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 firstname.lastname@example.org.