• Saturday, November 22, 2014

An Architect Mayor for Dhaka

Ar. Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury
Photo: sk enamul haq
Photo: sk enamul haq

There may be only a few things harder than managing a city of 15 million people within 1500 sq. km area. Priorities like equity, engagement and environment get derailed in a reality where shortage of cash, motivation and honesty rules the day. As a city that regulary finds place in the list of least livable cities of the world, Dhaka desperately needs a creative order in its governance. And, like the country of which it is the capital of, it needs leadership. From Detroit to Düsseldorf, cities die or thrive due to the policies taken up by their leaders – leaders with vision and determination or the lack thereof, to overcome the obstacles.
Take Jaime Lerner as an example.  As Mayor of Curitiba, Lerner transformed the Brazillian city into a flourishing yet sustainable one with out-of-the-box solutions. Lerner introduced a Bus Rapid System [BRT] that is one hundred times less costly than a subway and ten times cheaper than a light rail option. Thanks to his innovative scheme of not building expensive dams but converting the floodplains into parks, Curitiba has one of the highest per capita park ratios in the world. Lerner also started a waste management program in slums that offered groceries and bus tickets in exchange of bags of trash. In 2010, Time magazine named Lerner as one of world's most influential thinkers.
Not all BRTs however are successful. In 2012, George Ferguson set up his own political party and became the first elected Mayor of Bristol, UK with a promise to introduce an integrated rail, tram and bus network as alternative to the failed bendybus BRT. As a Mayor who cycles his way to work and avoids air travel to attend meetings in other European cites, Ferguson has taken up projects to lower carbon emission, improve air quality and use clean renewable energy. He has appointed two Youth Mayors to connect to the younger population of the city and is campaiging to get the city's historic sites recongnised by UNESCO as World Hertiage.
In Bandung, the third largest city of the world's third largest democracy Indonesia, political newcomer Ridwan Kamil was elected in June 2013 as the Mayor with a promise to reform the corrupt and ineffective urban governance. He was prodded by community activists and his former students to declare candidacy to run a city plagued with overcrowding, protracted traffic jam, environmental degradtion and social inequality of unseen proportion. During his five year term, Kamil intends to instil a new culture of open, responsive and result oriented public service. Other plans include an expanded system of cycling, revamping the bus system, building a monorail line and creating one hundred parks and playgrounds.

Photo: anisur rahman
Photo: anisur rahman

What is the common thread that links Lerner, Ferguson and Kamil? They are all architects having an enviable record of successful practice behind them. It is not surprising that they have taken up responsibilty of governing cities. Architects by default lead, manage and coordinate multi-disciplinary groups. From the smallest residential building to large infrastructural projects, they design and administer schemes that involve diverse issues, strict budget and tight deadlines. It is a daily job for architects to handle huge amount of information, relate them to each other and make sense out of it to find solutions.
Sigfried Gideon termed city planning as the last department of architecture to take form in any period and historically, architects have been known to come up with brilliant concepts concerning urbanism. Le Corbusier's functionalist construct of people in ideal landscapes, the Metabolism movement led by Kenzo Tange and others in Japan, the study of city as a spatial structure generated by architecture and geography by Aldo Rossi, the new landscape of Bombay imagined by Charles Correa with its hierarchical realms of spaces having flexible thresholds, Rem Koolhaas' visions of global, generic cities with more similarities than differences, how William Lim challenges the socio-ecological forms created by global capitalism in south east asian cities with ideas of ethical urbanism – all are essentially disparate ideas by architects to design and manage post-industrial era cities. With a hands-on approach, architects like Jan Gehl in Copenhagen and Richard Rogers in London have been leading the transformation of cities and urban life in general.
Cities having architects in mayoral roles are not new. In post-Hitler era Berlin, Arthur Werner was appointed the Mayor of Berlin. Kadir Topbas was the architectural advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before becoming Mayor of Istanbul. Bogdan Bogdanovich was the Mayor of Belgrade before he was forced into exile by the hostile ultra-nationalist government of Slobodan Milosevic. South Korean origin He Gin Lee may have failed in his bid to become the Mayor of New York in 2013, but many other cities in US like Mankato and Excelsior in Minnesota have had successful architect Mayors.
The Dhaka City Corporation since 1864 has been run by civil society leaders, politicians and bureucrats. While it is an undeniable fact that politics is an inseparable part of city governance, it is also painfully true that contemporary politics is perceived to be associated with vested interest, corruption and criminalization. The efficacy of the bureaucrat Administrators amidst an interfering, often fearsome, political culture is also extremely limited.  It is for the absence of leadership that Dhaka looks like a badly managed construction site. With dust and waste permanently settled, the dimly-lit, poster-ridden face of a water-logged, mugger infested city is something that badly needs a makeover. Dhaka has to be managed more efficiently, with such determination and humility that the 400,000 rickshawpullers and 800,000 garments factory workers who live in the city not by choice can start feeling they belong here.  
Let an architect take charge - for once at least.
 

The author is an architect based in Dhaka

Published: 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2014

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