All of a sudden Dhaka's Airport Road is looking like a Potemkin Road. With an exhibition of “bonsai” trees, odd garden-like set-ups, random visual paraphernalia, arbitrary street lights, and Stalinist sculpture, Airport Road is showing all the gimmicks of those fake villages that the Russian administrator Grigory Potemkin created along the path of Empress Catherine's journey in the Crimea in 1787. Since then the term has come to mean devices city administrators prop up to dazzle a few but conceal or avoid dealing with actual conditions.
The key term in this deception is “beautification,” a practice in which state money is mobilised for an unnecessary project that has little value in public benefit, and often carried out by bureaucratic decision that lacks knowledge of the actual requirements and consequences of what is going on. The work itself, usually not reviewed by any learned body, is carried out by dubious professionals and builders.
No city planning culture in the world uses the term beautification in the design of their cities; planning proceeds through the methods and techniques of urban design, landscape design or civic design, any of which requires the involvement of trained and dedicated professionals. Only societies afflicted by the Potemkin syndrome put up hideous things – from billboards to bonsai trees – to hide their incompetence, which they then call 'beautification'. With Bangladesh's remarkable and continuing achievement in GDP and increasing volume in government coffers, we can safely predict that we will see more and more of such questionable projects.
Since the 1980s the Airport Road has fallen prey to quite a few Potemkinesque projects targeted apparently for foreign visitors, but the recent grand exhibition curated by the Roads and Highways Department is full of absurdity and hilarity, both at the same time. It's absurd to beautify the Airport Road when the airport itself remains a disgrace. No one will disagree that Dhaka airport, with its shoddy spaces, facilities and services, takes the prize as the worst airport in the world.
If intending to improve a special corridor such as the Airport Road that links the city with the airport, Roads and Highways need not go far. The most beautiful airport road is not in Kuala Lumpur, landscaped with manicured attention, or Tokyo, with grand views of the countryside, but our very own Sylhet city. The 15-minute drive from the airport to the main street of the city takes place through tea gardens with their breathtaking views. We can learn a few things from this exceptional site: how to arrange airport roads, and its canopied routes, cultivated views, and picturesque landscapes.
The grand beautification of Airport Road is not merely Potemkinesque, which would make things humorous, but rather alarming. At the centre of this fraught project is the planting of those imported trees. Apparently the trees, bonsai or bonsai-like, have been imported from China at a ridiculous price of Tk 200,000 each.
Creating bonsai-like tree is a unique and laborious process that needs a lot of care; it needs equal care in its maintenance. An important aspect of such trees is the location of their placement. Typically set in formal indoors or courtyards of grand Chinese or Japanese buildings, bonsai trees are totally inappropriate on roadsides. We know of no city, west or east, where a major promenade or avenue has been lined up with bonsai trees. People who have made the decision obviously do not see the absurdity in it.
It's also absurd for other reasons. With each tree costing an obscene Tk 200,000 and special shipment cost from China, 120 trees would cost close to Tk 3 crore! On the other hand, if a more locally familiar tree variety were chosen, such as krishnachura, radhachura or nageswar, each tree may have cost no more than Tk 2,000. Eminent botanist Professor Dwijen Sharma thinks that we have a strong precedence and tradition of avenue trees.
Planting of locally known variety would have been culturally and ecologically appropriate. Krishnachura, for example, has an elegant presence and history in Bengali imagination, and has delighted the arrangement of streets in many places in Bangladesh. We also know the behaviour of such trees, and are better equipped for their maintenance and upkeep. We have little or no expertise about the bonsai, particularly, the bonsai version of what appears to be a ficus tree in the Airport Road project. With the trees set up on footpaths, close to the edge of the highway, no one has any idea what will happen if the trees start to expand in five or ten years.
In planting trees on urban roadsides, it is important to know what type should be planted, and for which purpose. More than a visual presence that may tantalise passersby, or people driving by, it is more important to go for shade-producing trees that may sooth the pedestrians as well as vehicles. Trees with wide green canopies also contribute to reducing the heat gain of the built city.
Dhaka is not a walkable city – few decisions are taken with the pedestrian as a priority. There is a reason why people usually walk on roads rather than footpaths. Roads are constantly widened for the benefit of cars by reducing the width of footpaths. Additionally, footpaths are constructed without any deep sense of how they work or should work, in fact, with little empathy for the pedestrian. There are no guidelines for footpath in this glorious city where 60 percent of the population walk. Footpaths' widths are often so narrow that we joke a footpath literally means a foot-wide path. There are constant cuts and breaks, and ups and downs, in the pavement making walking a health challenge. Footpaths are ridiculously high from the road; they are often 20 inches high, at some points steps have to be constructed to get up on the sidewalk. Even though there are ample spaces on both sides of the Airport Road Corridor, the footpath is a minuscule four or five feet when it could have been twenty feet wide, and there is hardly any shade-giving tree. The Airport Road project has constructed unnecessary gardens and structures for purely visual bravado.
Constructing walls is another syndrome that afflicts Dhaka. Whether a property is private or government-owned, the first task is to erect offensive walls all around. Walls can also be visually interesting; they can be porous or fence-like allowing porosity between the two sides, but most walls in Dhaka are solid putting up a blunt, unfriendly face to the public side. We have done a calculation of the boundary walls of plots in Gulshan residential area: if the walls were lined up end to end, they would reach from Dhaka to Chittagong! When the Roads project envisioned a whole corridor bounded by walls for a few kilometres, they may have thought something like this rather than the wonderful experience of seeing open spaces and greeneries along the route.
The Roads and Highways Department should just focus on roads and highways and leave “beautification” to others. In the meantime, they should work on more important and critical things, for example, discipline vehicle movements on the roads, create lines on roads for proper and safe movements, mark proper stoppages for buses, construct adequate pedestrian corridors and shelters, and arrange for safe methods for pedestrian-crossing that now verges on being life threatening (Tk 3 crore for bonsai could make for six pedestrian overbridges!). All that money spent could go a long way in making Airport Road safer, more efficient and truly beautiful.
The writer is an architect, urbanist and author, and director-general of Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements.