World Habitat Day

Can we make Dhaka better?

With a few simple, efficient steps, this picture of Dhaka, which is now painfully common, could become history. File photo: Palash Khan

Having lived in Dhaka for more than 20 years and, prior to Covid-19, travelled to many other cities, I've had plenty of opportunities to reflect on what makes a city great. On the occasion of World Habitat Day today, it's worth considering: Do people crave high-rise buildings, wide roads, and fancy airports, or are other aspects of a city more important?

It is easy to lose track of basic essentials in pursuit of a dream of the modern, sophisticated city of the 21st century. But the truth is people's basic needs remain the same as they have for thousands of years, though our urban habitats do an ever worse job of catering to them.

People need jobs, housing, and transport, but they also need fresh air. They need to be able to concentrate on their work and studies, and to sleep peacefully at night. They need to feel connected to those who share their living environment. Children especially need to play, but people of all ages need opportunities to interact, to socialise, to relax, and to enjoy themselves outdoors.

A great city is one that caters to people's basic needs before considering how to provide for modern aspirations—especially those that harm others. In great cities, people can move about safely on foot and by bicycle; public transit rewards rather than punishes its users. In great cities, use of the automobile is discouraged through parking charges, congestion fees, and car-free areas. People are prioritised. The streets, rather than being littered with cars, are full of people moving, talking, buying and selling. The presence of so many people outdoors increases safety. A great city is welcoming to everyone, not just young able-bodied men.

In great cities, there is an abundance of parks, plazas, and other open public spaces where people can enjoy themselves outdoors, where different kinds of people can meet and mingle. These are possible partly because infinite space is not accorded to the notoriously space-inefficient automobile.

The funny thing about great cities is, while many of them are wealthy, they are actually more affordable to design and operate than car-centric cities. It requires far less money to build and operate a public transit system combined with a bicycle network and good footpaths, than to build and maintain flyovers and highways. It's much more affordable for the residents if they can access public transit, and walk and cycle, than if they must purchase and maintain a car or a motorbike.

Another vital aspect of great cities is that much of what people need is available close to their residences. Neighbourhoods involve a mix of uses. Children can walk or cycle to school; people can walk or cycle to work, to shops, to restaurants, to visit their friends. It is easier to cross the street than to cross the city.

Given all that, Dhaka could become a great city if people understood what its true assets were, and stopped chasing a ridiculous dream of the high-class, modern, car-clogged city that many seem to aspire to: a city of pollution, of car crashes, of fear of strangers, of social isolation and unrest. A city where people are caught in a web of debt to buy and operate an automobile because it is the only feasible way to move around. With many minor and, yes, a few major changes, Dhaka could become great by greatly reducing its cars and enhancing its facilities for more efficient, safer, and less polluting travel, by placing shops and businesses on the ground floors of buildings rather than car parks, and by making clean air and some peace and quiet priorities.

In fact, Dhaka could simultaneously become more liveable, climate-resilient, and less polluted. Take away most of the cars, and there would be more space to rip out asphalt and replace it with porous surfaces that would ease waterlogging. More dirt, canals, and trees in the city would make the city more attractive and cooler. In contrast, the car-oriented city where I grew up back in America would basically have to raze itself and start all over to achieve anything like the sustainable, resilient city that Dhaka could become almost overnight.

Very recently, for 18 months, I did not use motorised transport. I took lots of walks and went jogging near my home. I took a few short rickshaw rides and one or two bicycle rides. Mostly I stayed hyper-local, in contrast to my previous hyper-mobile lifestyle. The more time I spent in my Dhaka neighbourhood, the more I appreciated it. Most people are on foot. People sell things on the sides of the road, from rickshaw vans and bicycles and directly on the street. In the evenings, people stroll around, looking at the goods and chatting with the vendors. Children roam the streets, confidently independent. Everyone knows me and many talk to me, but I also see people greet and talk to each other. This is a low-income neighbourhood that is wealthy in vitality, sociability, and community cohesion. It is a microcosm of what all of Dhaka could become.

Yes, with a different set of policies and priorities, Dhaka could climb out of the ranks of unliveable cities and become a world-class city—not for its monumental skyscrapers and multi-level expressways, but for its lively, friendly street life, its complete neighbourhoods, and its colourful, chaotic, attractive street life.


Debra Efroymson is executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies, Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing."


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