It is no longer news that Dhaka has earned the infamy of being one of the world's most unliveable cities and “worst vacation spots.” We have become accustomed to hearing Dhaka's moniker, the “traffic capital of the world,” in different global media. Every time the city's alleged urban dysfunction is in the news, local social-media reactions are typically three-pronged. The first group retorts that the western media don't understand how this metropolis functions with its own organic cultural paradigms and carry-on-no-matter-what ethos. Because the western (journalistic) eye judges the city with western living standards, this type of labelling is fundamentally flawed and deceitful. The second group is nihilist, conceding, yes, it is an unliveable city and we have become frogs in the proverbial well. Members of this group are likely to retreat into their private worlds, rather than engaging with the broader city life. The third group includes the uber-fatalists, who ask: "What can you do about it? It is too unsolvable a problem and let's just go on with our lives."
It is important to get out of these thought blocks once in a while and reflect on how and why the city functions the way it does. It is also important to remember that growth of cities everywhere has always been a complicated process. Cities defy singular narratives. A city has multiple personalities, conflicting histories, and shifting growth mantras. Thus, the making of a “liveable city” begins with coming to terms with its messy histories and divergent urban tendencies, and then being prudent about what the city is and should be for its people. In one way or the other, this has been the oft-repeated message of Jane Jacobs, the activist author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), an essential reading for anybody interested in urban affairs.
Consider Dhaka once again. The city has been growing exponentially, particularly since it became the capital of the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971. This urban growth transpired with both promises and perils, introducing contentious debates not only on urbanisation, but also on questions of modernity and progress. If modernity is, as Marshall Berman articulated, “a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity [that] pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal,” Dhaka city appears to be a quintessential modernist narrative in which optimism and pessimism, resilience and dysfunction, the spaces of affluence and poverty could not find a more fluid coexistence. Karl Marx's observation that in a modern world “all that is solid melts into air”—that is, forces of global capitalism and market push everything into a perpetual state of transience—presents a prescient portrayal of contemporary Dhaka.
When Dhaka is called one of the worst cities in the world, the sweeping label actually simplifies a robust urban problem by isolating the city from its larger social, political, and economic contexts. The abstraction indeed has a ring of truth, as the city feels infernal—an urban tornado sucking everything into a dizzying vortex of traffic congestion, wild land speculation, economic disparities, and environmental challenges. Yet, neither despair nor hope alone can account for the city's exhilarating urbanity. “Howl,” the American poet Allen Ginsberg's existential angst over the hyper-modernity of 1950s New York City, could be an apt description of present-day Dhaka. “What sphinx of cement and aluminium hacked open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Robot apartments! Invisible suburbs! Skeleton treasures! Blind capitals! Demonic industries! Spectral nations! Invincible madhouses!” Ginsberg's modern metropolis was hardly a wasteland, but rather an epic battlefield where the social, cultural, and economic forces of modernity engaged in a perpetual struggle. Take a stroll around Farmgate or Gulistan and hear Ginsberg's Howl!
The capital city works like an urban maze that provokes some observers to dismiss the city as an irredeemable wasteland and some as a resilient urban zone that could be transformed into a liveable metropolis by a happy marriage of political goodwill and sustainable planning. Fortunately, there is also somewhat of a “middle path” in the vein of the Dutch architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas, who found in the Nigerian city of Lagos “a protean organism that creatively defies constrictive Western ideas of urban order.” Koolhaas found in the urbanism of developing economies not the predictable western fear of a forthcoming apocalypse, but a realistic image of what to expect in the megacities of the future. Koolhaas is perhaps not off base. By 2050, three-quarters of the world's population will live in urban areas and most future megacities will be located in developing countries. Many urban theorists now believe that the great urban experiments that were undertaken in the western metropolises of the late 19th and early 20th centuries have shifted to the developing world, particularly Asia.
Dhaka's urban growth in the past forty years or so validates this observation. Bangladesh's urban population was only 8 percent at independence, meaning that the country was still an agrarian delta punctuated by a few cities, most prominently Dhaka and at a distant second, Chittagong. Dhaka's population grew at more than 6 percent per year in the 1970s and at nearly 10 percent in the early 1980s. By the early 1990s, the capital's population was more than 6 million. Today, Dhaka's population, nearing 18 million according to some estimates, competes with those of other megacities of the world, such as, New York, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Karachi, and Mumbai. The migration of impoverished rural population to the city in search of a better life has been the mainstay of this population boom.
