Afif and his father, both wearing blue shirts, matching black sunglasses and sandals, were busy taking photos, when a giant Emirates plane flew over their heads with a roar and a gust of wind. The sunglasses were not enough to prevent the dust from getting into their eyes, and their light-coloured clothing were obvious dirt magnets.
But the father-son duo seemed to truly enjoy the experience. Others around them also gasped in delight at the sight of the plane, as if they had seen a celebrity.
As another plane was soon spotted in the sky, Afif exclaimed, "This one's quite small!" His father nodded in agreement.
The environment was festive too, similar to what we see in amusement parks or cinema halls, with fuchka stalls and ice-cream carts beckoning customers. But the place in question is simply a road separating Hazrat Shahjalal Airport's runway from nearby residential areas such as Uttara.
And where else would they go in a city with no designated green spaces?
In 2021, a study titled "Present status and historical changes of urban green space in Dhaka city, Bangladesh: A remote sensing driven approach", published in the US-based Environmental Challenges journal, revealed that over the last three decades, the capital had lost around 56% of its green spaces.
There were 12,745 hectares of vegetation in Dhaka in 1989. By 2020, it came down to 5,599 hectares, according to the study. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says the perfect city should have at least 25% green space.
Dhaka now has only 8%.
The decline in green space is due to unplanned urbanisation coupled with a high population growth rate. Dhaka's population growth rate was 3.56% in 2022. It was 3.50% in 2021 and 3.39% in 2020, according to data by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
In the last 40 years, Dhaka's population has more than doubled in size, reaching around 23 million this year. As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it has 30,093 people living per square kilometre.
So, residents of the capital have taken matters into their own hands and found recreation in the otherwise mundane spots.
Every day, from morning until evening, groups of friends and family members come to Bawnia near the airport to eagerly watch aeroplanes as one after the other soar high or come down.
On both sides of the road are chain link fences with barbed wires on top. Security officials also patrol the runway all the time. Yet curious faces crowd Bawnia every day.
One of the fuchka stall owners told us, "I have been doing business here for the last five years. On weekends, it gets really busy for us as from afternoon, people start pouring in to watch planes."
Asma lives nearby and she came here to get some fresh air. We asked her, "Do you come here every day?" She replied, "Only when the electricity goes away and it becomes too hot to stay inside the house. It feels nice though, almost like an outing."
Sometimes these informal recreation spots are not very safe. Like the Khilgaon Flyover where youngsters and couples on motorbikes gather on most evenings. One of them said they come here because there is a nice view of the nearby Kamalapur Railway Station.
Refusing to disclose his name, the HSC first-year student said they choose a particular spot on the flyover to stand "which is not frequented by vehicles."
We spotted couples sitting on bikes and taking pictures against a sunset background and even a jogger taking rounds. Although he refused to speak to us, we were particularly intrigued by the jogger who seemed to be a regular visitor here. Who would have thought a flyover could be a replacement for a gym!
While we were there, a police van came and half the crowd vanished as soon as they saw it. It seemed they [the young men] were also here to smoke weed.
Metro Rail Station
Ever since the Metro Rail opened, it has become yet another recreational spot, although its actual purpose was reducing traffic congestion and making long commutes easier for people.
Especially the station in Uttara Diabari, which is fairly larger than other stations, is a favourite recreational spot for Dhaka's residents.
A nearby college had its last day and students with balloons and roses were celebrating at the station. Perhaps celebrating the end of classes inside the college campus was too mainstream.
Many people were happily posing for the camera while leaning against the station pillars.
One of them was Asif, who came with his newlywed wife. The young couple was accompanied by a few friends. "We walked here from Diabari, which we originally planned to visit. But the metro station also seemed like a nice, clean spot to visit," he said. A couple with a small child said they live in Uttara and come here almost every day for an evening stroll.
As the evening grew nearer and the yellow station lights shone brighter, more people gathered here, their eyes full of wonder as the metro rail zoomed into the station.
Fuller Road in the University of Dhaka (DU) campus is yet another somewhat odd hang-out place in Dhaka. Unlike Bawnia, this road is well designed and clean, which is apparently one of the reasons why people like to visit it. It is still, however, just a big road within a residential area.
On Fridays, especially, Fuller Road brims with visitors sitting on its footpaths. On special occasions, one can spot young women with flower crowns and colourful sharis
For DU students, however, the road is a midpoint for friends who go to Buet or Dhaka Medical College. Former student Miraz said, "I have spent many days here with friends from other nearby institutions. I think people like coming here because it is one of the cleanest places on campus and many of them can ride their bikes here."
Shaheed Minar, JU campus
Most of us have been to Jahangirnagar University (JU) in Savar at least once to see the green campus, or eat at Bottola. Visiting renowned university campuses is not a new thing, for example, everyone takes a tour of Visva Bharati when they go to Shantiniketan in West Bengal.
However, there are places within the JU campus such as the Shaheed Minar, which even the students feel should not really become a recreational spot. Asif, a recent graduate, said, "The Shaheed Minar becomes so crowded at times that even the students can't find a place to sit. Sometimes outsiders park their cars in the central field, which also creates inconvenience for students."
According to Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Jahangirnagar University Adil Mohammed Khan said Dhaka does not have designated playgrounds, parks etc for each of its areas which is why people rush wherever there is a bit of green or open space.
"It is okay to go places that have been converted to recreational spots but there are some informal recreational places which are risky for visitors," he said.
"In order to create formal recreational spaces, land acquisition etc is needed but with proper planning [which we lack] even something like a dead end can be converted to an informal recreational place," he added.
Professor Adil added that the two city corporations along with RAJUK (Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha) can still build designated parks, open spaces and playgrounds in Dhaka city. "If needed, they can take help from the district administration who usually have a list of khaas lands."
However, he said, instead of building one big park which everyone in the city cannot access, authorities can build multiple small recreational spaces, both formal and informal.