Town planning and planners in Bangladesh

By 2030, one in every two urban residents in the world will be in Asia. Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, brings this dramatic urban transition into focus. Faced with a constant battle against water, inadequate infrastructure and sanitation, endemic traffic congestion and electricity shortages how are the planners faring?

Farjana Islam is a young Bangladeshi planner. She graduated with a degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in 2005, and then worked for three years as a planner in Savar Municipality in Dhaka. After post-graduate study at the Development Planning Unit in London, she is now a volunteer with the UK Bangladesh Climate Change Coalition while looking for a job as a planner. She told me about her time as a “struggling municipal planner” in Bangladesh, where she describes her work as “battling for sustainable cities in an incremental way.”

Supply and demand
Already over 13 million, Dhaka is forecast to be home to 20 million people by 2025. The figures that Farjana Islam reels off demonstrate the scale of the gap that already exists between supply and demand of basic urban services in the Dhaka City Corporation area. The supply of water is 1700 million litres a day: the demand is 2050 million litres a day. Only 30% of the city area has proper sewers, and on drainage it’s not much better at 38%. Untreated water flows into rivers. Open dustbins spill refuse by the roadside. Traffic jams impose costs on businesses and strain on commuters. Air pollution is bad.

The city is highly vulnerable to inundation when the rains come. According to UN-Habitat’s 2008 State of the World’s Cities report, Dhaka is between 2 and 13 metres above sea level, so any rise in sea level poses a severe threat. It is the urban poor in particular who live in water-logged and flood-prone areas, with 90% of slum dwellers sharing a single room with three or more people. In these high density, high-risk conditions, floods not only contaminate water supplies but mix with raw sewage and induce water-borne diseases.

Yet sill the rural migrants come. Dhaka for all its problems represents opportunity. Nor is Dhaka the only Bangladesh city that is growing rapidly; a similar tale can be told in places like Chittagong and Sylhet. However, the planning of Dhaka has simply failed to keep pace. The Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan 1995-2015 was prepared by Mott MacDonald and Culpin Planning and competed in 1997. It is essentially a Structure Plan that was to be supported by Detailed Area Plans. Between them sat the Urban Area Plan, a mid-term strategy to 2005 for the existing urban areas. However, it has simply not proved possible to roll out the Detailed Area Plans. The Capital Development Authority simply does not have the capacity to deliver on this scale of planning. This means that most development is technically unauthorised. Real-estate developers provide formal housing only affordable by the better off.

Planners in Bangladesh
Senior planners mainly come from an architecture or engineering background, though Farjana Islam says that there are now four universities offering degrees in urban and regional / rural planning. “It’s a matter of fact that most of the professional jobs in town planning in Bangladesh are occupied by civil engineers or architects (with or without any planning education)” she says. “This is because for the last two decades most of the recruitment to planning jobs was of civil engineers or architects who practiced town planning as a supplementary qualification. For example, before 2005, any job of ‘Assistant Town Planner’ in a Municipal / City Corporation formally required a ‘BSc in Civil Engineering / Architecture’. This meant that planning graduates from undergraduate planning courses could not apply for such posts. It took several years to amend this requirement to ‘BSc in Civil Engineering / Architecture / Town Planning’. Still today, the planning profession is not well recognised and has to compete with other parallel professions for wider recognition.”

A consequence of these arrangements is that the perceptions of the planners working in Bangladesh are narrowly focused on physical and technical criteria. Farjana Islam says “Planners seldom advocate for the urban poor or disadvantaged groups. Due to difficulties in planning enforcement, current practices and policies cannot manage the cities of Bangladesh. Besides, in their profession, planners have to face both an administrative and a political labyrinth. Often they cannot practise their expertise because of conflicting power relations among different urban institutions.”

What is to be done?
It is situations like this that have led the Commonwealth Association of Planners and UN-Habitat to call for new approaches to urban planning. New Urban Planning would be proactive, with up to date strategic plans that make land available for development without trying to micro-manage land use. One problem in places like Bangladesh is that the legislation and institutions of planning are not attuned to the development realities of rapid urbanisation and the urbanisation of poverty. Perceptions about planning amongst political leaders and bureaucrats need to be challenged. Until then, planning and planners will be part of the problem, not part of the solution, and cities like Dhaka will find it increasingly difficult to compete economically with Asian cities that have made the connection between urbanisation and modernisation.

