What not to learn from Dhaka City
"A city is the place of availabilities. It is the place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life." — Louis Kahn
The other day my seven-year-old niece learnt about bribes. Not in school, but while on the way to school. Her dad had parked the car on Mirpur Road so she and her mom could get down and walk their way into the inner Dhanmondi streets. A policeman appeared in no time and informed that since the car was parked in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is to be towed away by a "wrecker" vehicle and a "wrecker charge" is to be paid. The dad, a lawyer and with full knowledge of Article 66 Chapter 7 of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance 1976, sensed that towing away can lead to more complexities and quickly offered an amount little lesser than the "wrecker charge". There was no necessity for a money receipt, he said, since "we are all in a hurry". The case had a happy ending and my niece learnt her first lesson in Dhaka 101—you can get way without punishment if you spend money.
Dhaka city, to a child, is like an open book. It speaks volumes about the people who live in it and the people who design or decide how we live. Unfortunately, due to many elements contained in it, the book, like a movie, requires at least a PG 13 rating. Corruption in city governance comes in many layers—some discreet, some rampantly visible even to the disinterested. With more than a third of Dhaka's 15 million inhabitants under the age of 18, the daily dose of lapses in city governance has resulted in irreversible damages in the collective conscience of young minds. A lack of faith in the system and in institutions that create the systems leads individuals to behave recklessly as citizens and to justify it. Children grow up in Dhaka city watch their elders break the law, benefit from it and get away without punishment. The perception of the city, therefore, is a space where boundaries between right and wrong are ruinously blurred.
As my niece walks to her school, she finds motorcyclists on footpaths desperate to avoid the gridlocked street. She learns that it is alright not to respect the rights of others in order to get somewhere fast. On the streets, it is the VIP vehicle or a Dhaka University student bus on the wrong side of the road that reinforces the lesson—something that stays on and will be repeated when her time comes. What is alarming is that this stimulation by preceding acts often appears normal in the contemporary narrative of a competitive society. It is tempting to take totally out of context Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl's famous quote, "something happens because something happens because something happens," and use it in a negative way. The child will flout the law because she saw someone else do it because someone also saw someone else do it.
It is important that we realise the need to have a short-term objective to eradicate the visible elements of Dhaka city's mismanagement and corruption. These elements are numerous and the long-term impacts are too huge to be overlooked by any sensitive person in charge of city governance.
For instance, our traffic police, instead of having that desperate stick on his stretched-out-and-gesturing hands, may well have a remote control device to switch the green light off and turn the red on. Let it be entirely his call to decide the duration of each, but let the people know that a red light is the scientific, graphical and unambiguous signal to indicate it is time to put on the brakes—instantly. The most important factor that drives a city smoothly is discipline and in spaces that people use collectively, order has no alternatives. It is an irony, however, that in Dhaka while the police is responsible for managing traffic, the lights are managed by the City Corporations.
Let there be no underage drivers steering those scarred and dented behemoths called mini-buses and "lagunas". In the first place, let there be no bus allowed on the streets having a single scratch—an act that may prevent the driving lunacy witnessed in Dhaka streets causing accidents leading to prolonged or permanent disabilities. These accidents are frequent and, unless fatal, go unreported in the press. The faith in the regulatory authorities like DMP Traffic and BRTA has eroded so much that after any incident people tend to take upon themselves the task of punishing the offending driver or vehicle. Lesson for a child: Take the law into your own hands because law enforcers are hopeless.
Let the impossibility of politeness as a word synonymous with police
be reduced. It is common in Dhaka to see policemen beating up errant rickshaw drivers. Tempers can flare in a tropical city where about 4,000 traffic police are tasked with the daily drudgery of managing 900,000 vehicles. But men in uniform out on the streets are the ones children should admire and idolise, not fear or loathe. It takes a superman to be a traffic controller in the lawless Dhaka roads and an errant superman can be more dangerous than the criminal in ways more than one.
Let good taste and good sense get some priority in the visual elements of traffic management. Let us not instil in a child's mind that it is alright to tie bamboos with dirty concrete posts with galvanised wires to create a barrier in front of an architectural masterpiece like the National Assembly building in Manik Mia Avenue or to divert traffic in Mohakhali rail gate. In a country that has graduated to the middle income segment, it is only logical to expect that urban elements are designed and installed in a manner that reflects such status. In designing pavements, police boxes, planters, roundabouts, dividers, metal frames and street furniture as a whole, a freshness in approach is required. The best cities of the world put great emphasis on urban design. As recently as last year, the prestigious Red Dot Design Award went to architect Alec Tzannes for his street furniture design for Sydney. The ludicrous acts of putting in sculptures that reflect abysmal artistic quality and animal figures not even fit for amusement parks are an embarrassment to any culturally sensitive city. Visuals are important as they create a benchmark of urban aesthetic. Visuals are important because seeing leads to believing in the strengths of our rich history in arts and culture.
Let us ban the obscenities called posters, vinyl banners, billboards and the so-called welcome gates from the city. When political, these are often unashamed displays of sycophancy and arrogance to a young citizen, abhorrent to the idea of a democratic space.
Cities are landscapes of learning. If Louis Kahn's small boy does not learn anything from Dhaka that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life, it gives the message that something is rotting here. The number of educated young people leaving Bangladesh each year in search of permanent addresses in cities ranked best in the world is huge and unhealthy. We cannot afford a sick city transmitting incurably disruptive ideas to its young population who willingly choose to stay back.
Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury is an architect based in Dhaka.