What would it take to host the Olympics? After all, with around 18 million people, Dhaka is the fifth largest city on earth in terms of population and one of the fastest growing in the world. And, we plan to become a middle income country by 2021 and upper-middle-income by 2031. So why not aim to host the Olympics in 2040?
The hosts for 2020, Tokyo, has refurbished nine large stadiums and around 40 venues for 56 different sports to be played over 15 days. Right now, we have two stadiums, another one being built in Purbachal and about five other venues. All we would need are half a dozen more stadiums and 30 more venues. That's definitely not impossible to do in 20 years…but where would we build them?
Venues are the easy part. Around 15 million people usually get involved during the Olympics, including thousands of athletes, officials and visitors. Do we have enough roads to accommodate their arrival? Enough hotels to for them to stay in? Transportation and roads wide enough for them to travel on?
If the idea of Dhaka playing host to Olympics sounds too outlandish, let's try this the other way around.
What if Dhaka were to be hit by a major earthquake? The Great Indian Earthquake of 1897 had an epicentral distance of 230km from Dhaka and Bangladesh sits close to two subduction zones created by two active tectonic plates, therefore it is not difficult to imagine that a major earthquake could hit Dhaka sometime in the near future.
Can our buildings withstand a large earthquake measuring a 7 magnitude on the Richter scale? Have they been built on high land or low-lying land? Have the buildings been retrofitted? If, and when, a building collapses, can our rescue vehicles enter the narrow lanes that define most of Dhaka city.
We know the answer to these a little too well. A 2013 study estimated that a 7 magnitude earthquake could destroy 35% of Dhaka's buildings and kill 25,000 people.
To top that off, we're nowhere close to having the capacity to handle a coronavirus like outbreak. China isolated Wuhan to stop the disease from spreading elsewhere and built a new hospital in 10 days. Skipping over how long it would take us to build a hospital, remember the mess we created in our handling of the dengue crisis last year? Instead of containing the virus we spread it all over the country in a matter of days.
In 2013, the Journal of Social and Development Sciences published an interesting study titled 'The Failure of the 1917 Geddes Master Plan and 1959 Minoprio, Spencely, Macfarlane Master Plans: Some Reflections'. The authors of the study – Bayezid Ismail Choudhury, Paul Jones and Peter Armstrong – argue that the pre-independence master plans for Dhaka failed, not so much for the lack of adherence to the plan, but because of a failure on the part of the planners to envision and incorporate the social and political ambitions of the people of the city.
The authors take to task the otherwise celebrated Western planners for failing to foresee the political changes Dhaka underwent – first, becoming the capital of East Pakistan, and then, Bangladesh – and the economic, cultural and demographic changes that would entail.
The premise of the study belies conventional wisdom that the city's implementing authorities had failed to implement the vision of masterful planners such as Patrick Geddes (Geddes is famous for having planned a number of major cities around the world). While it is hard to fault these planners for failing to foresee two separate independence movements, the general idea behind the study - that planners fail to foresee the political and social realities on the ground - certainly hits the nail on the head.
Most people, including urban planners, have a utopian vision of what cities should look like – streets lined with trees on either side; beautiful lakes with pristine blue water crisscrossing the city's landscape; one-unit residences with lush green front lawns in quiet residential neighbourhoods; the skyline of the commercial district dotted with impressive high-rise buildings; high speed intercity trains leading the way among a host of modern transportation services.
Geddes' plan and, for that matter, every other subsequent plan – the 1959 plan following creation of the Dhaka Improvement Trust, the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan 1995-2015, Detail Area Plan 2010-2015 – is, in some form or another, an idealistic vision that failed to grasp the complexity and enormity of Dhaka's growth.
It is no surprise that they were not followed. Take the case of the Detail Area Plan. The Rajdhani Unnayan Kartipakkhya (Rajuk) had appointed four real estate companies to prepare the Detail Area Plan based on the DMDP plan done earlier. The DMDP had laid down the broader scheme for how the city would develop and DAP was supposed to get into the specifics of the land use.
However, as soon as the DAP was published, it caused an uproar. The real estate companies had, rather predictably, kept a lion's share of the city for commercial real estate. This had urban planners and environmental activists up in arms and soon they convinced the government to form a committee to review the DAP. This time, the activists and planners crossed out real estate projects that had already kicked off – because they were originally meant to be flood flow zones –drawing the ire of the developers in return.
The government finally handed over the review to an inter-ministerial committee where it was effectively laid to rest.
Rajuk and private real estate companies usually share the blame for the veritable mess that is Dhaka city. Rajuk, with its dual authority of regulators and developers, is widely viewed as a corrupt institution that has allowed the city to grow in an unplanned manner.
Meanwhile, real estate companies have both legally and illegally usurped most of the city's water bodies and low-lying areas, leaving the city in dire straits. While they both deserve a large portion of the blame for how the city turned out, the reality is they will continue to act in this manner if there are powerful incentives to behave this way.
