ALMOST a month back, an interesting comment by an online news commentator caught my attention. He proposed, although indirectly, a Tk. 6 billion playground project in Dhaka. The translated comment, as published in the Prothom Alo, reads: “Rather than wasting Tk. 6 billion by playing election-game (10th national election 5.1. 2014), please make play arrangements for young people by providing some playgrounds in Dhaka city.” The commentator simply expressed his reaction at the news containing the prime minister's comment that if political parties can reach a positive agreement, then she will be ready to terminate the 10th Parliament and go for another election.
What impressed me was the second part of the comment. The commentator urged the PM to make playgrounds for children even at the cost of the long awaited general election. Now the election is over. One might wonder, at the first instance, how the issue of playground is related to the general election of the country. There are apparently so many important issues in the country, why playground and play?
Certainly, these are related questions and will draw different expert viewpoints. But it will be difficult to deny that, on this issue, many of us feel the same pain in our heart as the commentator does. Laments for lost and encroached playgrounds are being regularly published in the news media as well. But such cries hardly reach up to the authorities and policy makers concerned. Is there any hope?
The law for conserving playgrounds, open spaces, parks and natural water bodies in the mega-cities, divisional and district towns was accepted by the parliament in September 2000. The Act basically imposes requirement of mandatory approval for changing existing land use of playgrounds, open spaces, parks and natural water bodies, and has provision for punishment of up to five years of jail term or a fine of maximum Tk. 50,000 for violation of enacted rules. The law, however, does not mention any minimum area requirement for playgrounds. Even if we abide by the law, we shall have as many playgrounds in the cities as there are now. Will this meet minimum criterion of public health? We all know it will not.
From physical planning perspective, Detail Area Plan for Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan (DAP 2010) was passed under the Town Improvement Act, E. B Act XIII, 1953. Surprisingly, there is no reference in the DAP regarding minimum quantity or quality guidelines for playgrounds with reference to, say, number of people, density or geographical boundaries (blocks/wards/thanas). Although the Real Estate Development and Management Act 2010, mentions some important common facilities, it does not mandate play facilities within the high-rise compound. So this remains optional. Since playgrounds are not profit-yielding facilities, we can guess what will be the outcome of such options within the plots.
The only guideline that we have is the Private Housing Project Land Development Rule 2004. This rule provides space standards for playgrounds and parks with respect to the size of the population living on that privately developed land. The standard (under Rule 9(3) and 10(3)) states that minimum of 0.2 acres of land must be allocated for playgrounds and parks for 1,000 residents. Is such standard applicable to public areas of the city as well? At least, we are happy that it exists.
An election is occasional, although immensely important; but the need for children to play is important every day in every family's life. Recent international researches show that, apart from developing physical, cognitive, social and mental health, play helps to develop resilience and social cohesion as well. Thus the issue is related to the long-term sustainability of the city. Beyond political and other economic constraints, cities should have adequate amount of playgrounds distributed all over.
Bangladesh ratified the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC 1989). Article 31(1) of the convention says that all state parties are responsible to ensure children's right to 'play' and their 'recreation.' So the importance of the issue is of beyond doubt. But we, and I guess our authorities as well, do not know the extent of complexities involved in addressing such an issue. Is it time to ask every institution and person, starting from the prime minister and the city development authorities to the responsible planners and architects, what they are going to do to make minimum play arrangements for children in Dhaka for 2041?
Urban design research involving Dhanmondi R/A, conducted by us at the department of Architecture, Buet, shows that there is immense scope to enhance play-friendliness by rethinking existing open spaces and street systems. Redirecting vehicular traffic of thoroughfares to create close-ended streets can be one of them. However, such design related proposals could only be of any use if the higher authorities involved realise the significance of the issue of play and playground first.
I empathise with the commentator mentioned at the beginning of the article by painfully acknowledging that, although we common people realise the importance of playgrounds, our 'city-heads'seem to be too indifferent to address such an important public issue. It is the state and the city authorities, on behalf of the individual residents, who promised to ensure the right to play for children. No matter what, our children and we must keep alive the dream to have a play-friendly city.
The writer is Lecturer (on study leave), Department of Architecture, University of Asia Pacific, Bangladesh.