A varied combination of push and pull factors brings over half a million people from the villages to Dhaka city every year. This population surge results in a liquid-like filling of all “available” spaces in the city. The poor rural migrants often find refuge in what the journalist Doug Saunders called “arrival city,” the urban fringe, sustained by the everyday entrepreneurship of the underclass. There have been other crucial factors for the city's growth. Territorial expansion, natural growth, concentration of key educational institutions and health care facilities, both formal and informal sector job opportunities, industrialisation, and manufacturing, particularly readymade garments, have made Dhaka into a primate city. Contributing nearly 40 percent of the national GDP, Dhaka is disproportionately larger than other cities in the country. Besides, in the popular perception, the capital is where one needs to be to pursue big dreams. Dhaka is what London was to England in the late 19th century or New York to America in the early 20th century.
The urbanistic implications of Dhaka's population growth have been manifold. The first and foremost effect has been an unsustainable demand on urban land, leading to a staggering population density and sending urban land value to an economic stratosphere. The pressure on land rapidly altered the city's traditional urban fabric, particularly low-rise residential areas. Consider Dhanmondi, a gridiron patterned low-density residential neighbourhood planned during the East Pakistan era. Back then, generously sized and serviced plots contained mostly 2 or 3 storied buildings. They occupied about 50 percent of the plot and left the remaining area as green front and backyard. The overall impression was that of an urban pastoral. Even until the early 1980s, Dhanmondi was a quiet, self-sufficient residential neighbourhood with independent homes, a few corner shops catering to the locals, and a lake that wrapped the area with a feeling of ecological bliss. But from the late 1980s the pressure of urbanisation catalysed the replacement of Dhanmondi's low-rise single-family houses with rent-worthy multi-storied apartment buildings and profitable commercial structures. The area's urban character changed from residential to semi-commercial.
The demand on urban land also gave rise to a senseless culture of land-grabbing, wetland-filling, and river encroachment that increased Dhaka's ecological risks manifold. The land-water hydrological character that in the early 17th century inspired Islam Khan Chishti (the grandson of Emperor Akbar's spiritual mentor Sheikh Selim Chishti) to come to Dhaka has all but disappeared. For the Mughals, Dhaka's hydro-geography promised both a strategic stronghold to protect the south-eastern frontier of the empire and many commercial advantages by virtue of the city's easy accessibility. In modern times, Dhaka needed to retain its land-water geography for its ecological survival. But a soaring land price made legal and illegal occupation of wetlands, river banks, or government lands a profitable business. Many political honchos and people with economic muscle occupy lands with a sense of entitlement and impunity.
Although a civil society-initiated culture of environmental activism began to take shape from the early 1990s, Dhaka continues to face a steep environmental battle. Frenzied gentrification, exacerbated by the epidemic of land-grabbing, frequently drowns out the cry for the preservation of the city's ecological DNA. One of the most remarkable episodes of the 1990s was when real-estate developers became crucial actors in the politics of the city's growth and future. In 1991, the Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh (REHAB) was formed with 11 members to organise the real-estate sector. In 2015, nearly 1500 real-estate companies operated in Bangladesh. While they provided city dwellers with various housing options, the real-estate companies sometimes played a draconian role in transforming the capital into a cartography of lucrative housing business.
The governmental agencies responsible for the sustainable growth of the capital often either misunderstood or ignored the environmental cost of rampant urbanisation. Consider the case of Khilkhet, an area on the north-eastern edge of the capital, a site of intense ongoing housing development on reclaimed lands or low-lying agricultural fields. Khilkhet's crown jewel is the massive housing estate called Lake City Concord—a developing-world reincarnation of the iconic mid-20th-century public housing project called Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in 1972 for its alleged dehumanising design and extreme frugality of space that, according to some observers, provoked antisocial behaviour and delinquency among the project's poor inhabitants. The housing project that architectural theorist Charles Jencks identified with the so-called failure of modern architecture to provide humane, site-specific buildings swells in Khilkhet, Mohammadpur, and other parts of Dhaka. Often presented to the public with exotic names, these projects invoke ecological utopias of lush green, blue water, and unlimited familial happiness, while the reality is often a stark opposite.