And there are real incentives! There are only 3.1 lakh holding numbers for the 1.8 crore people living in the city. Approximately, 15.5 lakh people live in their own houses, while 90 per cent of the population live in rented houses. According to BBS, 1,418 people join the Dhaka population everyday, and 5 lakh per year. Given these numbers, it is hard to see how real estate companies can be kept at bay.
Rajuk, meanwhile, employs many 'town planners', who seem to lack the expertise to plan and handle a city as complex and fast-growing as Dhaka. In fact, there is a clear mismatch between the mammoth task Rajuk has been handed and the institution's position in the government's pecking order. Dhaka city deserves a full ministry for the task Rajuk carries out on its behalf.
Rajuk is currently working on the Dhaka Structural Plan and Detail Area Plan for 2016-2035. Given the abject failure of all the past plans, it is pertinent we raise some important questions about the plan before it is too late. Not only do we need to accurately predict the social, political and economic changes that Dhaka will face, but we must also make certain hard decisions on how far we can or want to control those changes.
Does the new plan take into account the rate at which the population is growing at present or will grow in the near future? For example, once the Padma Bridge is complete and commute from the south becomes much easier, the Dhaka population is bound to grow faster. Then we have the pressure of climate migrants coming to Dhaka, which is bound to worsen as the impacts of climate change grow.
The 1959 master plan had naively predicted the Dhaka population would grow by 0.4 million over the next twenty years and hence the city would require 50,000 new housing units. In reality, the Dhaka population grew by more than three million during that period.
It's not necessary that population growth will move in one direction only. It's also possible that once our demographic dividend (a young population) dies out, our population might stagnate.
Most of our ambitions are premised on the spectacular economic growth we have been experiencing for the last three decades. But once the global RMG industry automates and our exports slow down, will Dhaka stop growing as well?
Every plan since 1917 has talked about using Dhaka's rivers, yet we have failed miserably thus far at recovering them from both pollution and encroachment. In addition, the low-lying areas meant to be kept empty to help drain out water from the city have all but disappeared. Driving out real estate companies from the flood flow zones might not be the answer, so maybe, given the population pressure, we accept our unique reality and look for modern engineering solutions to flash floods and stagnation.
Let's move on to the problem of centralization. The government, the country's largest university, and the largest cantonment are located inside the city. Given the pressure this puts on our capital, we can think about build a new administrative capital and move the government there. We could also shift all commercial enterprises to Chittagong and turn that into a true commercial capital.
More than 40 private cars hit Dhaka's streets every day. Our reality is, we could opt for a stronger public transport system or we could bow to the aspirations of a new and growing middle class who want to own private cars. Frankly, judging by the number of flyovers we have built, the indication is that there are no plans to slow the growth of private car ownership. Dhaka has a strategic transport plan – but has that been accounted for in the DAP?
We also need to address the problem of housing. We could build satellite cities around town so that the 90% who don't own houses can start owning them. And then there is the question of architecture. Should the city become more of a concrete jungle or do we want the city's architecture to reflect our own culture? Do we want neighbourhoods with open spaces and squares were people can interact?
The security of the city is an integral part of planning. It plays an important role in a city's crime rate. Roads and lanes need to be more accessible to law enforcement or more visible and open so that criminals do not have enough places to hide out. We need to plan on how to make the city safe for women and children to travel on their own. After all, women play a huge part in driving the economy of the city and it was not too long ago that children of a certain age walked to school by themselves. We also need to think about the nature of law enforcement? Do we want more community polices or more specialized agencies like now, armed to the teeth and battle-ready?
What role will politics play in the city? There was once the Race Course, Paltan Maidan, Mukta Mancha and many other areas in the city for political gatherings. These have slowly shrunk or disappeared and so has political activity in the city. Do we want a platform like Trafalgar Square in the city where people can exercise their freedom of speech (so that Shahbagh and Dhaka's traffic is spared) or should we do away with politics altogether given the recent trends in elections?
How do we attract tourists to the city? Where should our street markets go? Should all our local areas have playgrounds and sports arenas? Should schools be concentrated in a few areas or should every area have a good school?
What role will religion play in the Dhaka city of the future? How many mosques, temples and churches do we want?
Where will the poor and vulnerable go? How do we rehabilitate people who live in the slums?
How about contingencies? What happens when there is a disease outbreak or a major fire? What happens when we want to host a major sporting event? How do we plan for the traffic that rises during Ramadan?
As we move forward in the new decade, and plan for the decades to come, these and many other questions must be addressed collectively. Having some architects and planners draw up an impressive plan without addressing present needs and future aspirations of the people of the city is a recipe for disaster. We need a plan that envisions a city not just for the well-off, but a city that accommodates people from every income group. We need a city where people of all religion can practice their faith, where women can take public transport at all hours and where children can go to school unaccompanied. A city where law enforcement is friendly, where the streets are vibrant, and where people exercise their free speech.
We need a city that is dynamic, modern and well-governed.
We deserve a city that can host the Olympics in 2040.