In the Economic Intelligence Unit's list every year, Dhaka keeps showing up as one of the worst liveable cities in the world. For example, in 2015, it came second only to Damascus—a city devastated by war. Its issues primarily stem from its incredible density and growth—in both of which it ranks first. That means it is the most densely populated and the fastest growing megacity in the world.
Planning for this much growth would be challenging anywhere in the world but it is being handled especially poorly in Dhaka. One of the most problematic aspects is the type of plot-based system being practised here which was never meant to handle this level of density.
In the late 19th century, the British started laying out the first roads and plots in a grid pattern in Dhaka, starting with Gandaria and Wari. Before that, roads grew organically, like the narrow winding roads that we still see in Old Dhaka. Planned residential areas such as Dhanmondi, Banani, Baridhara, etc., are the successors of this type of planning. But when they were planned, multi-storied apartments weren't even a thing. These plots were designed for small houses with lawns—just like the American and the British suburbia it was trying to imitate. By the time six-storied residential buildings started being built, many large-scale model towns had already been planned this way such as Bashundhara and Uttara.
By then, this planning system had become the established norm. Now we're building eight- to twenty-storied structures in neighbourhoods that were originally designed for small residences. The way we build has changed drastically, but the way we plan hasn't.
Multi-storied structures mean bigger building volume and more people, so they need more open spaces and amenities to be considered liveable. Currently, plots are placed back to back which creates a dark and damp space in between plots. Instead of placing plots this way, there should be a common space in the middle for better lighting and ventilation. This could also free up the front road for pedestrians and for this area to be used as a back alley.
The existing road system is terrible for high-density living as well, filled with cars with no thought given to pedestrians. Back when the British started building roads, there weren't any cars—just carts and carriages. Even during the 90s, very few had one whereas now there's over a million vehicles on the streets. Dhaka's good old days have been much talked about, with its quiet charming streets and green spaces. But back in the 60s, Dhaka had less than a million people. In the last 50 years, there has been a roughly twenty-fold increase in population. None of Dhaka's masterplans had anticipated such rapid growth.
But now that we know all this, why do we keep doing things the same way? New satellite cities in Uttara, Purbachal, etc., have the same pattern of planning, but with even smaller plots, narrower roads, and even less amenities. It's partly due to ignorance, partly greed. Developers and even the RAJUK (Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha) keep designing small plots, just because it's easier to sell them. In fact, the average size of plot keeps getting smaller and smaller. In the 90s, the size of most plots in planned model towns (such as Uttara and Bashundhara) used to be about five katha. Now the median plot size is just three katha. The most common customers buying this kind of plots are middle-class salaried people. Buying small plots with installments feels like a good deal even though most can't afford to construct the building themselves. For the fortunate few who are actually handed over the plot, most end up giving it to a developer.
Buildings in small plots have smaller setbacks. Placed side by side and back to back, any façade in such construction except the roadside gets dark and stuffy. This leads to an increased dependency on artificial lighting and air conditioning, but our national grid can't keep up with the ever-increasing energy demands. Dhaka already uses up more than half of the entire country's electricity, and this is just making things worse. Meanwhile, the lack of green spaces combined with global warming is heating up our homes and our streets. And it's not just getting hotter, but also unhealthier; since the still air carries more pollutants. Dhaka's air quality already ranks among the worst in the world so many opt to keep the windows shut. We need trees, a lot more of it, to filter out the pollutants, and more open spaces to promote healthy ventilation.
The people living in these satellite cities also need amenities. That means community spaces, shops, pharmacies, daycares, gyms, etc. There are currently small designated areas for markets and hospitals in the masterplans of most satellite cities. But they are simply not enough compared to the number of people that'll live there. In the older neighbourhoods, such as Dhanmondi, we have dealt with this problem by essentially turning residential areas into mixed use and putting up things like shops, schools and clinics in apartment buildings. Due to being unplanned, this gives way to its own issues, such as creating more traffic and noise but it serves a purpose. On the other hand, in the new towns, there's no room for such amenities in these tiny buildings. If the plots were bigger, amenities and mixed-use development could've been placed strategically for convenience while also minimising traffic.
Many have suggested getting rid of this plot-based system entirely, naming examples of cities such as Singapore, to opt for a block-based system. The idea is that large mixed-use developments can be built in an area the size of a city block (a block is the smallest area surrounded by streets) that would have large open spaces, amenities and commercial spaces all within its walls. Even in the new Draft Structure Plan of Dhaka, this kind of large-scale development has been recommended as a replacement to the existing planning system in a regulatory level. This basically means that even the government thinks letting the current planning system continue is a bad idea, although they haven't really done anything about it yet.
But although replacing tiny plots with massive beautiful condominiums seems like a good idea, Dhaka's local economy gets in the way. Big projects demand big money, and very few developers here can afford to build them. Those who can usually target the upper class. People are also less trusting to commit to a cooperating housing scheme here, where many land owners form a partnership to build a development. Considering the level of crime and corruption here, this lack of trust seems downright rational. Dhaka's current predicament is unique and needs a system that works specifically for it.
Perhaps the most feasible course of action is a reformation of the current planning standards and practices, with tighter regulations enforcing larger plots, more open spaces and amenities and encouraging mixed-use development. There are more technical issues that need to be addressed as well, such as regulating building forms and setbacks, plot sizes and orientation, etc., to ensure good natural lighting and ventilation not just in a building scale but in a city scale. We also need to prioritise pedestrians and public transportation over private cars—the opposite of what is being done right now. Currently, there are over 20 satellite cities in various stages of development in Dhaka, which will eventually house millions. There's no proper transportation plan to move most of these people—many of whom will likely work in the city centre. Needless to say, without a secondary system, their daily commute will choke the already congested roads. Elevated expressways and metro systems are limited in their scope and are creating a city fabric that is dark, dirty, noisy and ugly. In contrast, an underground subway system is potentially limitless in capacity and scope as one can keep adding layers underground in any direction without disturbing or being interrupted by anything above ground.
And contrary to popular belief, it's perfectly safe and buildable in Dhaka. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit system, a system in which buses in dedicated lanes pick up passengers every couple of minutes) can also be a very affordable option; and has been proven very effective in many cities globally.
We also need more commercial development in these new towns. It's much more convenient to be able to just work there for the inhabitants, and not having to come to the city centre. This would also take a tremendous load off traffic. Right now, most model towns are planned as overwhelmingly
residential—simply because commercial plots are harder to sell. Companies don't typically want to move to underdeveloped areas but can be persuaded with good transportation facilities, cheaper land and tax incentives. Instead of immediate monetary return, both private investors and the government need to consider their long-term benefits. For example, the value of land will undoubtedly increase over time if there are available jobs nearby.
Good planning and design not only improve living standards, but also add value to the development. For example, opting for larger plots also means being allowed to construct taller and larger buildings (due to a clause in the building code), but with more open space. Therefore, there's more space to sell, hence more profit, but this would also generate a better city fabric overall, with more bright and airy spaces. These buildings would also have room for amenities—some of which can generate revenue. This way, everyone benefits—both the investors and the residents.
Living a healthy and sustainable life in a high-density city is possible, but only if we learn from our mistakes. In the new satellite cities, we have a chance to do something different by thinking differently. Let us not squander this opportunity. Public awareness is key here as it drives development trends. We should also ask more from our authorities to move away from this path towards dystopia. Maybe then we'll finally be able to escape unflattering rankings in the list of the least livable cities.
Mehedi Amin has a Bachelor of Architecture from BUET and Master's in Urban Design from the University of Hong Kong. He is currently a faculty in the American International University Bangladesh (AIUB).