Imagine you are 12 years old and you live in Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and want to go to a playing field – at least a 30-minute walk away. The problem is there are busy roads between you and the ground. When you ask your parents if you can walk, they say no. They are also so busy that they themselves cannot take you there.
Instead, you perhaps have a chat with your friend using Facebook and other social networking sites and play video games sitting on the sofa. In this way, you have lost out on interacting with your friends and playing with them outside.
This is the reality for most children in the city nowadays – they spend too much time indoors playing on smartphones owing to a lack of open spaces and a few available not conducive for them. On top of it, the city has become somewhat unlivable because of growing pollution, discouraging kids from playing outdoors, rather pushing them toward indoor activities. The result is many children are growing up with different physical and mental illnesses.
Health experts say the number of children with mental disorders is on the rise in the capital and the pandemic outbreak has made things worse. They have suggested ensuring enough playgrounds and open spaces for kids' proper development.
"Children now prefer digital devices to playing outdoors," Dr Muntasir Maruf, assistant professor at the National Institute of Mental Health, told The Business Standard.
Children are now going through many mental health problems. "Some 2%-3% of child patients we get every day are suffering from mental problems. Many families do not even know that their children are growing up with mental problems," he noted.
It is not enough to just talk about child-friendly homes. From educational institutions to roads and bridges to water supply and sewerage systems to power grids to telecommunications to Internet, all have to be child-friendly.
"If we can develop a successful city for children, we will get a successful city for all," he added.
According to Rajuk's Detailed Area Plan 2016-2035, children constitute about 40% of the total population of Dhaka city, but the plan did not keep children in mind.
Urban planners and psychologists think that this city is not only uninhabitable for children, it is also dangerous for any living being.
Urban planner and architect Mobasher Hossain says there is no other capital city in the world, which is surrounded by five rivers. Besides, the city is full of sweet water.
"Yet, we have made our city unlivable for children in particular," he noted.
"To make the city livable again, we have to free the playgrounds of the illegal occupations and build a planned city with greenery and open spaces," the urban planner added.
Parks, playgrounds too few
Gone are the days when kids in the city had enough open spaces to play on and they also would play in lanes and alleyways. They are now confined in the concrete jungle and they spend playtime on smartphones.
Of the 129 wards in two city corporations of Dhaka, 37 have no playgrounds or parks. The city is supposed to have parks spanning 1,137 acres of land and playgrounds on a stretch of 1,876 acres, but there are parks on only 271 acres and playgrounds on 294 acres, according to a recent survey conducted by Rajuk before the DAP formulation.
The playgrounds available are not open to all either.
According to a survey by the Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP), the two city corporation areas need to have at least 2,000 parks and 4,000 playgrounds with a minimum area of 1 acre for approximately 2.5 crore people, while Dhaka has only 235 playgrounds, out of which, only 42 are open for all. Only 6% of the capital's playgrounds have girls' access.
The deadline for construction of 22 parks and playgrounds under a project taken up by Dhaka North City Corporation has expired, but work has not been completed yet. Only two parks and one playground have been opened. Work on eight other parks and one playground has been finished, but these are yet to be opened to the public. Work on the remaining six parks and two playgrounds is still going on.
In 2017, Dhaka South City Corporation undertook a project to develop 31 parks and playgrounds in the capital. Under this project known as the "Jal Sabujer Dhaka", 19 parks and 12 playgrounds were to be modernised. Although the project deadline ended in June 2018, work on several parks and playgrounds has not been completed yet. In addition, most of the playgrounds that have been modernised remain off-limits to city people.
Unplanned roads, footpaths and footbridges
Many expensive projects have been taken up at different times for the development of the transport system in Dhaka city, but it has not properly been child-friendly.
According to a Rajuk survey, 95% of households in the capital do not own a personal vehicle. About 75% of city commuters either use non-motorised vehicles or go to their destinations on foot. A large part of them is children.
Most children go to schools and playgrounds by walking. But sidewalks are not child-friendly. Footbridges, built following the old system, are not ideal for children.
Besides, in places where there are no footbridges, there are no adequate facilities for children to cross the road safely. That is why accidents are occurring regularly, with children losing their lives in most cases.
According to Rajuk, only 10% of roads in Dhaka have a length of 20 feet or more.
A centre of air pollution
Dhaka, the densely populated capital of Bangladesh, continues to gasp for fresh air. Its air quality index (AQI) was recorded at 200 on Tuesday, which is considered unhealthy.
Such unhealthy air quality might infect an adult with various diseases.
Environmentalists say such an environment is terrible for children, putting them at risk of many diseases, including acute lower respiratory infections.
Noting that Dhaka is not a livable city, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, executive director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, told TBS, "A generation is growing up in Dhaka without a playground. How is that possible? Under the existing situation, it is not unusual for creative kids in the capital to become drug addicts."
Kamal Uddin Ahmed Chowdhury, a professor of the Department of Clinical Psychology at Dhaka University, said for children to grow up, first of all we need a safe environment with open spaces, but we do not have that. There is a lack of playgrounds and parks, and many of the existing ones are off-limits to all children. Again, parents do not want to take their children there due to a lack of security. As a result, children are becoming more and more digital device-centric, which is hampering their mental and physical development."
Md Jahidul Islam is a journalist