Dhaka in between the formal-informal | The Daily Star

Dhaka in between the formal-informal

In conversation with Kim Dovey

January 13, 2020

Kim Dovey is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and Director of the Informal Urbanism Research Hub InfUr–. His research on social issues in architecture and urban design has included investigations of urban place identity, creative clusters, transit-oriented urban design and the morphology of informal settlements. He is a distinguished scholar in Urban Design and his books include Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form (1999/2008), Fluid City (2005), Becoming Places (2010) and Urban Design Thinking (2016). He has a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and has served as Associate Dean, Head of Urban Design and Head of Architecture at the University of Melbourne.

How do you situate Dhaka in terms of its potential to study urban issues?

Dhaka, in my understanding, is a city that is unique, but is also not atypical of a range of megacities. It is a very big city that has grown substantially, with much of that growth being informal. “Informal,” in one sense, means urban development that occurs outside the formal control of a planning scheme. The state puts in place a planning scheme and says that this is a residential area or that it has a particular street morphology and then the informal processes take over and a different kind of functional mix and land use emerges. Indeed, a different kind of morphology often emerges if there are height limits and setbacks - they are often violated. Therefore, you get a very informal process layered on top of a formal process.

Many people in Bangladesh would actively argue that the mix of formal and informal is quite negative. They might use examples of the recent fire in Puran Dhaka, which is largely seen as the result of unregulated informal mix of functions and therefore, you can notice a quest to sanitise the city, to formalise, to strip out uses into different parts. How would you counter that?

The idea of a functional mix is often seen as a problem in the over-informalised cities in the Global South, and yet is seen as something that there is not enough of in what I call the over-formalised cities of the Global North. The discipline of urban planning began in the early 20th century in order to solve problems of mix, such as noxious industries located right next to places where children are growing up or being educated. Therefore, there is such a thing as a dysfunctional juxtaposition of functions. You cannot have a steelwork and a housing project adjacent to each other. There are, hence, many legitimate reasons to separate functions. Urban design theory in the West since Jane Jacobs, the famous urbanist in the ‘60s, has moved decidedly towards the idea that a mix of functions is a necessary part of every city.

This does not mean that all forms of functional mix are good. She meant that the modernist ideology in urban planning was the notion that there is a place for everything, which led to planning with zoning maps. This ensures that if you have a residential area, there are no shops or schools, and if you have an industrial area, nobody is allowed to live there. While it is important to stop the potentially wrong kind of uses together, in the end, separating everything was paralysing the city, causing dysfunction and interrupting the walkability of the city. It was entrenching car dependence. This enabled the suburban ideology, where people might want to live with a garden and a bit of space and a garage for their car and maybe two cars. This, at least in the rich cities of the West, has led to a situation where you end up living in one place, working in another and shopping and running other errands in a third place. Then, you need a car since it becomes difficult for public transport to work in those cities. The separation of functions creates more traffic.

But it is not only about the kind of functional mix. It is also about the density and access networks. It is about what I call the urban DMA, the assemblage of density, mix and access that all come together and lie at the heart of how effective cities operate.

We would like to bring back the concept of urban planning and its clear stance of being very much in that formal side of how cities evolve. How can you come to a balanced mix between the formal and informal in such a formal planning and managing process of cities like Dhaka? How do you “plan for spontaneity” with the current tools of the planners, the zoning map, the endless codes etc.? Dhaka already has a huge urban code. Professional planners have been working here for the last 60 years. All of that knowledge and tools have been applied but you still end up with such a city. There seems to be a gap between that knowledge as a body of theory as opposed to how Dhaka is working.

Dhaka is a highly informal city. As a planner, if you treat the city as if it were formal and put in place a formal plan then it will not work because you have misrecognised the city. If the city has a large informal aspect, that must be acknowledged, because all cities have a mix of formal and informal aspects.

The state often makes decisions about which kinds of informality will be tolerated and which kinds will be erased. The state draws a line and declares that some parts of the city will be an exception to the rules. For example, the “middle-class informality” of a few extra unsanctioned floors in Gulshan might not be noticed but an informal settlement might be evicted.

Recognising the way in which the city is actually working, not from a planner’s view, but from an average citizen’s everyday life perspective, is important. Let’s take street vendors (hawkers) as an example. The state may come in and say, “Only those people who own or rent shops are going to be able to trade. We will just get rid of the street vendors.” You can clear the streets for some time, but they will return, because again you have misrecognised the problem. So-called illegal street vending cannot be stopped because, for those people, this is their livelihood. It is also the livelihood of all the people who trade with them. That is where they get their food and necessities at a more affordable price. There is a whole economy that relies upon this informal trade. Wiping out this trade will only cause undue harm to the city.

I co-wrote a book called Urban Choreography (2018), which is about Melbourne and the success stories that central Melbourne has seen over the last five years. A lot of that success has to do with acknowledging that important parts of the city are informal. Street art has become one of Melbourne’s key tourist attractions but this is difficult to manage since it is an informal activity. It is better to try to reduce the harm informal activities cause rather than trying to eliminate them.

Part of the story of Melbourne has been the story of slowly, incrementally trying to get people out of their cars, build public transport and encourage walking by expanding sidewalks. Building more roads only leads to increase in car usage. You need to build public transport and then, to some degree, let road congestion be the negative factor that gets people out of their cars. When people complain about the traffic they do not realise they are the traffic. People will start using public transport once public transport is competitive with private cars.

How would you describe the public space quality in Dhaka? This question refers to the large gated communities in Dhaka such as the DOHS Residential areas or even Gulshan, Banani or Baridhara, which shut their gates at night.