If you were asked to be on a task force to advise the Bangladeshi government on urban policy and planning, what would you say to them?

Farjana is currently based in London and can be contacted at farjana003@yahoo.com.

  • TALHA

    Nice work. There is another rising problem in Bangladesh. Though Dhaka is a model of an unplanned, overcrowded, unliveable and unsustainable city, other cities in Bangladesh are following the development paradigm of Dhaka. The thinking processes of the policymakers are very much political and kidding. We, the planners of Bangladesh, are overlooked and forced to follow their will.

    • Thanks for this comment Talha. Can you explain what you mean when you say the policy makers are “kidding”, please? Also is there any tension between local and national levels of government about the needs of the cities? In some countries national politicians rely on large rural constituencies for votes and so tend to be insensitive to the economic importance of their urban centres.

      • FARJANA

        There are some sort of tensions among different ministries and local government institutions. So far as I observed, local politicians (e.g Mayor, Councillors) sometimes reluctant to enforce planning because they assume it would curtail their expected vote. So, there need to empower planner (both in national and local level by legislation) to stop such trade off. However, I think by ‘kidding’ Talha wants to address the irrational decisions of both national and local politicians that eventually put planners in a difficult position.

        • Rashidul Hasan Udoy

          Nice to see such kind of article. I was also a Town Planner in Bhairab Municipility and joined at the same time of Farzana. So I know what happened on that initial moment of Assistant Town Planner in different Municipality. But it’s time to change the old concept, old theory. Now our central government and local government authority realize not only the necessity of Urban Planning, Rural Planning but also implementation the plan in field level. But there is some bureaucrat problem of Town Planning profession in Bangladesh. But young planners fight for their right. Hope with in short time we can get our own position and do something for our motherland and make our country one of the planned country in the world. We have everything , just we have shortage of proper management. Proper person not in proper position. But I strongly believe that with in next 10 years we have solve this type of problem and enjoy our 50 year Independence as a middle income country.

          • This optimism from young planners is impressive. It will certainly be needed if change is to be achieved. Can the bureaucratic culture be changed? What are its weak points where change might begin?

        • Thanks for adding these comments. Tensions with other ministries are no surprise and need to be respected. Other ministries have different priorities, which may be as legitimate as those of planning ministries. The issue is whether the priorities of other ministries undermine sustainable and inclusive urban and rural development. In working on an Urban Agenda for the Commonwealth we have been floating the idea of “urban-proofing” policies – i.e. developing a basic qualitative impact assessment that would provide a check on whether the policy in question has a negative impact on urban development and the lives of the urban poor. Unless they can add some such tools, planners will not be empowered, since they are too strongly identified with out-of-date masterplans that leave a large section of the urban population without legal tenure of their property.

          • Mohammad Taufiqul Islam

            Farjana has described the true picture of Planning and Planners in Bangladesh. I believe this picture is same for almost all developing countries. If you want to change the pereception about planning and planners in Bangaldesh then first thing you require to do is to educate the politicians (National and Local) about the role of town planning and planner. An architect or civil engineer can never do planning jobs unless they have educational knowledge on Planning. In Bangladesh most of the Civil Engineer/Architect have no or little knowledge on Planning but they are doing the planning jobs. The result is the present Dhaka. All of you know that Dhaka is the second worst city in the World to live. If i ask the question who is responsible for that, then the answer will be – this Civil Engineer/Architect with the help of politicians.Now only the politicians can change this scenario. Commonwealth Association of Planner and UNHABITAT can play a significant role in this respect by pusuing the top level politician in Bangladesh. To do that if necessary they can take help from the Planner in Bangladesh like Farjana.

          • Unfortunately the Bangladesh Insitute of Planners seems to have lost touch with the Commonwealth Association of Planners. However, CAP is doing some work on accreditation of planning courses and registraion of planners, so some of the points you make can be reflected there. Who are likely to be agents of change for planning within Bangladesh? The professional body? Universities? NGOs? Young planners?

          • Mohammad Taufiqul Islam

            Hi Cliff,

            It is good to know that CAP is working for accreditation of planning courses in Bangladesh. I believe it will be very helpful for planning profession. All of the four ( professional body/Universities/NGOs/Young Planners) could be the agent of changing planning in Bangladesh. But to my knowledge there is no NGO in Bangladesh who is specifically working on town planning. It might be good idea to set up a NGO like Planning Aid in UK.Again, CAP and UNHABITAT can help in this regard by engaging Young Planners and University Students to form this kind of NGOs. It is worth to mention here that the politicians of Bangaldesh will never give importance to the professional body unless CAP or UNHABITAT creat pressure on them to change their perception about planning and planners.

          • It would help if the Bangladesh Institute of Planners re-established contact with CAP. If you know anybody who is a member of the Institute please encourage them to press their Secretary to respond to CAP’s messages. Also do you know about CAP’s Young Planners Network? You can contact Ms. Brooke Yates at brooke.yates@act.gov.au for more information about the Network.

            In an earlier comment on this blog Roger Brewster referred to Sri Lanka. The Planning Institute of Australia has had a successful project with the Institute of Town Planning in Sri Lanka that developed after the 2004 tsunami. Such co-operation projects might be possible in Bangladesh if people there pressed for them. They cannot be imposed from outside – the initiative has to come from within the country and have a clear set of aiums and measurable outcomes.

          • FARJANA

            Hi Cliff,
            It is good to know that CAP is working for accreditation of planning courses in Bangladesh. But at the same time it is very frustrating to hear that BIP (Bangladesh Institute Planners) lost contact with CAP. We will inform BIP regarding this as soon as possible. it is also very nice to know about CAP’s Young Planners Network and I think something similar can be done in Bangladesh.
            I agree that to enforce planning, the motivation of the politicians(both local and national) need to be change first. Otherwise, additional scopes will not be created and consequently planners will deprive from wider recognition. Though LGED (Local Government Engineering Department) sometimes facilitates some trainings to motivate politicians but those are not effective. So, BIP & CAP need to take the lead by sharing best practices and ‘Quick Guide’. Besides, the idea of setting up a NGO like Planning Aid in Bangladesh is great. Lastly, I want to add that it is the prime time to use the ‘youth of planners’ in Bangladesh. CAP and UNHABITAT can guide such collective enthusiasm where possible.

          • Md. Firoz Alam Patwary

            I need a land to stay with my family wife and child in dhaka because I’m land less destitute people. pls give me a land in dhaka city or house as donation for my rehabilitation and living well and child education.
            Thanking you,
            Firoz

          • Mehedi Ahsan

            Dear Cliff, Farzana and all,

            I would like to share you some interesting news about Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP) and other initiatives for advocating for Urban Planning in Bangladesh.

            – Bangladesh Institute of Planners with supports from German Development Cooperation (GIZ) initiated to establish Urban Data Cell. A meta-data catelogue is developing with all the urban data, ongoing projects, researches, maps, sattelite images within next couple of month and it will be web-based. So, the information will be available to everybody the URBAN BANGLADESH to DIGITAL URBAN.

            – Urban and Rural Planning Discipline of Khulna University with supports from German Development Cooperation (GIZ) initiated to establish Bangladesh Urban Research Forum (BURF). All the planning schools (currently 5 public universities have Planning faculty), Urban Research institutes like CUS & BIDS and other sister disciplines of planning like Architecture, Geography, Environmental Science & Development Studies participated two days event in Khulna to form BURF. The BURF is now shaping and it will take intellectual lead to advocate with Government for appropriate placement of Urban Development in Bangladesh.

            – Bangladesh is planning to organize Bangladesh Urban Form (BUF like WUF) in next october. BIP is actively involved with the process.

            But is very bad news that BIP is not maintaining the relationship with CAP. I will inform our President and other executive members the maters to take care. I hope the relation will be re-activated.

            I feel the most important agenda for Bangladesh would be:
            -Institutional reform in t he central level. Currently no dedicated ministry/division or department for taking care of Urban issues. If seperate ministry is not possible seperate division comprising Urban Development Directorate of Ministry of Housing and Public Works and Urban Management Support Unit of LGED under Local Government Division should be developed under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development Cooperatives. I hope BIP and CAP can work together on these issues.

            Regarding CAP young planners network: there is now three alumni organizations of Young Planners of Bangladesh. I will draw the attention to them.

            For activating all and to draw the propoer attention like happend in Srilanka (witrh supports from Australian Planners) is there any possibility that CAP will work closely with BIP in Bangladesh? Any seperate projects…??I expect another successful project in Bangladesh. I recommend BIP and all five planning faculties can be the driver together with CAP.

            Thanks

            Mehedi Ahsan
            MSc student in Urban Management
            Technical University of Berlin, Germany

          • This is indeed exciting news. Many thanks for bringing it to my attention. The urban data cell looks especially intreresting in terms of the endeavours of the Commonwealth Secretariat and its partners, including CAP, to develop urban indicators to inform national policy makers in Commonwealth countries following our study “Urban Challenges: Scoping the State of Commonwealth Cities”. The Bangladesh Urban Forum sounds like it could be a good place to focus discussion on Commonwealth approaches to developing an urban agenda. In all this the Commonwealth perspective can set a context and support these initiatives within Bangladesh. Also the work that we have been doing on planning education is very relevant to the planning schools in Bangladesh (see my blog on this topic that I posted at the beginning of July), I will now liaise with others to see how CAP might support these Bangladeshi initiatives.

          • Mohammad Taufiqul Islam

            Hi Mehedi,

            This is really a good initiative for the Planning and planner in Bangladesh. Please keep us informed time to time in this forum.

            Many thanks,

            Taufiq Islam
            Planning officer
            Oxfordshire County Council
            Oxford.UK

          • Nazrul

            Thank you farjana apu for describing a real situation of the planners in our country. Most of the planning post is captured by the architect or civil engineers who have no enough knowledge about various planning terminology and tools. But they are dominated of planning professions in various Development Authority. As for example, Planning officer of Khulna Development Authority is a Civil engineer and about three or four planners are working under this planning officer.

          • Thanks to Farjana and all the rest of you who have developed this discussion and urged the Bangladesh Institute of Planners to rejoin the Commonwealth Association of Planners. I am delighted to be able to report that BIP have now applied to resume their membership of CAP. I think this is a real step forward. Now I hope that CAP can respond to the calls set out in the comments on this blog and explore ways in which together BIP, CAP and the young planners of Bangladesh, as well as others such as those leading the German international development inititiative, can begin to tackle the challenges of urban and rural development in your country.

          • Mehedi Ahsan

            I am also very happy to know that BIP allready took initiative. Now I wish a successfull project like in Sreelanka and dear Cliffhague, you are the right person to bridge up…

          • Ranver Ahmed

            Dear Mehedi Vi and all,

            Its really nice to hear the move of different bodies and persons concentrated on planning. I usually watch TV Talk Show every day. Regarding urban development and planning, every show is trying to find the current urban problems in Dhaka and suggest some solutions accordingly. Dhaka is in poor situation as far as planning practice is concern. I feel really harsh that every body is trying only to save a nearly dead city Dhaka, whereas no one is thinking about the present live cities in Bangladesh. Yes, i am talking about the district head quarters in Bangladesh. Dhaka was not like today before 30 years, similarly the situation in the urban areas in every district headquarters will not be alike today after 30 years. I’m now playing role as Town Planner in Satkhira Municipality. I know the real planning practices in the municipality level. If proper institutional reform is not being taken within quick time, there is no doubt that after 20-30 years the above mentioned live cities is going to be recognized as nearly dead cities like present Dhaka.

            I think BIP in connection with CAP should try to arrange a meeting with the Ministry (if possible, Honorary PM could be taken her chair) as soon as possible. I am quite aware about the power house of present government. If we can manage the Minister for LGRD, it will surely taking its effect.

            Bye for Now

  • Tim

    There are no easy solutions…the problems listed for Dhaka are common to many cities in the so called third world. It is the effect of many years of benign neglect of cities and failure to appreciate planning as a necessary role in urban development. Policy makers can see buildings, bridges and so on but they cannot see “planning”. Planning like a good servant is ignored when present but sorely missed when absent. What to do? As the problem did not happen overnight, the solutions also have to take time. 1. Recognize and give appropriate priority to planning 2. empower planners to work at local level with local communities 3. begin incremental improvements…it does not matter where, but it must begin 4. sustain the gains while continuing to nibble at the problem. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. the moral applies here.

    • Thanks for the insights from Farjana about the poor perscption of planners in Bangladesh. Even with the focus on physical and engineering aspects, it appears few sustainable solutions have been implemented. Talha’s comments seem to reinforce this view . This is a sharp contrast to Sri Lanka where planners have a legislative/statutory status and are more highly regarded.

