Apopulist slogan aired in the 1980s – the decade of the poetic general – that if villages survive, the nation will survive. Now thirty years later, when more than half of the world's population is living in cities, we are prone to say that if the city works, the nation will work. It is not that the significance of the village has diminished, but the city has acquired a new urgency and potency not witnessed before.
The urgency is heightened for cities which faced with various challenges have not been able to proceed towards their urban potential. Bearing all the complexities and challenges of an unruly urbanization, Dhaka flounders with its possibilities. The list of malaise that trails this city is all too known: vanishing open spaces, outrageous pollution, miserable housing, increasing social inequalities, wretched public transport, and troubled ecology.
Very little has been done to minimize these afflictions. No wonder Dhaka continues to find itself every year in that odious list of the least livable cities of the world. Only a dedication for making the city better through a robust and intelligent planning, supported by political will, can bring genuine solutions, and a removal from that list. But here is the irony: When we need the highest level of urban thinking for a city as complex as Dhaka, we have ceded its destiny to indifferent bureaucrats, self-centred developers and sly policy-makers. This motley group has one thing in common: to produce an anti-thesis of what a good city should be.
What kind of a place is an anti-city? It is an urban concentration that appears to be a city where in the pretense of economic exigency, a precious ecology is savagely brutalized, and where in the name of housing ethics, mere money-making is exercised. In an anti-city, public spaces cherished for replenishing the tired souls of its besieged citizens are forcibly converted into ghettos and encampments, even if a space happens to be the finest in the world.
Three schemes are currently afoot to ensure that Dhaka proceeds towards its negative destiny: “dapping” Dhaka, caging Kahn's Complex, and “beautifying” recklessly.
The continuing saga of DAP is getting less dapper and more uncertain. The original intention of DAP (Detailed Area Plan) was to bring an ecological consciousness to a new master plan for Dhaka to preserve precious landscapes of wetlands, agricultural areas, and flood-flow zones of the city. Even though the plan was produced, as claimed, by “renowned” consultants, key people involved with DAP are now admitting that there were “some errors” in demarcating the hydrological zones. And now a new and better DAP is promised with the direct participation of members of the real-estate developers' association, REHAB.
While all stakeholders should have a voice in the life of a city, to concede to a single, powerful group, especially one that has earned a dubious reputation in affecting the urban environment, is worrisome. The point of contention is not complicated. Since land is gold mine in Dhaka, to restrict developable land and therefore minimize profit-making was seen as the biggest “error” of the first DAP. While the developers raised a ruckus on seemingly logical points, vast areas were filled up wantonly under the banner of housing society projects with minimum attention to environmental concerns. A ruthless solution was adopted: fill up wetlands, divide it up in plots, and build boxes as apartments or houses. The ferocity of landfill in and around Dhaka, of its precious water bodies, canals and channels and even rivers amounted to an environmental rapine.
No one suggests curtailing the market mechanism of making and selling housing, but none of the developers' projects in the last twenty years or so have shown any novel example of planning with environmental consciousness, in which new settlement and housing patterns were conceived to work with the hydrological process and agricultural milieu. Such schemes require innovative design thinking that neither the developers' lobby nor the bureaucratic functionaries have encouraged or understood. This is where the original DAP actually failed. DAP's position appeared oppositional to development, and the developer's strategy inimical to ecology. No intelligent balance has been sought in the meantime.
In 1963, a philosopher-architect from the American city of Philadelphia, Louis Kahn, arrived in Dhaka to create what came to be regarded as a world-class architectural marvel. Kahn may have been given the task to design a Parliament Building and its various facilities but what he finally designed was a unique ensemble of buildings, public spaces, lakes, orchards and gardens. With the main structure – the Parliament Building – rising from the water and framed by public spaces and supporting buildings, Kahn's Complex prophesized the possibility of a new kind of Bengali city that responded to an aquatic landscape, and promised restorative spaces for the deprived citizens of the city. It became a rare example of what civic and public spaces can be in a tropical city.
What was understood, perhaps intuitively and poetically, by a foreigner as the essential qualities of a city in the delta has not touched the imagination of our renowned consultants and over-eager policy makers.
Poor world-class marvel! The Complex and its crown jewel, the Sangsad Bhaban, continue to be a target of planned vandalism despite declarations from the authorities to keep its sanctity intact. Vandalism is an apt word when official practices are involved in changing willy-nilly the interior spaces of Sangsad Bhaban, closing off the Presidential Entrance in the north to install a TV station, and taking up a grand plan is to fence off the entire Complex on security grounds.
Based on a crude idea of security and protection, the entire experience of Kahn's magnificent gift to the city of Dhaka is being threatened. After banishing people from the South Plaza (it is called South Plaza and not South Prison!), and the great lawns in front of it, the brilliant planners of security have now decided that the rupture be made permanent by constructing some insufferable fences. Obviously none of the security experts and fence-makers have seen, for example, the German Parliamant (the Reichstag), where people can walk up to the top of the glass dome over the parliament chamber and look down upon the proceedings below.
“Louis Kahn's Parliament Complex is a supreme creation,” the late master architect Muzharul Islam once noted (1994), “a place of intense activity in the city where the fate of the nation is decided. Thousands of people are going there for recreation, for strolling, just to enjoy the space, the gardens. Gardens were created within to bring people in, to let them sit by its side, to see it daily, to understand and appreciate.”
The assembly chamber may belong to the parliamentarians but the larger compound belongs to the city and its people. Kahn proposed a beautiful idea: a symbiotic relationship between people gathering in the garden appreciating the spaces, and parliamentarians in the building making laws for the people. To shut off the plaza and gardens from public access is nothing less than a civic crime.
The arbitrariness of organizing (read: destroying) the spaces of the city comes down to road dividers too. In pursuit of a “tilottoma,” road medians in northern sections of the city have been stripped to create boxes of bathroom tiles that are neither beautiful to the eye nor functional for moving traffic. The junk that passes as urban art has been created to welcome the T20 cricket teams but instead provides evidence of our creative poverty, or as architect Mubasshar Hussain pointedly described, our “madness.”
Although revisions have been directed by the prime minister (how many matter should the prime minister take up?), the City Corporation in the Northern Hemisphere of Dhaka is known to have drawn up a five-year plan with an advertising agency (with the appropriate name of “Vinyl” which in the world of building materials suggest something cheap and tawdry) to give shape to the urban and green spaces of this poor city. Who needs urban designers and landscape architects when you have vinyl artists? Who needs intelligence when a cheap act is enough?
The writer is an urbanist, architect and architectural critic. He is the author of “Designing Dhaka: A Manifesto for a Better City.”