When it comes to the development of Dhaka city, the first thing we usually talk about is a "masterplan". But aside from the masterplan, there is something else we, for some reason, never talk about – a vision, a dream.
What is the philosophy behind the masterplan? How will the city look in the future? Will it be crammed with high-rise buildings? Perhaps it could be a hydrological city, a pedestrians' city adorned with orchards and gardens, fruits and flowers, visualising the six seasons. You must first think about how you want the city to look. Then you start planning things like function and infrastructure.
However, these will mean nothing if you do not consider one critical factor: upholding humanity. A city must take care of children and the differently-abled so that they can walk and move safely, reach their destinations without hassle. It must facilitate the movement of people and of their lives. This is how an ideal city should be built.
To transform Dhaka into an ideal city, you need holistic vision – one that considers our entire ecology: People, birds, butterflies, trees – everything. A masterplan alone will not solve the problems. When you are devising plans for Dhaka, you have to understand the whole world first, then Bangladesh and then the city.
Every city is unique with a character of its own. What are the assets of a city like Dhaka? What is its character?
Water comes down from the Himalayas and flows to the Bay of Bengal through a network of more than 50 major rivers that crisscross the country like a web. The whole county is basically collecting water. Whenever we talk about water, it is usually moving in relation to the land.
When I started working on the "Jol Sobuje Dhaka" (Dhaka with water and greeneries) project, I convinced people and the authorities that none of the sidewalls protected any greenery in our city. Rather, they facilitated a rise in illegal activities and drug abuse.
We often spend more time talking about strategy but ignore the beauty and poetry of water in the city. It was supposed to be full of boats and water taxis, but that has not happened in reality. We have filled the canals and polluted the rivers that surround the city. We keep making new roads everywhere but forget our ideal option for transportation – water.
To build an ideal city, we have to understand its water, its greenery, its people and its soil. Each element contributes a distinct feature to the city's character. They each have a beauty, poetry and challenge.
We are blessed with water. Not many counties have soil as fertile as ours. We have everything but sufficient education and enlightenment.
Dhaka is often ranked among the least liveable cities. I believe, and am certain, we can reshape our city. This city was not built in a day. We talk about its 400 years of history from the Mughal period. But didn't the city exist before that? Did the Mughals come and build the city out of nothing? Actually, Dhaka has come into being over a thousand years. It will take another thousand years to destroy it. Historically, cities fell due to a lack of water. Mohenjo-daro, an archaeological site in the Pakistani province of Sindh, is a glaring example of a city that collapsed for this very reason. Dhaka, however, will most likely survive because of its ample water supplies.
In order for us to move forward and improve our city, we must make better use of this precious resource. The best part is we do not need to change our lifestyle by a large extent. We need to adopt a simple yet effective plan: add canals and tanks to collect and manage rainwater. It will not cost a lot, but can greatly improve our resource's efficiency. This is only one of many small but impactful solutions we can use to develop Dhaka.
When I see my simple ideas being implemented in parts of Old Dhaka, it fills me with optimism. I often get confused when I see big planners coming up with many strategies, but none of them create any meaningful change to the city.
So where lies the problem? I believe our thinking regarding city development is more complicated than it ought to be. We look at the big picture before working on smaller issues. That is why we are losing our city day by day.
A single idea, however great it may be, is not going to make a meaningful impact on its own. We need a range of appropriate, workable plans and affordable budgets. For example, you may have a fantastic design for a children's park, but the whole exercise becomes moot if the outlay is too large and the plan is too complicated and difficult to implement. That is not to say, however, that we should not value a good design. But in fact, we currently have numerous design flaws in existing structures in the city. One conspicuous example is our overuse of boundary walls.
Tall boundary walls create a sense of distrust. If you go to the old town, you will see old houses on the alleys with oblique plinths locally known as "mer" where people sit and gossip. The intent is to welcome people, tell them "We love you". We have successful examples in the old city, so why not use them in other parts of the city as well?
