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     Volume 4 Issue 32 | February 4, 2005 |

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Cover Story

The Costly
Cosmetic Job


What good is a face-lift of a city that that is grappling with problems? With the acute lack of foresight in planning, Dhaka is becoming a mere cluster of apartments and markets. As most urgent needs of housing and city amenities are left unmet, and the last remaining open spaces and water bodies are disappearing in the face of encroachment, how does one translate the effort of beautification? While the Dhaka City Corporation itself is bogged down in its own problems, how do experts see the latest drive to beautify the main thoroughfares?
Once again, the ever-elusive question of setting priorities has been brought to the fore. Most decry the high expenditure earmarked for the project. Others are unhappy about the lack of cohesion in design. SWM accumulates their opinions while taking a closer look at the relevant issues.

The Aesthetic Dilemma
"There were both natural and planted trees on both sides of the road just a few days back. But as ill luck would have it, most of them were cut. At first, I thought that trees were being cut to widen the road that could be an integral part of the developing capital. But, later it became evident that the sides of the roads have been made almost clear of trees, soil was accumulated and slopes were prepared." This is how Abdus Sattar Molla, a specialist, Material Development Unit, NCTB, Dhaka, describes the transformation that the Airport Road has gone through in recent months.

The sides of the 8-10 kilometre long Airport Road (from Zia to Staff Road) is now dressed in grass and ornamental plants. Colourful plants adorn slopes and in regularly placed concrete tumblers on the footpath to adhere to certain patterns. Bay areas have been designed after clearing the roadside trees to redecorate it. Yet it is regarding beauty that many experts have different opinions. Though most laud the effort to make the main thoroughfares of the city neat, they also refer to the beautification effort as just a "cosmetic job".

Prof. Dr. Nazrul Islam, Department of Geography and Environment, Dhaka University, who is also the Honourary Chairperson of the Centre for Urban Studies, readily appreciates the effort to smarten up the city. But he questions the merit of this "flowery and ornamental" endeavour. He sees little effort in making the city functional. In the context of "total city planning" that is based on a few basic principles, Islam emphasises the need of "a beautification effort as well as a style suited to a poor country like Bangladesh". "The project looks expensive, and it tries to emulate the roads of rich countries like the UAE, Singapore and Malaysia, with which Dhaka shares no resemblance in respect of economy and environment," he adds.

Islam gets down to the nitty-gritties. "A city must be efficient, economically viable and beautiful. There are other criteria; a city must be socially just, environmentally sustainable and culturally vibrant. There should also be ethnic and religious integration, and democratic political structures that must ensure coexistence of all classes. When a city is planned all these principles are taken into account," stresses Islam. "What we are witnessing in Dhaka is merely road-based beautification. As it is the BTCB/DUDP that is also involved in the beautification efforts, the main focus has been the roads," he continues.

For many experts the foremost factor is whether the money spent is worth the work that has been done and is still going on. On top of that, there is the concern of whether it is being done at the cost of other important development work that might have alleviated much of the city's choking inefficiency.

Islam dwells on the thought whether a city like Dhaka can afford to spend so much only on a few roads? "Both rich and poor ply these roads, the former in cars, the latter on buses. And it is the efficiency of roads that is of prime importance. There must also be conformity with per capita user expenditure," he argues. Islam believes that it is problematic as it does not focus on different zones of the city. "Even an important place like Suhrwardi Udyan was left out," he contends. And terms the beautification effort as mere "window-dressing".

However, the man behind the transformation of the Airport Road that has inspired awe in many appreciating Dhakaites has his own say. K.M. Mahfuzul Huq Zaglul, a working architect, was the consultant and designer of the entire airport road. "It was the wish of the Prime Minister that we have materialised. As for felling of the trees, ten fold more have been planted. Since in Bangladesh we lack the nursery expertise to plant trees that are already big enough to be noticed, the roadside areas look vacant," he explains. He also adds that it is to widen the view that he had planned to remove the roadside trees and plant new ones further apart from the footpath.

Zaglul also refutes the allegation of not planting more indigenous trees. "Seventy thousand trees have been planted, and most are local -- mahogany, palm, and Jarul are predominant among other trees," he says. He also has a truth to disclose. "Most trees are foreign, even krishnochura is a foreign species, the name was given by Tagore when it was first imported. Even mahogany is from Africa," Zaglul points out.

As for the undergrowth, "bushes and shrubs have their share of the local variety; kanta mehedi, sheora are local finds, odelia and lantana are of foreign origin," Zaglul assures. He hastens to add that "all that we have planted are low-maintenance vegetation, the seasonal flowers that you see are only for the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) Summit. It's a small part of the whole.”

