The democracy of public squares
I have long wondered why cities in Bangladesh don't have vibrant, dedicated public places or squares, in the sense of Taksim Square in Istanbul, Trafalgar Square in London, Las Ramblas in Barcelona, or Zocalo in Mexico City. Gono Jagoron Mancha needed to occupy a busy and bustling street intersection in Dhaka, paralysing the capital city's already notorious traffic. If one day Bangladesh clinch the world cup cricket championship, where would the people of Chattogram gather to celebrate this national glory? GEC'r Mor or Lal Dighi? There is no genuine people-friendly and purpose-built public place in Chattogram. It is the same for Khulna, Rajshahi, Barishal, and Sylhet. There are roads, there are intersections, but not public squares.
But what is a public square? In the classic European context, the original public square or the marketplace grew out of the main street, by an organic widening process. Over time, the square attained autonomous, if not necessarily uniform, spatial definition, accommodating a host of diverse urban activities, such as trading, information dissemination, civic gathering, recreation, piety, celebratory parade, and political demonstration.
One of the earliest examples of a public square is, of course, the Greek agora, where traders brought their merchandise, philosophers discussed their worldviews, and gymnasts showed off their acrobatic skills. Anybody visiting a European city today would notice the historical legacy of the agora in its public squares, thriving on a rich, organic, and chaotic tapestry of urban functions. There is minimal disagreement that public squares are an embodiment of a nation's civic values, democratic aspirations, and, in many ways, the "national character."
In ideal conditions, public squares have an intrinsic ability to attract people of all walks of life, all economic classes, creating conditions for greater social harmony and meaningful public life. This is where people can express their political views without the fear of persecution. Dictatorial regimes have always looked at public places with suspicion and fear. The Tiananmen Square at the heart of Beijing is beautiful, but it has an uncomfortable level of police presence and CCTV security cameras.
One can feel the social and political pulse of a city by visiting its public square. Two weeks ago, research took me to Turkey and Armenia. In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the Republic Square (formerly Lenin Square during the Soviet era) is axially connected with the 24-hour Cascade complex, a giant set of open-air steps, cascading down the slope of a hill. The combination of these two squares provides Yerevan with a robust civic character. People flock to these places to relax, enjoy, wander around, listen to music, and watch others. From the giant steps of the Cascade, one can view the much-fabled Mount Ararat.
Istanbul's political heart is located at Taksim Square, and its social spine is Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrianised street that radiates out from Taksim. People walk along Ishtiklal until the wee hours. This is where people taste, for example, Istanbul's acclaimed Turkish delight at Hafiz Mustafa's iconic shop, established in 1864. This crowded street is lined with many well-known shops.
And, then, there is Gezi Park, adjacent to Taksim Square, and the site of a popular civic unrest in 2013. When the government sought to replace this historic park, filled with trees, with a shopping mall, people resisted. The environmental movement that started to save the trees of Gezi Park would soon snowball into a much larger protest against unilateralism in political decision-making.
Public squares are a necessary tool for the political evolution of a people and a nation. Democracy needs public places. Free access to public squares has the opportunity and power to reinforce democratic norms and ensure check-and-balance political processes. The protagonist of the public square is of course the pedestrian, a symbol of urban freedom. Even if there is no political subtext, public places and their pedestrian visitors are a ubiquitous expression of a liveable city.
Why don't Bangladeshi cities have a legacy of public squares (although villages have their haat)? It is a complex question that prods a network of historical and religio-agrarian issues. First and foremost, the agro-pastoral social evolution of the people of the Bengal delta didn't create many opportunities for the development of an urban society. Furthermore, as historian Richard Eaton explained in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1706 (1993), from the power centres located in the north of the Indian subcontinent, East Bengal has long been considered a remote, agrarian frontier. In 1579, emperor Akbar's chief advisor, Abu'l-fazl called Bengal "Bulghakhana" (house of turbulence), a treacherous place of corrupt morality and geographic perils.
From the north, Bengal's image as a remote estuary, an alluvium delta crisscrossed by rivers, rivulets, canals, and low-lying lands, on the one hand, and a tropical climate with a prolonged monsoon period that rendered the delta inaccessible, on the other hand, gave rise to a host of fantastic and derogatory geographical imaginations. These images entrenched in the socio-political thinking of two South Asian empires—Mughal and British India—have discouraged from investing systematically in the urban development of their eastern frontier. Eaton wrote: "In the minds of Mughal officers from North India this view persisted for centuries, adding to the profound sense of alienation from the delta province that subsequent generations of ashraf Muslims would nurture down to modern times."
The public life of the agro-Islamic communities of East Bengal revolved around the mosque and its courtyard, which served as the premier civic space, a sort of small-scale rural equivalent of the Greek Agora or the public square in the medieval European city. Neither the British during the colonial period nor the local urban administration in postcolonial times fully understood the complexities of translating the public life of East Bengal's agro-religious communities into a secularised urban context. The social ambiance of this delta, even in the early 1970s, was mostly rural. Classic Bangla literature had a deep anti-urban bias; the city was often portrayed as a difficult, ruthless place, one that perennially corrupts the rural youth who had arrived there in search of a better life.
Urbanisation in Bangladesh since the middle of the 20th century has been mostly accidental, rural in mind set, compounded by a lack of policy preparation for adapting to urban transformation, despite different iterations of "master planning" of cities with foreign and local experts. What we have today in Bangladesh is a culture of what I would call "subsistent urbanism," an amalgamation of local- and national-level efforts to provide basic urban mobility and services. Beyond that, there is hardly any conversation about the city's power to shape the humanity of new generations of urban citizens.
The deliverance of urban services and the greater urban good ought to go hand in hand. From the utilitarian position of subsistence urbanism, the long-term value of public squares is either misunderstood or seen tangential. Understanding the social and political benefits of public squares and their power to create robust civic life is to transcend the parochialism of subsistence urbanism. As we graduate to a middle-income country, we need to imagine cities as a frontier for creating a just, entrepreneurial, and democratic society.
Adnan Zillur Morshed, PhD, is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist. He is a Professor at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, and serves as Executive Director of the Centre of Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at BRAC University. He is an alumnus of Faujdarhat Cadet College, BUET, and MIT. He can be reached at email@example.com.