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The 400-year old capital city Dhaka now ranks among cities with the worst air quality. Once its lifeline, the Buriganga is dying, and surrounding rivers are polluted and encroached. Despite big problems though, small interventions might be able to make it more liveable

If an architect is given a blank sketch paper to draw their dream version of a modern city, they may outline residential, business, school, hospital, office areas with spaces marked for parks, lakes, wide roads with pavement, and bicycle lanes. The design might be one of a zero-carbon smart city with clean air and water, integrated transport and utilities.

For such a new city, you would need a vast land — a desert, a reclaimed island still uninhabited, or clearing a forest, filling water bodies, canals and even rivers (if you do not bother about the environmental authority's clearance).

Countries like Egypt, India, South Africa, and Qatar have planned new cities to be built out of scratch; some projects have progressed, some stalled. All these are huge ventures requiring a lot of money and time.

Yet, building a new city might still be easier than retrofitting or redoing a city as old and haphazard as Dhaka — the 17th century capital of Mughal era Bengal built on the bank of the Buriganga River.

Because, in this case an architect is not getting a blank sketch sheet to draw a dream city; they have to redraw, remake, rebuild a city which has existed for 400 years. There were a series of plans taken during British, Pakistani and Bangladeshi eras. Reputed American architect Louis Kahn also had a hand in Dhaka's planning.

But the city has grown in its own way.

The 400-year old capital city Dhaka now ranks among cities with the worst air quality. Once its lifeline, the Buriganga is dying, surrounding rivers are polluted and encroached. Canals are filled, while floodplains are now sprawling residential or commercial towns. Dhaka is almost permanently ranked as one of the most unlivable, but highly expensive, cities in the world.

City elites, in their formal or informal talks, often lament the deplorable life in Dhaka city and resent having to live in this city, but anyone leaving Dhaka to live in a village home is rarely heard. Rather, almost all those coming to the capital city to study or work think of settling here, those living in rented homes strive to buy a flat or plot to make their stay here permanent.

This is nothing unusual for a city in a developing country. Rapid urbanisation is a symbol of economic growth. A city is a centre of economic activities requiring so many people to serve in administration, businesses, educational institutions, transportation and a lot more. The more developed a country, the higher the percentage of people living in cities and towns.

The share of people living in urban areas in Bangladesh grew four times in five decades — from 8% in 1974 to about 32% in 2022. In Singapore, the rate is 100%, because the island nation is a city state. The urban population rate is high in developed countries, meaning that more people will come to cities as a nation develops.

It is true for Bangladesh as well. You cannot stop people from thronging the capital city, which has been made a hub for everything — for government administration, business conglomerates, healthcare, education and so on.

Next decades will see faster urbanisation with more and more people moving from villages to cities. Bangladesh needs to equip its cities accordingly. Decentralisation of administration and services will help other cities grow. Elected representatives should have the authorities and efficiency to make cities liveable, functional and economically vibrant.

Money flies in Dhaka, so everyone runs to catch grab it: a hawker on the footpath, a rickshaw-puller from Panchagar, a car driver from Faridpur, a ride-sharing biker from Patuakhali, a domestic help from Lalmonirhat, or the security guard in your apartment building. All find a living here.

But they spend a lot, too. They buy things, they travel, they pay rent, almost spending every penny they earn. All of this contributes to the city's economy. Yet these people cannot afford a good home to live in, good education for their kids, or good healthcare for their family.

Still, they stay put in Dhaka, not for luxury, but to earn a living which they cannot make by staying in rural areas.

The city needs them too. They are the people who serve the city's over 20 million people — more than the populations of Sweden, Denmark and Norway put together.

What does the city give them in return?

Well, they are excluded in the city's planning; during construction, the ghettos where these people live are the first target for demolition; small street vendors are evicted for facilitating a convenient walkway for city dwellers; and main thoroughfares are made off-limits to rickshaws one after another.

Life is becoming difficult for Dhaka's low-income earners.

On the other hand, there is no limit for personal cars and motorbikes in a city without an accessible and affordable public transport system. Metro rail comes as a relief, but it serves only parts of the city. Efforts to streamline the city's notorious bus service through operating a cluster of routes and bringing all buses under one company for a single route under bus route franchising did not progress much due to lack of cooperation from bus operators.

The city once had bicycle lanes, which vanished long ago. Yet, there are bicyclists making their way through busy city roads crammed with automobiles, and their numbers are rising. It is no doubt a risky ride in Dhaka.

Bicycle lane is a long-drawn demand from campaigners and was a pledge of the late Dhaka North mayor Annisul Huq. But it has not happened yet, though the current mayor has repeated the same pledge.

As we wish to become a high-income country, we must set our cities right — not just Dhaka alone, but other divisional headquarters. Each of these cities is at the centre of growth for the specific region.

Decentralisation is a much-discussed issue, but it continues to remain on paper and in plans only. It is a must to reduce pressure on capital Dhaka for everything. Every divisional city has to improve health and education systems.

In recent years, things have started to move toward that direction, albeit slowly, with a number of public universities, medical colleges and technical institutions set up in different regions, along with planned healthcare facilities for heart, kidney and other specialised treatment.

This does not mean that capital Dhaka will be left as it is now. Being the capital city of a fast-growing economy, Dhaka needs to plug its loopholes. It must be a smart city to support a sustainable development that requires strong communities in good health and environment.

Its development decisions must touch every day life of its diverse groups of dwellers — rich and poor, old and young, male and female. The city must allow dwellers to manage their homes, health, schooling for their kids, their daily commute, and provide a good environment. On top of all these, the city must generate enough economic activities so that communities build on their dreams and contribute to the nation's overall growth.

The Center for Active Design (CfAD), an initiative of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to transform his city, lists 20 things a functional city needs to improve the quality of life of its people.

One of these includes a comprehensive pedestrian network that allows residents to walk anywhere in the community. It gives a greater sense of community and stronger social networks.

The centre believes a city should provide sidewalk comfort for pedestrians — benches, trees, and lighting. It needs a network of safe bicycle lanes and related infrastructure, as well as enhanced public transit systems with reliable services and comfortable stops. The CfAD refers to research that suggests social ties are weaker when public transit is difficult to access or when people commute by car.

But in Dhaka, commuting by car seems to be more encouraged, bicycles ignored and sidewalks made inconvenient for pedestrians. Perhaps Dhaka is the only city in the world where buses never stop at the designated bus stops, pedestrians cross through the roads under the foot overbridge, and police are more inclined to drive away those who sell tea or fuchka on the pavements, though street food is in high demand in all cities worldwide. Food stalls in pavements can be best places for pedestrians to rest, chat or relax, as pointed out by CfAD.

These are small interventions which do not need money. If city authorities think about the lives of common people, they can make these changes to city life in a much bigger way than a multi-billion dollar metro rail or an expressway can.

Since we cannot abandon Dhaka city, we must make it liveable with whatever resources we have to bring whatever small changes we can afford.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Titu Datta Gupta

Quelle/Source: The Business Standard, 25.01.2024

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