The concept of "mer" prompts me to think about open spaces without boundary walls. When I started working on the "Jol Sobuje Dhaka" (Dhaka with water and greenery) project, I convinced people and the authorities that none of the sidewalls protected any green in our city. Rather, they facilitated a rise in illegal activities and drug abuse. It did not help society and the greenery. Walkways are occupied by vagrants and the sidewalls are used as support for their illegal shops.
Another big issue that came up through our research was that we always thought of these parks or open spaces as no more than destinations for people to go to. This line of thinking is problematic. These places should also be seen as paths to a goal. The park itself should not be the final destination. The whole community can use parks for any purpose. They should be accessible from all directions so that people can go to work or to shops through the parks. Children can walk to school through the playgrounds. They should facilitate movement and freedom.
This is a simple way to keep things open for all. When people can use them from all sides, these places become safe automatically.
Currently, Dhaka South City Corporation is renovating 31 parks and playgrounds. So far we have completed work on a few parks and playgrounds which were abandoned. We are returning them to their communities. There will be gardens and orchards where children can pluck fruits for themselves. Where they can play while coming home from school. Zealous youths can play music and sports. Men and women can take leisurely walks in the mornings and evenings. Coffee shops, libraries, gyms and community halls will be housed in conveniently located buildings near most of these parks. They will provide useful facilities for local people and will also be a source of income for the sustenance of the parks.
Shahid Alim Playground and Rasulbagh Shishu Park in Lalbagh are excellent examples of successful public spaces that provide a glimpse of what we need to do for our entire city.
When Sheikh Hasina coined the phrase "Digital Bangladesh", people either laughed, criticised or simply did not understand what she said. Bangladesh has not reached that level of digitalisation yet, but it is well on its way to it. We are working towards this grand idea of a Digital Bangladesh, but what is our vision for the city? Where are we going? Dhaka WASA has been contributing as per its capacity. Dhaka South City Corporation has been doing it in its own way. The same applies to Dhaka North City Corporation and Rajdhani Unnyan Katripakkha.
Nevertheless, with different agencies working separately, has Dhaka split? No. Dhaka is still one city where everyone is working towards the same end through different means. So, what is the philosophy and vision we are working towards?
Let's make Dhaka a hydrological city, with the beauty and rhythm of water being at the centre of all development and renovation. There will be trees, not just Mahogany for wood, but those that are colourful. Children will see trees and colours – purple, red, yellow. They will see birds, run after butterflies and get the fragrance flowers. Parks will be like classrooms for them. I want to see city children walking to school by themselves, knowing they are safe.
Regarding infrastructure, you cannot break buildings in the old town to make the roads wider for service vehicle accessibility. Instead, you can have hydrants. You have rivers from where you can bring water easily. You can have narrow cars like those in Japan and other countries. You cannot reduce the old town to rubble and create it anew. You must think of development in terms of assimilating heritage with environment.
Lalon says whatever the universe has got, your body holds them all. Your city can hold everything you imagine. Give it to the people who have the knowledge, understanding, and professionalism. We have those people. I believe there are more out there who are concerned and are thinking. Let's start a discourse and take a stand for our beliefs.
It is my belief that a change in lifestyle and perspective is needed. Do you think children who go to school by car, protected by guards and chaperones, will grow up with concern for the lives of other people? This kind of isolated lifestyle reinforces the notion that everybody else is an enemy and that we need to be protected from them. I dream of a city where children can walk to school in 10 to 15 minutes and can safely return home alone. They will not need to go to school by car, guarded by parents. Parents will feel safe and comfortable. Children will be free to enjoy their childhood.
That's the city we need to build. And it is very possible.
Rafiq Azam is the principal architect of Shattoto, an architecture firm based in Dhaka with a focus on "architecture for green living". The article has been facilitated by Aaraf Dayad Azam, a graduate in Philosophy and English literature from Waterloo University.