The World Bank recently organised a symposium on Dhaka's urban future and planned expansion into the east. The urban policy advocacy at the symposium was driven by what Martin Rama, the WB chief economist for South Asia, encapsulated in this statement: “Whatever happens to Dhaka, happens to Bangladesh.” In other words, if Dhaka fails, Bangladesh fails. Therefore, Dhaka must be properly planned and expanded to shoulder this national burden.
This policy position probably makes sense but it is dangerous.
The broader planning question here is: should we let Dhaka expand more or de-escalate its growth frenzy? Should we save Dhaka from over-development by investing in other cities of Bangladesh, thus encouraging decentralisation?
It is no news that Dhaka as a megalopolis is creaking at all its urban seams. Traffic congestion is infernal. Even after moderate rains, waterlogging frequently paralyses city life. According to the website Demographia, Dhaka's urban population density is highest in the world at 114,300 people per square mile. On average, 70 people from rural Bangladesh pour into Dhaka every hour in search of jobs and better lives. Over 200 registered motor vehicles enter the city streets every day. Things couldn't be more intense and crowded.
How long can Dhaka keep on growing? Has the city reached its limit? It is time we seriously considered the environmental and social cost of urban expansion ad infinitum.
The World Bank's vision for Dhaka 2035 is understandable. Between 1995 and 2005, there has been a widening gap between demand and supply. Road surface in Dhaka increased by only 5 percent, while population surged by 50 percent and traffic by 134 percent. Qimiao Fan, World Bank Country Director, stated: “Based on current trends, Dhaka will have more than 35 million people by 2035. A productive and liveable city of this scale can make enormous contributions to its citizens and the economy.”
What is implied here is that the capital city's existing land area is insufficient to meet its projected urban demand. Thus, Dhaka's “empty” eastern territory could be the answer. Build the eastern embankment, and “there would be an enormous tract of land which is now flooded.”
These “grow more” and “go east” solutions for Dhaka give rise to disconcerting questions.
That there is an “enormous tract of land” on the eastern side of Dhaka is a myth. If it were a land in the first place, it has already been occupied by powerful corporations and developers who see profit as the only way forward.
Just keep going through Khilkhet toward the Balu River and then Shitalakhya River. It feels like a haunted journey through a postmodern wasteland of silvery sand, occasionally interrupted by anaemic rivulets and the sand-carrying barges that navigate through them. In the midst of the area's unsettling quiet, if you try, you can hear the cry of the people who were coerced to sell their ancestral aqua-lands that once defined Dhaka's eastern frontier.
Why is this area now a vast land of sand? That's because most of Dhaka east has never been a land in the first place. It used to be a floodplain, a sprawling low-lying hydrography that acted like an ecological sponge, absorbing flood water, water from the city's natural drain networks, and rainwater runoffs. And, the locals lived off this land-water geography.
Alas, like other low-lying regions of the city, land-grabbers have filled up the east with impunity. City developer agencies like Rajuk not only watched the “ecocide” from the sidelines, but also participated in it. For example, the Rajuk-developed housing project Purbachal, a 6,000-plus acre floodplain between Balu and Shitalakhya, is now, say, a 10-feet-thick mass of neo-Coleridgian “sand, sand, everywhere.” Where would the massive quantity of water that used to drain into the eastern floodplains go now? Why are we surprised about waterlogging in the city?
The World Bank's Dhaka 2035 is curious. Seeing the city's eastern frontier as an “enormous empty land” ready to be transformed into a mega-shop for economic productivity is to ignore some of the basic tenets of liveable cities that are being championed today around the world. At the centre of the debate is: Should economic growth take precedence over ecological well-being?
Economy and ecology should not be mutually exclusive. An ecologically balanced city is good for the economy in the long run. Seoul recently replaced a massive, hovering expressway that pierced the city's central district with a water stream, rejuvenating down town social life. New York is transforming vehicular streets into pedestrian community spaces. And, business is growing.
Development ignoring the city's geographic DNA is bad business. There are no universal Pudong urban templates. Cities like Seoul, Melbourne, Portland (Oregon), and Medellin (Colombia), among others, teach us how existing cities could be reimagined and reorganised to serve the social and economic needs of their people.
Instead of drumming up Dhaka's mega-expansion, the World Bank should invest in developing other mid-sized Bangladeshi cities sustainably, while partnering with the government in recuperating Dhaka's eastern floodplains as land-water-green national parks. Invest in Dhaka's low-cost public transportation as community building tools, not in Pudongs as blueprints for Dhaka east.
Help reduce demand for cars rather than lamenting the loss of car speed on city streets. Invest in robust social campaigns to motivate the youth to ride bicycles to work rather than glorifying 300-feet-wide roads and flyovers as symbols of urban future. Invest in safe footpaths that would create a culture of pedestrianism. Help deglamorise car ownership. Invest in people-centric, humane cities. Economy will follow, sustainably.
*Illustration copyright: Amy Casey, with permission for one time use.
Adnan Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist, and currently serving as Chairperson of the Department of Architecture at BRAC University. He is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (2015) and Oculus: A Decade of Insights in Bangladeshi Affairs (2012). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.