhaka need to be radically reorganized. Dhaka is “growing” in its own happy rhythm, tickled every now and then by fragmentary official initiatives. This “growth” is neither relieving pressures at the centers nor creating a liveable urban development. The whole city and its peripheries should be brought under an active and aggressive planning net and coordinated development spurs. New urban nodes as townships should be created, and existing and congested centers revitalized so that selective commerce, institutions, and government offices may be dispersed across the urban region in a uniform way.
It is not a contradiction to say disperse the existing city, while at the same time contain its unbridled expansion. The idea suggests that a metropolitan Dhaka needs to be framed within a regional Dhaka. It means the axis and locus of development should be identified in the wider Dhaka region after examining the regional landscape. Once the footprint of the expanded city is identified, the perimeter and in-between zones should be carefully delineated so as not to affect more agricultural areas and wetlands. A rigorous balance should be established between Dhaka’s urbanization needs and ecological obligations (which is what DAP has set out to do but without provisions for creative planning).
A thorough balance should be established between needs and obligations. Once that is done, it should be maintained with rigorous vigilance. A wider Dhaka can be conceived by creating new nodal and satellite towns within the administrative reach of Dhaka but also expanding to regional towns as Manikganj, Munshiganj, and Gazipur. The first circle could be developed as nodal townships within Dhaka, and the second ring of existing towns could be energized to create a network of satellite towns. The new nodal towns should be high density developments with selective commerce, institutions and government offices. Such reorganization depends on a new network of movements that connect the nodes, and this is where the much talked about circular water and rail routes come in.
The following should be the manifesto for Dhaka’s planning: (a) Selective decentralization: Spreading out the pressures from the existing city. (b) Creating a network of nodal and satellite towns. (c) Restoring the older city, and revitalizing it. (d) Creating new urban nodes, and revamping existing ones. (e) Delineating the built periphery of the city, and maintaining it. (f) Creating a new network of movements connecting the nodes.
City = Mobility
It is obvious that Dhaka’s future is in a de-pressurized regional city made of a matrix of a new and revitalized nodes and towns. For Dhaka to spread out and yet remain connected requires a successful transport system.
Dhaka requires a radical restructuring of its transportation network to sustain itself as a city. There are three responses for Dhaka’s traffic trouble: Mass transit! Mass transit!! Mass transit!!! The only rapid solution is to introduce systems that will bring in and move as many people as required in as less number of vehicles as possible. We identify three crucial sectors – rail, bus and waterway – where new transportation modes may be implemented without facing too many infrastructural and constructional challenges.
Dhaka has a perfect condition for a circular rail (and road) system that rings the city with cross-city links. The circular rail (conceived along the embankment) could also be an opportunity for creating new and revitalized urban nodes along its line. For the cross-city rail system, Dhaka’s main train hub may be shifted from Kamlapur to Tongi. There is no particular locational benefit to Kamlapur as all train destinations pass by Tongi. By shifting the station to Tongi will free the train line from Tongi to Naryanganj for a faster and frequent commuter train system serving the city. The Tongi-Naryanganj Line may be the start point for more elaborate commuter system that is present in current transportation planning strategies. At a future phase, an elevated track may be constructed over the existing lines for a faster, express line.
Buses continue to be the accepted mode of urban mass traveling but are hardly effective mass transit. A thorough revision of bus network and travel mode is needed where eco-friendly vehicles carrying large number of passengers may be introduced on dedicated routes. This will require a few things: Freeing left lane as dedicated routes for special and designated buses, and creating special designed bus stands for faster transfer and passenger loading. To implement the system quickly and effectively, tax benefit and other incentives may be provided to private investors and operators.
Water-based transportation system for Dhaka is a natural choice in a water-borne geography. Regularised and extensive water-transport system will also be a way of ensuring the effective use and control of rivers and canals, and their edges. The way Dhaka has turned its back to its rivers may be reversed by implementing a strong riverine transit system. For the riverine system to be effective, multi-modal stations need to be created that are conveniently linked with other transportation loops. As river stations can be hub of riverside development and spur for energetic growth, the planning of such hubs should be done carefully in order to control haphazard development. The waterway system can also be extended into the heart of the city after clearing up and deepening some of the encroached canals. With the completion of the Hatirjheel and Gulshan Lake redevelopment projects, water-taxis will be able to link, for example, Gulshan and Kawranbazar.
Urban spaces are the most precious ingredients of a city considering that buildings alone do not make a city, but buildings and spaces in a well-knit fabric. Spaces could be varied and wide-ranging, from formal to informal, from large-scale to intimate, from South Plaza at Sherebanglanagar to space outside Gausia Market. Large spaces include areas of assembly, maidans, parks, gardens, lakefronts, riverfronts, etc., while small spaces may just be an intersection of two lanes, space under a tree on a sidewalk, or just a broad sidewalk. Dhaka one time had an enviable resource of such spaces; now they have either vanished or are vanishing in an avalanche of greed and manipulation.
The city of Dhaka used to be synonymous with trees: flower-bearing, scent-giving trees, trees that marked the passing of the seasons, trees that gave shade, and trees that added to a healthy environment. A model in the mind is the street in front of Dhaka Medical College, or what it used to be, a most dignified row of shadow-giving, corridor-creating trees, or a street intersection in Becharam Dewry with a banyan tree creating a cool space-defining public square. But that was then, when we were a bit more civic-minded, and concerned about the larger scheme of things. The climate of Dhaka desires it to be a garden city, a city of trees, flowers and foliage. "Light, Green, Air!" that old modernist slogan that produced cities like Chandigarh and Brasilia is not as defunct as one thinks.
The sidewalk (or the footpath) is the supreme mark of the civility of a city; it belongs to the culture of walking, strolling and promenading. The quality of sidewalks gives evidence to what the city managers think about a fundamental human condition: The pedestrian and her humanity. Dhaka shows no such conception. It's a city where driving a car has become an essential symbol, and the poor pedestrian just a pitiable creature at the bottom of the totem-pole. Such urban pedestrian devices as boulevards, promenades, riverwalks, and just simple sidewalks that are the hall mark of all livable cities are completely non-existent in Dhaka.
The pedestrian and the sidewalk is ultimately an indictment on the car, on its ultimate effect of the automobile on the natural environment (through pollution, etc.), urban exchange (disruption of the public realm), and social interaction (segregation of classes). A successful pedestrian infrastructure means relying mostly on a set of public transportation such as railways, buses, vans, trams, ferries, and such public spaces as elevated and moving walkways, tunnels, footbridges and regular sidewalks. If we could walk, many of us would not need to drive cars.