One of the central problems in improving the conditions of the city has been the continued reliance on an outdated western notion of master planning, often at the expense of problem-specific, tactical urban interventions. Heavily bureaucratised, a master plan tends to be top-down, leaving no room for public participation and the essential bottom-up feedback that enables the conditions of urban liveability. This legacy of master planning more or less defined Dhaka's urban development. Furthermore, the bureaucratisation and “ad hoc-ism” of the implementation process raised serious questions on the ethics of timely intervention in the affairs of the city. Flyovers, river protection schemes, waterfront developments, and playground improvement projects, among others, have been the result of rearguard action rather than proactive imagination of the city's future. The Mumbai planner Rahul Mehrotra identified similar problems in the case of Mumbai: “Over the last three decades in Mumbai, planning has been largely concerned with rearguard actions versus the avant-garde approaches that traditionally led planning. Thus, today most infrastructure follows city growth rather than facilitating and opening up new growth centres within and outside the city's core.” Mehrotra's lament of Mumbai's rearguard planning culture could also be viewed as an advocacy for opening up spaces for proactive policy interventions which then could be the basis of what is currently touted as “ecological urbanism.”
Despite a growing culture of environmental activism in the country, Bangladeshi policy works continue to linearly focus on a much-mythologised narrative, “growth rate,” all too often at the expense of rivers, wetlands, agricultural lands, forests, and air. The official attitude toward urbanisation remains entrenched in bureaucratic and technical solutions, divorced from nuanced understandings of the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on a land-scarce country like Bangladesh. For instance, the air-polluting brickfields that contribute to over 1 percent of Bangladesh's GDP are left to a laissez-faire policy gray zone because brickfields are viewed as a great protagonist in the vaunted growth-rate storyline. Besides, peddling political influence and resorting to hefty bribes, brickfield owners easily bypass environmental regulations. Brickfields that surround Dhaka today meet the building industry's incessant demand of bricks, but they also pollute the air of the metropolis and deplete the agricultural productivity of the land they occupy, legally or illegally. While this paradoxical effect of modernity will not go away, there will be choice available to the people. The choice, fortunately, does not have to be entrapped into an “either-or” situation. The choice could embrace an environmentally sensitive vision of urbanisation, while ensuring the economic progress of the populace with a least disruptive carbon footprint.
Let us return to the global media question regarding Dhaka that I posed at the outset. My own reaction to such labels as “one of the worst cities of the world” is one of both exasperation and introspection. I remain optimistic that it is possible to build on Dhaka's vibrant cultural footprint and enterprising human resources, while imagining a 21st-century ecologically-conscious response to the needs of a burgeoning metropolis. In the Travel section of the New York Times (The Bangladesh traffic jam that never ends, Sept 23, 2016), Jody Rosen wrote: “Like other megacities of the developing world, Dhaka is both a boomtown and a necropolis, with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class and a lively cultural and intellectual life that is offset by rampant misery: poverty, pollution, disease, political corruption, extremist violence and terror attacks. But it is traffic that has sealed Dhaka's reputation among academics and development specialists as the great symbol of 21st-century urban dysfunction, the world's most broken city.” The state of being both a boomtown and a necropolis, and in conclusion a broken city should not surprise or offend us. This is the nature of the contemporary metropolis in the developing world—a battlefield of contradictory forces. We just need to be proactive as to how to augment the positive forces. But the most important issue would be to take lessons from history and not repeat the same mistakes that western metropolises committed after World War II. Among these mistakes were building infrastructures that didn't serve the majority of the population, planning automobile-centric cities, focusing exclusively on economic growth at the expense of ecological balance, and segregating economic classes through zoning politics. Over the past four decades or so, many western metropolises have invested vast resources to undo these mistakes by embracing the ethos of ecological and people-centric urban planning. Can we learn from history?
The writer is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist and teaches in Washington, DC. He is the author of Impossible Heights: Skyscrapers, Flight, and the Master Builder (2015) and Oculus: A Decade of Insights in Bangladeshi Affairs (2012). He is a member of the USA-based Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI).