Future cities: A short guide to a Bengali urbanism
When al-Mansur laid the foundation of Baghdad in 762 on the banks of the Tigris, he imagined an ideal city in the shape of a round plan. There has always been a symbolic import to the form and shape of the city in envisioning ideal cities. The city of Bhaktapur in Nepal is made of meandering streets and irregular forms, but once a year, citizens carry out ritual processions in which they enact a mental mandala form for the city. Renaissance Europe has ample examples of planning cities that fused perfect geometric plans with visions of ideal societies.
In the agricultural civiliSation of Bengal, there is only a literary example of an ideal city—Kalaketu's imaginary Gujarata, described in the 16th century Candimangal of Mukundarama. Gujarata is imagined as a remarkably planned city in a grid layout, a carefully articulated sociological and architectural proposition, and an ideal civic place catering to the widest possible citizenry of that time. Kalaketu's urban creation was indeed an ideal city, an evidence of a higher Bengali urbanism representing cosmopolitan and secular values. It is unfortunate that lessons from Gujarata have not found a place in our current urban discourse.
The Daily Star asked me to write on "ideal cities for a futuristic Bangladesh" at a time when the city is the biggest challenge in an otherwise economic ascendance of the nation. Economic growth is intimately linked with burgeoning cities and their health; the relationship should be symbiotic. Yet, our city plans are falling short of our economic aspirations, and that is the contemporary challenge. Considering that the future is not a distant phenomenon but something already embedded in what we can do now—or as an American columnist remarked, the future is not our fate but a choice—I take the view that cities can be made better no matter how complex they are and how daunting the scope. It's a question of making informed and directed choices.
Since envisioning the perfect city with pure geometry, things are now more complex. Catering to UN Habitat guidelines, we now imagine "ideal" cities through social equity and environmental sustainability. Building only grand structures and monuments is not sufficient aspiration for an ideal city. Cities now must be equitable, its spaces and resources available to all its citizens. Cities must be sustainable, so that its growth footprint does not ravage the delicate equilibrium of the environment. And, cities must be humane such that its spaces cater to the experience of the human figure and not to mechanistic and abstract configurations.
Despite the view that an ideal city is a mirage, humans do not give up on the prospect of creating cities following a plan. A plan is a latent utopia in which we reimagine the spaces we live in in the image of a better place. Is such imagination possible for cities in Bangladesh? It is not only possible; it is necessary. To overcome planning practices in Bangladesh, which are at best ad-hoc or technocratic, or just not ready for the new brilliant Bangladesh, we have to enter a new imaginative realm.
Presented here in summary notes are 14 themes for a Bengali urbanism, or foundational thinking for cities of the near future.
URBANISM, NOT URBANISATION
We need to change the narrative on cities. First point: As a social fact, the city is the highest cultural and existential form. For too long, the discourse of cities has been ruled by economic, statistical or technocratic parameters through the term "urbanisation." Useful only in managing the techno-functional aspects, urbanisation is limiting in understanding the city in its fullest human, social, aesthetical and ecological potential. In approaching the future city, we need to embrace a more pro-active and positive notion of the city represented by "urbanism." Reorienting ourselves from the entrenched sense of the city as an insurmountable chaos, we need to see the city as a most beautiful thing, an essential human innovation of how we should live together.
EVERY TOWN NEEDS A REGIONAL PLAN
No town is an island. Each city or town is integrally linked to a network of flows—of people, information, economy, and geographic conditions. No matter how devotedly a plan for a city is made, it becomes limited without addressing a larger regional context. In 2012, I proposed for Dhaka (later developed at Bengal Institute in 2015) the idea of a regional plan in which a metropolitan core and diverse settlements—in a two-hour travel radius linked by an efficient transport network—create a planned polycentric constellation. It was assumed that the arrangement will be effective in de-centring the metropolitan core as well as re-clustering urban facilities and managing their population density.
MAKING FIVE-MILLION CITIES
A consolidated national plan is required to manage the wild urbanisation that defines the current situation. We need to configure settlements patterns carefully as they result in a footprint with a disruptive relationship with agricultural land (affecting food security), and wetlands and floodplains (impacting ecological and bio-diverse conditions). Planned agglomeration and distribution of future population will be critical for a sustainable economic and social development. In a process I call "distributed urbanism," Bangladesh can plan for "metro cities" beyond Dhaka in anticipation of a rising population. We can plan for 5 "metro-hubs" with 5 million each, 10 medium cities with 1 million plus each, and 40 smaller towns with 0.5 million each (all based on expanding existing towns). Population and density are associated with the footprint of settlements. For a future redistribution of population, the metro cities can have a density of 20,000 per square kilometre requiring a footprint 250 sq km (for a total population of 5 million). The medium and small cities can have density of 10,000 and 8,000 with areas of 100 sq km and 60 sq km respectively.
FOLLOW THE FLOW
A terraqueous regime defines Bangladesh in which each and every town has a river running through it. The city must come to terms with water in its various forms. Water is not only around but above and under. Sometimes water is bountiful and sometimes it is depleted. Sometimes it is static but for most part, water creates a dynamic condition that must be recognised. I have argued for a while that an urbanism for Bangladesh—for Dhaka—has to be conceptualised from the hydrological property of the delta. All physical planning should begin from the premise that a river constitutes a vast ecosystem even when it engages a city or town, and that rivers are conditions of water flow. In fact, the flow/overflow behaviour of a river constitutes a "water basin" over a large area in which the city or town is embedded. All water flow of a city is part of the interconnected water-basin system, from river and canal flow to urban drainage and water supply, and from flood plain ecology to aquifer recharge. Climate change now imparts additional challenges in the behaviour of rivers.
RIVERBANKS ARE NATURAL PUBLIC REALMS
Rivers are not only crucial in the ecological and hydrological matrix but provide a natural condition for an enriched public realm in the form of riverbanks. Developing riverbanks as public spaces should be our unconditional priority. The whole stretch of an urban riverbank should be declared a public realm which then could be developed as open, public spaces with occasional parks and public facilities, and for which we need exemplary language and guidelines. Riverbanks can host mini urban forests. My thinking on the urban future of Dhaka began with speculative sketches for the Buriganga in the early 1990s. Since then, and more recently, I have worked with a team at Bengal Institute to develop a typological language for major city riverbanks, from the Buriganga in Dhaka to the Sitalakhya in Naryanganj and the Surma in Sylhet.
FRAMING THE FLOOD-PLAINS
A city like Dhaka is surrounded by a rich terraqueous flood-plain and wetlands. There is a constant battle between the ecological obligation in preserving the flood-plains and the converse economic pressure for invasive development. Landfilling and gradual diminishing of the terraqueous zones characterise a ruthless development pattern. A middle ground can be found. To safeguard flood-plains, I have proposed a dedicated peripheral building development along the demarcated edge of the flood-plain with the flood-plain conserved for abetting flood, helping in aquifer recharge, and advancing aquatic bio-diversity. Wetlands parks can be carefully planned as an active public realm. Buildings of special architectural quality and high density will provide a new city imagery.
PUBLIC SPACES, NOT BUILDINGS, MAKE BETTER CITIES
A critical element in the humanistic and civic experience of a city, public space defines the character of great cities. Cities are wondrous because of such public spaces—Piazza del Campo in Siena, St Marks Square in Venice, Maidan-i-Shah in Isfahan, the Maidan in Kolkata, and Central Park in Manhattan. Beautiful buildings, enormous infrastructures and swanky developments are perhaps signs of the economic clout of a city, but an experiential and humane city is made possible by public spaces. Such spaces signify "commons" for all, living rooms that house the city's life and energy. The global pandemic has ushered a new urgency around public health and a strong necessity for public spaces in the city, whether as plazas, "chottors," parks, fields, and tree-filled parks and gardens. If a plan for Dhaka aspires to be socially inclusive and humanistic, it should begin with a generous attention to creating public spaces at all scales, from the city to the neighbourhood and the corner of a street.
HOUSING IS A SOCIAL FABRIC
Housing and the city form a reciprocal relationship. One reason for Dhaka's chaotic condition is we have not been able to create suitable housing or residential models for the many different communities that inhabit it. I have lamented since the 1990s that making plots and individual buildings in the name of planning residential areas do not make the best city, either in efficient use of land or creating communities. We need diversified housing forms in all our cities and towns catering to all economic communities. Building and dwelling types and their arrangement create neighbourhoods and communities. The architecture of housing is not about "looks", but how spaces within the units of the housing, and spaces that make up the public domain are knit together in a harmonious fabric, and eventually to the larger urban structure. It is this set of relationships that affect the community spirit—touch a chord or disrupt it.
WE NEED NEW NEIGHBOURHOOD FORMS
A sense of a neighbourhood has defined the social cohesion of all cities, and provided diversity of urban forms. For Dhaka, the original sense of a moholla has diminished because of the relentless drive towards plot-based apartment buildings and increasing lack of shared facilities that cement community cohesion. The mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo proposes a "15-minute city", in which key neighbourhood facilities—from school and clinic to business and entertainment—will be within a 15-minute walking distance. Such a directed arrangement will reduce traveling necessity and give a stronger definition to the neighbourhood. Depending on the scale and character of a neighborhood, community hubs can be imagined which will house key facilities, such as a community hall, library, digital training centre, eateries, parks and playgrounds, sparking off new community energy.
TRANSPORT INFRASTRUCTURE WILL CHANGE THE CITY FOR BETTER
Mobility has always been the defining character of the modern city. Transport vitality is not only about carrying people, but also leverage for urban development and a better city. Mass transit, in the form of mass rapid transit (MRT), light rail transit (LRT), and bus rapid transit (BRT), is the only solution to transport challenges, especially in a hyper developing city as Dhaka. Urban transport systems should be public oriented, mass scaled and multi-modal. No amount of investment in a car-based infrastructure, such as elevated road and flyovers, will help ease the crisis. While metropolitan cities need a robust comprehensive plan linking road, rail and river transits, smaller towns could plan in advance for mass transport system as LRTs. Considering that any transit system is a driver in the city's development trajectories, stations in transport lines should be planned as new urban hubs with civic and commercial consequences.
THE CITY BELONGS TO THE PEDESTRIAN
Public spaces led to walkability in the city. We need a pedestrian rich street-life, safe for all especially women and children. Only walkability ensures a liveable and endearing city. No matter how motorised and technologised we become, the city finally belongs to the pedestrian—the human on the street. Metrophilia, a love for the city, develops from walking the streets and alleys of a city. From Baudelaire (in Paris) to Keith Humphrey (in Kolkata), it is in the accessibility, discoveries and experience of the city by walking that one acquires a fondness for one's city. I call this "metrophilia" in contrast to individualistic buildings that go up in a brazen manner, which I call "phallophilia". The success of a mass transit system in a city relies on a generous pedestrian system as people will walk to the station to catch a train or bus.
A CITY IS A CONSTRUCTED MEMORY
A richly experiential city is one with a careful ensemble of the old, the existing and the new. A march towards the future does not translate into jettisoning the past and the existent but achieving a thoughtful combination: How to make the old into new? How to add new to the old? A city derives its identity from the diversity of its buildings and urban assets that cannot be replicated once eradicated. The recent series of demolishing significant buildings in Dhaka and other cities raises a concern of depleting not only heritage but damaging the character of the city and negating the collective memory. It would be a pity if each city began to look the same due to a homogeneous development spree that threaten a total world of intimate scale of buildings and spaces, rich architectural elements, vibrant moholla life, and patina of another rime.
SMALL TOWNS HAVE A BIG FUTURE
Cities and towns can be diverse in nature and scale. The modernist fantasy of light, green and air that defined the futuristic, modern city is a reality in what we call small towns. We need a new vocabulary to understand the physiology of small towns before imposing development actions. We need to acknowledge that the small town is not a mini-me of the big city; it is its own ontology. In generating new incentives in small towns, the first thing to understanding is the scale of things, the cluster of buildings, their shapes and materiality, the character of streets, and the overall quality of life. A small town is also an ecology; its footprint creating a careful balance with the regional landscape of agriculture, flood plains and wetlands. The much vaunted "green," a closeness to "nature" in the form of paddy fields or ribbons of rivers, can literally be glimpsed from one's window in such places. Specific rituals and festivals, artistic crafts, production of various savouries, and musical or literary traditions give each town its identity. In a telecommunicative world, the pace in a small town can be both intimate and accelerative.
AN AGROGRAPHIC CITY IS POSSIBLE
As with hydrology, agriculture need not be at loggerheads with the city. A Bengali urbanism can show that this historic opposition can be overcome. Made of a precious terraqueous terrain of wetlands, flood-plains, and agricultural fields, the city edge is the site of this opposition. With landfill and embankments in play, in which increasingly agricultural land are transformed for development projects, the edge is being constantly transformed. In our zealousness to develop, arable land has decreased in Bangladesh from 73 percent in 1989 to 59 percent to 2012 (according to FAO). Traditional land division and homestead distribution have not helped in consolidating productive land. In the Dhaka DAP, a vast area is categorised as agricultural land posing a dilemma to metropolitan development: How to bring agricultural areas within the folds of the city? We have come up with creative plans on amalgamating those agrographic areas with the metropolitan milieu. Planned agglomeration of habitats, settlements and industries with precise footprints need to be determined, retaining rest of land for agriculture and hydrological flows. Image shows idea of an agricultural housing, Afreen Ahmed for Bengal Institute.
Kazi Khaleed Ashraf is an architect and urbanist, and heads the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements. Content and images for this article were developed with Saif Ul Haque, Nusrat Sumaiya, Arfar Razi, and team at Bengal Institute.