Zaglul refutes the argument of those who say that the current beautification project is too expensive for a country like Bangladesh. "It is the private companies that are paying the bills. And this is the first time in this country that such works are being done. It also taps into a whole new ground -- corporate social responsibility," he says.

zIn this context, Salma A. Shafi, Managing Director, Sheltech Consultant Private Ltd., has a clear argument: "The project was centred on the VIP roads and is aimed at visitors and the rich. The kind of beautification that took place is suited for Japan or Singapore. Even in many rich countries landscaping remains simple and natural. The 'gardening' that is taking place in a city that fails to provide shelter to 40 percent of its inhabitants has no bearing on the real issues," she adds.

What was it all about?
It was the Saarc Summit scheduled for January that prompted the authorities to think up this unique way of using both the private sector and government agency resources to revamp the city. It was on June 26, 2004 that 109 private organisations were given the nudge. "Initially only 73 organisations responded. After a little more persuasion a few more joined in. At present, 81 of them are involved in 109 sections that are defined by length of roads," Iftekharul Hoque assures. Hoque, the officer-in-Charge of the Dhaka City Beautification Cell (DCBC), also confirms that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) plans to award the organisation that will perform the best. The organisations that bailed the DCC out by contributing to the beautification were also promised exposure through provision of regulated advertisement.

Though the most conspicuous feature was the flowery ornamentation, the DCBC project has been successful in removing the clusters of billboards on the Airport Road that were eyesores for city dwellers. In the designated roads most billboards and neon signs were cleared. But they were promptly replaced by adverts and signs of those involved in the act of beautification.

The plan was launched in 2003 during a 'Shushashan' meeting at the PMO. The DCC formed DCBC to monitor and co-ordinate the beautification project. This 11-member cell is headed by the Chief Executive Director of DCC. Taken up under the directives of the PMO, the project is being implemented by various agencies and organisations. It is the landscape architect of DCC along with a gardening expert from BARI, and a representative of the nursery who played the key role in approving the project designed by architects and consultants.

The organisations involved were assigned the job of planting trees and revamping of medians and the sides of the roads. The same organisations will maintain their respective zones for the next four years.

Two parks have also been leased out for the next eight years. The Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industries has been in charge of the park to the west of Adamjee Court at Dilkusha. The Panthakunja Park, next to Sonargoan Hotel, has been the liability of Arkey Group. They transformed an unfinished public monument-like structure into an advertisement stand, putting up neon signs of Unilever on three sides. The square has recently been inaugurated by the city Mayor, Sadeq Hossain. Guarded by barbed-wire tangles, it still remains off limits to the city dwellers.

As for the benefits of the participating organisations, they were allowed to put their billboards, plaques or signs specified by the DCC. A maximum of three advertisements
were allowed in the designated area.

Regarding advertisement, Nizamuddin Ahmed differs in principle: "The companies involved made their profits from the people of Bangladesh. They could've contributed without the benefit of putting up plaques or signs to announce their contribution."

Amidst the hullabaloo, corporate executives lost no time extolling the project. "We are taking part to perform our corporate responsibility," one of the Deputy Managers of Grameen Phone (GP) said to The Daily Star. In reality the GP sponsored stone plaques bearing excerpts of poems by famous Bangali poets that had not been properly proof read. However, the efforts to make the beautification project at Gulshan 2 roundabout a culturally relevant one is something that prompts one to become even more critical about the rest of the project.

Zaglul strongly feels that the "interrelation that the poems on the stones at Gulshan 2 develops between the city dwellers and literature is an example of corporations taking up responsibility of the people and its culture."

Backtracking on Dhaka
Dhaka is often believed to have been established in 1610 by the Moghul Subedar Islam Khan. But there are historical reports that traces back to a thriving township as early as the 11th century.

It was in 1880 that Dhaka began to sprawl out to its north. Though situated on the right bank of the river Buriganga, Dhaka, with its roots in the pre-industrial era, was a city that had more than its fair share of gardens and water bodies. Dholai Khal, Segun Bagicha Khal, Begunbari Khal and others were its main attraction during the British rule.

Many rue over the fact that Dhaka has changed in just the opposite direction. "It was a beautiful green city, sometimes easily mistaken for a village," Bartly Bart wrote in his book, Romance of an Eastern Capital, in 1914.There is little romance left in today's Dhaka. There are no immediate plans, let alone cosmetic jobs, which may revive some of its lost character.

It was the utter lack of foresight that has turned Dhaka into a cosmopolitan night mare. Nazrul Islam has been an advocate of 'planned city' since the inception of independent Bangladesh. Back in 1973, Islam wrote a cover story for the then popular weekly, <>Bichitra in which he espoused an opinion that pegged importance on the nature and needs of the people dwelling in the city.

The human factor professed by the celebrated European urban planners of the last century was the bedrock principle which he re-emphasised. Islam wrote that, without considering the socio-political and cultural history and norms of a demographic, the work of the architect and engineers would be rendered meaningless. "Without this," he wrote, "there can never be a balance between the two aspects, one, is the functional and the other, is the visual feature."

The present Dhaka, however dysfunctional, is going through a polishing effort. Even to keep the polish that it has attained, the authorities need to take stalk of the measures that they have undertaken. "Narrow medians are being planted with expensive flower plants. Such plants need daily maintenance. I think, it would be difficult to keep these seasonal flower plants alive," reasons Islam, who also sees little relevance in planting mahogany trees in the narrow median along Sonargaon Road.

Islam believes that there are two concepts regarding such beautification projects; one that thrives on a 'deliberate natural look' and the other that is 'ornamental'. It is the latter that is currently being implemented in Dhaka.

As for his belief in total planning, Islam argues that the British Dhaka that consisted of Nilkhet, Ramna and Baily Road is the testimony to how beautiful a planned city can be; the Ramna area still is the most functional and visually interesting part of Dhaka. "It was during the early 1900s that areas were developed and 'permanent trees' were planted in clusters and on roadsides. Scopes for wider road as well as pedestrian pathways were also planned. After 100 years the trees are still standing. I don't see these kinds of permanent plans in the DCBC project," he points out.

As for the trees, indigenous varieties have been abandoned. The British colonial rulers could think of planting tamarind trees in some areas; but in 2005, the Bangladeshis could not figure out a way to put deshi trees along the roadside bay areas.

"What is positive about the Airport Road is that the concept of cleanliness, greenery and floral decoration and even parking space were taken into consideration. However, instead of repeating the patterns, it could've been more creative," says Dr. Nizamuddin Ahmed.

Zaglul, the designer of the road, asserts that "the patterns were inspired by the traditional alpona". "I was infatuated with alpona since I was very young, and it is this which I've drawn my idea from," he adds.

As for the other areas where two-foot wide medians have been dressed in tiles and special species of grass and plants, Ahmed has a rebuttal, "it is unwise." He laments the fact that the absence of indigenous plants and trees makes the project look artificial. He also points out that "the project lacks cohesion". "Tiles, bricks and steel were used as materials, and the designs too are iconoclastic and ugly. It seems as if umpteen numbers of designers have been employed at once," he adds.

The most dramatic change has been introduced to the northern bay areas of Bijoy Sharani. The landscape that had clusters of trees and slopes was razed to make way for few intermittent mounds. Curiously interspersed with date palms, the landscape has a strong sense of deja-vu. It is the classic example of Bangalis trying to emulate the landscape of a foreign city, namely Abu Dhabi.

Missed Opportunities
The DCBC project is not user-friendly. It is mostly about visuals. The designers had the passing traffic in mind. All installations are less about using than about looking.

The seating arrangements on the footpath in the Dhaka University area used cement and steel structure as materials and the forms are aesthetically pleasant. But they are almost non-functional.

The Unilever square, at the tip of the Panthakunja Park near Sonargoan, too, is about visual stimulation. The elevated grassy grounds divided in geometric sections are bound by brick walls and they most certainly are plain show pieces. Pedestrians can enter along the maze of walkways that cuts through them, but they can never really enjoy a moment of reprieve. There is no provision for seats or even for one to stop to have a breather.

"It is a short-term undertaking, if they had long-term plans the outcome would not have been this bad," believes Ahmed. "The city corporation was under pressure to meet the Saarc summit deadline. As far as long-drawn plans are concerned, time and professionalism are the prime factors. These two have to be maintained to get satisfactory results," he adds.

"In total planning, there are a few basic elements. One is 'roads' that can be a mixer of straight and curvilinear ones, as in the Ramna area. There are 'nodes' or junctions that need special attention, as they should be most efficient, and there is the 'district', a special area that has distinct characteristics. The commercial district, the residential district will have different features essential to make them functional as well as beautiful," explains Nazrul Islam.

Islam's proposal to revive Dhaka sounds like a strong antidote to the DCBC project. He is in favour of restoring the Buriganga river front. He likes to believe that by restructuring the river front that fell into disfavour as far as development is concerned, Dhaka may have a second chance.

In Salma A. Shafi's perception of beautification, there is no alternative to the "natural look". "What is the use of putting steel structures that purport to be sculptures? Why should Dhaka spend so much on materials that hardly fit into a natural setting or even in the consciousness of its people?" Salma argues.

The historic and the cultural features as well as its natural possibilities of the city have always been in neglect. Yet, these are the features that go to make up the essence of a city. "Singapore has a history of 200 years, and the city tries to treasure it. Dhaka has a history of more than five hundred years, yet it has utterly failed in protecting its history. Restoration of Ahsan Manzil was a commendable job," says Islam.

Any building, public space or even a monument comes with a history and a physical surrounding. If these are overlooked, the structure loses its meaning. The money splurged on dressing up roadside areas and laying out decorative brick tiles on certain footpaths could have been spent on an over-all beautification project. The road as an element needs a beautiful setting. A well-planned efficient city divided into various districts or zones, park areas, water bodies and open spaces constitute that setting. Roads need attention, so do many other elements that are essential to a city.

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