Before landing at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, Zhu Ruo lin saw Dhaka from a bird's eye view and also took some photographs.
After getting into a car on his way to a city hotel, he went through the photographs and found many similarities between the present day Dhaka and Shanghai of the early '90s.
Zhu Ruo lin, whose time as Dean of the Pudong Planning and Design Institute saw Shanghai's eastbound growth across Huangpu River and its emergence as the world's most populous city, said Dhaka can be transformed into a developed city like his own home town.
The modern financial district of Shanghai, located east of the Huangpu River, Pudong, is China's answer to Manhattan. Pudong, which was little more than a patchwork of paddy fields a few decades ago, now boasts one of the world's leading bourses - the Shanghai Stock Exchange, as well as the city's international airport and the futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower among rows of towering skyscrapers.
Presently, a member of China's urban planning specialty review committee, Zhu Ruo lin came to Dhaka for the first time at the invitation of the World Bank to attend an international conference on development options for Dhaka towards 2035, held on Wednesday.
On the sideline of the conference, Zhu spared sometime exclusively for The Daily Star to share some of his thoughts on sustainable urban development.
And nothing probably could have been a happier coincidence than gaining from Zhu's knowledge at a time when Dhaka has the opportunity for an eastbound expansion like Shanghai of the '90s.
Zhu shared the experience on how Pudong helped transform Shanghai into one of the modern cities of the world within a span of two and a half decades.
Shanghai's multi-billion dollar facelift began in the 1980s, during the early stages of China's economic opening to the world.
In 1990, Communist Party leaders in Beijing unveiled plans to develop the area to the east of Huangpu into a "Special Economic Zone" and three years later "Pudong New Area" was officially founded. The central government of China and the State Council played a very important role in this transformation.
After 24 years of development, the 1,210 square kilometer area of Pudong has become the engine of economic and social development of Shanghai. Along with a fast-changing skyline, an outward-looking and modern urban district with multiple functions has come into being. Pudong has won honorary titles such as "National Model District".
In a short 24 years, dramatic changes have taken place in Pudong, transforming from farmlands to high buildings and from out-of-the-way villages to prosperous urban areas. Pudong became the "Pearl of the Orient", acclaimed as the "epitome of Shanghai's modernisation" and the "symbol of China's reform and opening up".
With the fast economic growth of Pudong, it has significantly improved the ecological environment, winning the titles of "National Landscape District", "National Sanitary District", "National Environmental-Friendly Model District" and "China Human Habitation Environment Award".
Zhu said all that they have done so far to transform Pudong into a modern city was possible due to visionary thinking, well thought-out plans, effective management and coordinated efforts.
“A city is like a human body. If you don't take care of it, she will get sick,” he said.
“In 1992, Pudong was an underdeveloped area. In order to develop the area, we welcomed foreign investment and interest there,” Zhu said.
About the planning of Pudong, he said the authority invited five designers to submit their ideas to transform Pudong into a modern city.
“We didn't accept or reject any submission. We prepared a fresh design taking all the good points from all five.”
Zhu said all of their development works were aimed at how people will be benefited.
He said ensuring education, job creation, health service, traffic and drainage management and affordable housing are some major challenges to ensure livability in urban areas.
“If you can meet those challenges, you will get success,” he said adding, “To achieve those things, coordination among different agencies is extremely important.”
Before the development of Pudong, Shanghai suffered from traffic congestion. Zhu said they had massive traffic congestion in Shanghai as well as other different parts of China. But the authorities succeeded in controlling congestion through proper planning and strict implementation.
Pointing to some significant measures they have applied in Pudong and also in other parts of China, Zhu said people can rent bicycles from bicycle stands located at different suitable points of Pudong to travel short distance ranging from five to six kilometres.
“This measure is eco-friendly and reduces the pressure on motor vehicles.”
Recalling his memories, Zhu said when he was young, the situation in many of China's cities some 40 to 50 years ago was almost like the one in Dhaka now.
“That's why I am confident that Dhaka can be transformed into a modern city through taking proper planning.”