      • Thanks, Roger, for highlighting the comparison with Sri Lanka, a country that Will French and I in our sudy of the State of the Commonwealth’s Cities noted had made progress in reducing the number of people lacking access to improved sanitation in the period 2000-2007. Effective engineering and the skills of professional civil and water engineers are clearly necessary to urban development, but they are not a sufficent condition. There needs to be social and economic understanding, poliical leadership and delivery skills. All of this needs to be reinforced through planning education and mid-career training.

    • Thanks for the ideas, Tim. As you say, no easy solutions, and though every city is ultimately unique, the problems of Dhaka are all too familiar elsewhere. One issue I would want to follow is what kind of planning could make a difference? It seems to me that the traditional Master Plan approach was conceived in circumstances where development was relatively slow and the public sector was able to fund key infrastructure. That is not today’s situation. Thus the traditional planning approach is not fit for purpose in places like Bangladesh. Thus your first recommendation – “Recognise and give appropriate priority to planning” – will only work if it is a different sort of planning. This was the kind of argument that CAP was trying to make at the 2006 WUF with the “Re-inventing Planning” paper and the “Making Planning Work” book. UN-Habitat have taken up these themes, but such advocacy has not been driven within and by the mainstream professional planning community.

      • What a practical way of looking at planning in developing countries. Nigeria shares most of the problems highlighted. However, the planners are in a better position. One issue that is fundemental is changing the perception of political leaders and bureaucrats alike on the importance of planning for sustainable development.

        • UN-Habitat are preparing a “Quick Guide” on planning for local leaders. Hopefully that will be a useful little document. However, at present and in many counries there is little training available to help politicians understand planning. Also it the professional planners too often do not articulate a credible vision of the kind of planning that is needced, or forge partnerships with others involved in development to present a case. In particular, I think that we need to make much stronger links between planning and local economic development if we are to get the ear of politicians.

  • Ezaz Sheikh

    Mehedi, good job to make me aware of this blog. To begin my discussion I would like to start with the message below:

    Bangladesh does not have any institution that allows planners both to regulate and to facilitate the urban and rural planning activities in Bangladesh. More precisely, we do not have any relevant Act and regulations that would have allowed planners in Bangladesh to manage the development activities. In absence of these institutions, anomalies sprung up and the urban planning situation in Bangladesh has gone far beyond a manageable extent. However, I am not saying that there is no way return back to an order.

    BIP needs to understand that a series of firm pushes are required to make the lawmakers awake/understand why this lawlessness should be the number one political issue that the subsequent ruling parties need to resolve.

    Generally, from my limited understanding, I would like to recommend BIP to liaise with the lawmakers.

  • Taufiq Islam

    Hi Cliff,
    Its been a long time since we last communicate. Recently i have been contacted by the board members of Bangladesh Institute of Planners(BIP), who are interested to work closely with CAP. I believe BIP has now resumed membership with CAP. However, this is not enough. They want to work with CAP in different issues. What about the accreditation of planning courses in Bangladesh?As you know i am working with Oxfordshire County Council in UK as a planner and also member of RTPI. Would that be possible for BIP to work with RTPI on different planning issues as well? please let me know your views and advice on this matter ASAP. then i shall contact with members of BIP.

    Kind Regards,

    Taufiq Islam
    Planning Officer
    Oxfordshire County Council

  • Sardar

    In reality the central leader/member of the parliament are trying to development the country/his or her locality. Thus i will request the honorable leader/MPs to consider the proposals to stay the planners in side of them to develop the country.

    I feel that the Urban and Rural Planning may be a powerful Division/directorate in the ministry of planning like as the economics divisions where the urban planners/only Urban planners will be recruited on the cadre system (BCS). In the line the second stage town planners will be recruited in Municipal/City Corporation/Upazila/Union level . The upper level planners at the division/directorate will arrange the development proposals with the assistance of planners of the lower level development organization. The lower level professionals (who will have to the magistracy power) will coordinate with the upper level without caring the localism. To be mentioned that the Salary of the planners will be found from the central government(fully revenue).

    That means four matters (1) the honorable MPs will take the initiatives to centrally making a organogram to utilize the Urban Planners for development of the country. (2) The planners will have the right at the policy making where no people of engineer background will interfere because they are expert in structure/infrastructure making/construction. (3) salary of the planners will be from the fully revenue sector so that to work in freedom that is not possible under the present system of municipality. (4)full fledged magistracy power in the field.