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.
"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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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
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
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.
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,"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005