Cities exist to provide goods and services to their residents.
Cities as well as the goods and services they provide can be ranked into those that are needed frequently, almost every day for survival (e.g. foods, drinks, fuel for cooking, etc.). These are also known in urban studies parlance as primary goods and services.
Services needed infrequently, like once a week or at every few weeks' interval (e.g. service of a doctor, dentist or service of a restaurant, cinema hall, etc.), are also known as secondary goods and services.
And, finally, there are those goods and services which we only need at long intervals, once or twice a year or so (Ekushe Boi Mela, wedding-shopping, hospital for cancer treatment, etc.). This last category is known as tertiary goods and services.
Human settlements are spatially distributed in a region in a manner in which you have numerous small centers, which are situated within small distances from each other, and serve a limited proportion of the region's total population. In this way all residents of the region have at least one center supplying primary goods and services.
The secondary city or centers are distributed in a manner that residents of several primary centers have access to at least one, providing them with the secondary goods and services. The secondary center also provides primary goods and services in addition to its secondary center role.
The central city, the largest city of the region, commands the whole region with all the secondary and primary centers under its command and provides goods and services of all definitions to its population.
This is the way in which human settlements in a region are distributed. Goods that are consumed by residents are produced on the land that nature allocates to each center. Those goods that cannot be produced locally are produced elsewhere and brought in by traders. This gives rise to inter-regional trade, resulting in an inter-regional network of roads, railways and river transport.
Bangladesh's physical terrain provides an ideal location for the development of an ideal urban hierarchy. Centered on Dhaka city --- the capital city or the tertiary city --- the secondary cities are represented through the district headquarter cities along with a few trade centers.
Around each of these secondary cities you have the upazila headquarter cities, along with a few other river ports and junction cities as primary cities. There are very few places in the world where you find such spatial regularity in the location of urban centers, giving rise to a perfect urban hierarchy.
The existence of such perfect hierarchy yields many advantages to residents in terms of providing access to services and goods. Think, for example, about people living in Rangpur or in Chittagong requiring the services of the High Court or the Supreme Court. Residents of both cities will travel almost a comparable distance to get services as primary cities in this case, which provides the required service is located in the the geographic center of the country. This is just one example; if you similarly consider other smaller cities and the role they play in providing goods and services to their residents you will realize they were located to reduce the distances travelled by a maximum number of residents to get these goods or services. These locations, however, were dictated by the natural advantages of the locations as perceived by the city residents.
City systems exhibiting such efficient hierarchical networks in a region of abundant population will not easily be obliterated. This kind of physical terrain in this region has always been city friendly and allowed the development of numerous city centered empires or civilizations. This we can see from the remnants of the numerous lost cities that have been excavated in different corners of the country. We can name the ancient cities of Navadwip, Lakshmanabati alias Sonargaon, Pandua, Ferozabad, Paharpur, Maynamoti and Vitorgarh.
So, how do we answer the above question? I have only one answer, YES. I will explain my answer.
We agree that our ancestors were not successful in establishing long lasting urban civilizations. Whatever they had attempted did not survive for long with none of these civilizations – the ancient Gangaridie people, the Palas, the Senas, the Turks, the Pathans or the Mughals. However, as we have observed, the region is ideally suited for nurturing an urbanized society for millennia. Why did this not happen in the past and why do we think it will happen in the future?
The truth of this is buried in the ecology of the region. Here is the story.
Look to the positives about a vibrant urban civilization that awaits our region – despite the memories of so many failures, which resulted from our ancestors' failures to regard and respect the ecological framework of the region. The first of these positives is the nature of the terrain – this delta of Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system has been described by many as a monotonous plain. The layout of miles and miles of the plain land is such that you can settle and build at random points. When unsettled, the plain is taken over by long unending stretches of forests or wetlands. When cleared, the fertile plain is ideal for agriculture or for location of settlement centers with potential to grow into larger city centers. The land provides the building materials in the form of mud for bricks, wood and bamboo for house structure, wood for furniture. Built upon this homegrown technological base the experiences of the later acquisition from other distant alien cultures have produced a modern technology base for construction.
The second positive is the favorable climate – the cycle of rain and shine, the warmth and the cold providing opportunities for varieties of goods to be produced, exchanged, and consumed and services to be exchanged. Dry seasons facilitate delivering and receiving services, wet seasons make people stay home and work – make residents skilled, productive and active. Now with the awareness of climate change new changes and adjustments are being learned. The disadvantages being brought on are being tackled at both individual and community level.
The third pillar is the population – in ancient times there were not enough of us. Not enough to go to war and win, defensive techniques were not acquired to build secure settlements against alien invasions or from climatic disasters. Huge populations produce numerous demands for goods and services. That gives rise to flourishing trade and commerce. Trade and commerce bring new knowledge and new techniques. Naturally as we have more population in this age, we have multiplied these population advantages now.
The fourth positive may be assigned to the nature of administration which in ancient times was controlled by individuals. This may have led to the failures of many of our ancient attempts at creating continuous urban societies. Every decision came from the king or the emperor and was bound to depend on the knowledge and vision of that single person. We have enough examples from our past to locate such kings and emperors, whose faulty aspirations destroyed their kingdoms or empires. However, we still have a system in place that mimics the ancient administrative structure. This is cloaked in a democratic garb. This may, however, be temporary. Otherwise, we run the risk of a fate similar to that of our ancestors under the king or emperor.
I expect our urban hierarchy centered around the capital city Dhaka, with the network of other cities at different levels to be long lasting. The concern that the question at the top of this article reflects is the dissatisfaction with the cities at various levels. To come out of a situation one needs to see these in terms of the ecology of the cities at various levels. Here I take up the case for our central city Dhaka and explain how the ecology of this city is being harmed by successive administrations in the recent decades. The cities in the other level of hierarchy also require careful nurturing of their ecological structure. Each of these centers has its own unique ecological make up and requires a unique approach of care. We may take up these at a later time.
Dhaka is now a leading megacity of the world. It cannot now provide the goods and services that is citizens need. It is overcrowded. It has more people than its eco-structure can support. Look at its terrain – it started on a tongue-shaped upland known to geographers and geologists as the Modhupur tract, mostly built by lateritic soils of the Pleistocene age. This upland is part of the older floodplain jutting above the later formed Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna flood plain. As long as the city limits recognized the limits of the old alluvium there was no problem with Dhaka. The population size was limited. However, for historical reasons the population of Dhaka grew so fast and so much that the area around the old upland had to be extended by filling up the new flood plain – It is being filled up by the hundreds of land developers mining sands from the rivers that surround the city. This land accretion process in Dhaka is still on and the contour lines of the terrain keep changing.
The natural water that used to drain out to the low flood plain now stays in the city finding no exits to reach the flood plain. The busy roads of the city often become a network of rivers and canals after a brisk rain. The problem is compounded by the changes in rainfall pattern - increasing in duration and quantity. The increasing seasonal temperature and changing direction of often circular winds create fog and dust which when mixed with car or factory exhaust produce smog.
The administration that is responsible for the running of the city gets its instructions and guidance from a single source authority. The variety of city services ranging from drinking water supply, garbage removal, city drainage system, city traffic system management, city policing and the rest of the required services are controlled by an all-powerful single source just like the old kingdom days or the empire days. The quantity and quality of services to be provided to the citizens as well as funding and sourcing of the services also depend on the single source, even though a charade of local government is maintained.
To save our city systems one must respect nature's controls. One must carefully look at the physical terrain, climate change, population change and the nature of the administration to be able to affect those lifesaving changes to our city. Our cities have a rich future, but we must act.
The author is adjunct faculty at Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)