Whenever there is an attempt to stop people moving around the city, when gates are put up to stop some people from going through particular streets or gated conclaves, it is antithetical to the way in which good cities work. I understand that there are security issues at times, but we have to be critical about who is benefitting from those territories being closed.

It is easy to get order in the streets with a more authoritarian government. But that is not a liveable city, since the rights of citizenship do not prevail there. I have long written against the idea of gated communities which I think are damaging to the city. They interrupt walkability, creating enclaves that are usually socially homogeneous or reserved for certain classes of people. Sometimes they are ethnic enclaves.

I think public space is a place where the rights of citizenship should be reflected. The National Parliament buildings in Dhaka cannot be accessed by the public due to the fences but I think this is not a security issue but rather something symbolic.

There is this image of the western life, the western city, the dream of modernity that still guides the imagination in terms of the city we desire.

A lot hinges upon the rather difficult notion of what modernity means. It means many things, and to a lot of people, modernity is actually a kind of an image -- an image of a clean, green city. But modernity is also linked to enlightenment, reason and rationality, turning back the predominance of religion and ideology, cutting through that to a sense of democracy and a free press and so on. This is the longer project of modernity that is linked to progress, not simply achieving a particular image. Modern architecture captures that dream in certain ways and in certain moments. But now we have moved on to a very complex world where the idea of being global and world-class has a particular kind of currency.

When I’m in other cities, I’m often asked about this - what does Melbourne do to get the honour of being the world’s most liveable city? I believe it is because the metric for being “liveable” is geared to not having traffic jams, being relatively safe and so on. It does not have a lot to do with what I think actually makes cities work.

Karail, the largest informal settlement in Dhaka, is going to be evicted by two so-called development projects. One is through building a hi-tech park that follows the image of the global city on one end. On the other hand, the lake, which is filled incrementally over the last 17 years, is going to be reincarnated based on concerns over pollution. There is currently a limbo due to a High Court order of no eviction without resettlement, despite the UN-Habitiat recommending cities to get out of the mind-set that slums are illegal. How would you deal with Karail, from a mayor’s perspective?

Detailed research is required on how Karail impacts Dhaka’s economy and on the ways in which Karail actually works. This must be done before any grand plan is formulated. Karail is a very large agglomeration of relatively impoverished people. I have been there and I think it is liveable. It has its problems but I think that the proposal to demolish Karail in its entirety and to redevelop it as a smart village [hi-tech park] is not smart and probably will not work in the way in which it is intended. Informal settlements are complex phenomena that are driven in many ways by rural-to-urban migration, which is in turn driven by economic forces that are beyond anybody’s control. This is not something that a national government can change.

Cities are where the jobs are being produced and so urbanisation has meant also an urbanisation of poverty with informal settlements and slums. Informal settlements are the way in which rural migrants find a foothold in the city. Some people call them ‘arrival cities’ but it is not just about arriving. It is about establishing a foothold in the city and getting access to those jobs that the city is producing. Residents of Karail are filling those roles. They are working in the formal city. If Karail is not serving the function of affordable housing, what will? The replacement of affordable housing for such people generally leads to displacement - an apartment in a high rise, often far away from where the employment is. What kind of transport are they going to use? Can they get there with a rickshaw? Are they dependent on public transport? Can they afford it? They certainly do not have cars. If they did, where would they park? So how is the city going to function without these people? A threat to Karail is a threat to the fundamental way Dhaka works as a city.

Most architecture schools in Bangladesh focus on delivering undergraduate education and train students for practice. There is a persistent lack of communication between academics and practitioners. There is also little capacity building in urban research. What would be your comment or advice in such context? What do you see as the role of research in understanding our city and making architectural and urban education better?

I think the architecture profession has been overly focused on a particularly narrow conception of what architecture is. This stems from its history of patronage by the rich. Architecture has its roots in this notion of producing symbols of authority, and stabilising the identities of powerful people. This is what I call the production of symbolic capital – that, in many ways, is architecture’s market niche. I support the early modernist conception that the role of the profession is to bring quality architecture to everybody, including the urban poor. But that has not happened. The global image of architecture is often captured by architects who can produce images that will help to stabilise the nation state. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that but this consumes too much of the energy in architecture. I am more interested in the idea that architects are involved with all buildings. I do not make the distinction between architecture and mere buildings, as has often been made in the history and theory of architecture.

A lot of architecture schools are still locked into an older model of thinking about architecture as a fine art – there is this aspiration to become the “master architect.” The architecture profession should be about providing a service with the kind of skills that architects have, the capacity to get more out of the same amount of space. This is a fundamental skill for the urban poor and there is a lot that architects could learn from them. I’m not endorsing the overcrowding that is produced by severe poverty, but the multi-use of space is a fundamental skill in any city, because density is such an important part of how cities work. If more and different kinds of people are in walkable contact with each other, then that is a better city with a lower ecological footprint.

This is the kind of spatial thinking that architects are so often engaged in everyday and is really valuable, but often not valued by urban planners. The history of these two professions is that they have bifurcated. Urban planning used to be a kind of additional degree after architecture, for people who already understood architecture. Now increasingly urban planners have no idea how to produce a map or to even think spatially. The result is you get brilliant planners who are actually quite opposed to or dismissive of spatial interventions or thinking - to them the city is just a range of social problems. This gap between architecture and planning has unfortunate manifestations.

The interview was taken by Tanzil Shafique and Saimum Kabir. They are PhD fellows at the University of Melbourne in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Tanzil leads Openstudio, an international architecture and urbanism think-tank and Saimum is the Editor of ContextBD, an online platform of art, architecture and culture in Bangladesh.

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