In Dhaka, Habitat III forum confronts staggering population forecast

The Bangladeshi capital, already bulging, is expected to grow to 26 million people by 2035. A recent Urban Thinkers Campus assessed prospects for intermediary cities, risk planning and more.

A Dhaka traffic jam, August 2014. The Bangladeshi capital is putting the finishing touches on its development blueprint for the next two decades. (Monotoomono/shutterstock)

DHAKA — Dhaka is a city of contrasts. The capital is Bangladesh’s most dynamic city, generating more than a third of the nation’s economic output. The country’s booming apparel industry, in particular, has prospered in this 400-year-old city.

But the megacity’s population is growing unsustainably, due mainly to the flow of rural migrants who pour into the city seeking jobs. This influx has contributed to strained services and environmental decay. Today, Dhaka is quickly losing its sheen as a liveable city, worsened by slow mobility, rising pollution and the looming danger of climate change.

So, increasingly, some are coming back to an older idea: that developing Bangladesh’s intermediary cities could transform Dhaka back into a healthy city, one that is mobile, inclusive, well-governed, heritage-rich and environmentally sustainable. The idea came at the recent Dhaka Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC), one of more than two-dozen such stakeholder events taking place in the run-up to next year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization.

“Dhaka shouldn’t act alone. Let other cities grow equally,” said Iqbal Habib, the general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (the Bangladesh Environment Movement), promoting the idea of diversifying growth engines away from Dhaka.

“Culturally, we can grow with the spirit of Dhaka,” continued Habib, an architect by training. He said the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III, needs to be just and affordable, with people and environment at its heart.

[See: The New Urban Agenda must recognize the importance of intermediary cities]

Those criteria will certainly be put to the test in the coming years in Dhaka. The recent campus was held as the capital is putting the finishing touches on its development blueprint for the next two decades. That period, through 2035, is expected to see the already-bursting population of the Bangladeshi capital double to 26 million people.

Risk-aware planning

The Dhaka campus, held 6-8 November, brought together a diverse group of participants, whose voices and ideas will help craft a strategy directing the future of the world’s cities over the next 20 years. The Dhaka event, as at other UTCs, resulted in a series of formal recommendations for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda. (See below for the full Dhaka Declaration.)

“Dhaka shouldn’t act alone. Let other cities grow equally. Culturally, we can grow with the spirit of Dhaka.”

Iqbal Habib
General secretary, Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon

While the event was an open platform, the campus also attracted political heavyweights, such as Housing and Public Works Minister Mosharraf Hossain, who launched a new National Urban Campaign. The campaign, which will run until the Habitat III conference kicks off next October, will seek to sensitize the country on the details of the Dhaka Declaration, particularly to help stakeholders understand its recommendations. The initiative will also seek to ensure a common Bangladeshi voice at Habitat III while promoting the specifics of the UTC’s recommendations.

Dhaka is unique given a combination of factors, including density, types of economic activities and vulnerability to disasters. This combination made the Dhaka UTC particularly important, said Shipra Narang Suri, co-chair of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign, which is spearheading the UTCs.

The event was broken into four thematic sessions. Each was attended by some 30 participants over the course of the three-day event, the second to take place in South Asia. Around 200 participants took part, and organizers called the discussions vibrant.

[See: Informal economy offers opportunity, not just survival, Indian Habitat III sessions urge]

In one session, participants learned how a mostly non-motorized city like Mymensingh, in central Bangladesh, recently devised a disaster-risk plan with input from a significant number of its residents. Participants at the campus supported this idea, eventually putting forth a formal recommendation that the New Urban Agenda emphasize risk-aware land-use planning based on context and local knowledge.

Such planning is certainly applicable to Dhaka, which participants concluded should be considered a wetland during development planning. Mohammad Mujibur Rahman, a professor at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), which co-hosted the Urban Thinkers Campus, said the city’s open water bodies and canals are disappearing by the day, thus exacerbating water-logging.

To make the city’s drainage system functional, Rahman said, there must be an open drainage system, replacing the current system of closed systems. He estimated that only 0.3 percent of the capital city’s drainage system is functional today.

Yet some also noted that Bangladesh’s significant water infrastructure plays an important point in defining the identity of local areas, constituting a key element of heritage. Salina Hayat Ivy, the mayor of Narayanganj, a river port in the country’s centre, is a champion of the conservation of city heritage. She said that other cities could learn from how she had been restoring open spaces including ponds and canals in Narayanganj — defying a “hostile” environment.

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

Risk mapping and related planning helps city residents better prepare for future disasters. In Mymensingh, for instance, this initiative is expected to help residents build houses or other buildings with an eye toward potential earthquake-related dangers. For instance, soil testing is traditionally done only very casually in Bangladesh, while this project will place a special emphasis on such analysis.

Of course, such approaches are relevant to urban settings around the world. “No city could be ‘resilient’ without a disaster-management plan,” said Towfiq Utpal, a deputy director of the Urban Development Directorate, who helped carry out the Mymensingh planning.

[See: Learning the language of cities in crisis]

Housing for all

Even ahead of the incredible population explosion forecasted for the coming decades in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s urban housing shortage is already significant. In 2010 alone, this shortage surged from 1.13 million to 4.6 million units, a spike attributed to a combination of population growth and underinvestment.

“No city could be ‘resilient’ without a disaster-management plan.”

Towfiq Utpal
Deputy director, Urban Development Directorate

The World Bank says Dhaka’s housing market is characterized by a surplus of upper-echelon housing stock and an acute shortage for lower- and middle-income groups. Likewise, prohibitively high land prices and high interest rates on mortgage lending contribute to demand and supply gap that keeps widening.

Further, the capital’s housing shortage is expected to double by 2021. This gap is as acute in Dhaka as in other cities and secondary towns.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Speaking at the UTC, Hossain, the housing and public works minister, announced that the National Housing Authority would build 100,000 “affordable” apartments, where people can buy homes on a roughly 10 percent charge, repayable in 20 years. Even in Purbachal, a satellite town, authorities plan to build 10,000 dormitories equipped with sewage-treatment systems for lower-income workers such as drivers, domestic help and cleaners.

Currently, the government’s goal is to provide housing for all by 2021. Yet Nazrul Islam, chairman of the Centre for Urban Studies, said it should ensure that those who cannot afford to buy homes get them first.

Further, while the government has had some success in meeting housing needs for low-income people in recent years, participants expressed concern that nothing has been done for pavement dwellers since Habitat II took place in 1996, in Istanbul. It was at that event, two decades ago, that the government made soft pledges to provide shelter for all.

[See: Fractured continuity: Moving from Habitat II to Habitat III]

Today, however, hawkers, garbage pickers, vendors and small traders constitute a third of the urban population, said Mostafa Quaium Khan, an adviser with campaign group Bangladesh Urban Forum. “You can’t start or finish your day without them.”

City governance and economy

To fix Dhaka’s messy governance, participants agreed that introducing city government should be a priority. Currently, two mayors lead the capital, relying on services provided by nearly 60 government agencies but without any umbrella organization to oversee their coordination.

A former Dhaka mayor, whose son now holds the same position in the city’s southern part, did indeed push for a city governance structure like a metropolitan government, although this has not yet taken place. The idea here would be to establish a decentralized, accountable city government with responsibilities around the delivery of services. This umbrella body would have financial autonomy and a well-defined relationship with the central government, and would be responsible for coordinating the management of the city’s services.

[See: In Montréal, Habitat III forum hails the rise of ‘cities planning’]

UTC participants warned the city cannot afford to wait for much longer before introducing such a new form of government. Yet even as such a demand is increasingly coming from city residents, policymakers have remained silent. Indeed, most observers say it is highly unlikely that the government will make such a move anytime soon.

Nonetheless, some see the potential for small steps to be taken. To handle a transition toward a metropolitan-type set-up, cities like Dhaka can opt for “inclusiveness” in planning and implementation, said Mohammad Nurullah, an engineer responsible for urban management within the Local Government Engineering Division. This means creating a three-way tie between the central government, local government and the private sector.

In fact, such a plan was recently adopted in Bangladesh’s next Five Year Plan, which runs through 2020. Further, water supply in Dhaka could soon be provided under a similar set-up.

Nonetheless, in many other aspects centralized urbanization vision and planning is lacking. Participants expressed particular frustration over the country’s delay in approving a national urbanization policy that was drafted back in 2004, seen as critical for balanced urban development. They were also dismayed by the delay in endorsing the national housing policy.

Some saw an opening to use this frustration in the context of the upcoming Habitat III process. Professionals at the UTC recommended that the government establish a regular reporting system that would allow for public transparency on whether authorities live up to the commitments they will make under the New Urban Agenda.

Unity and strength

What unique experience could Dhaka offer to the Habitat III process and the crafting of the New Urban Agenda?

“Dhaka city people’s unity and strength,” said Ishrat Islam, a professor in the urban and regional planning department at BUET, which organized the UTC along with the university’s architecture department. “In disaster time, residents stand shoulder to shoulder. This is the strength of Dhaka.”

[See: Global Alliance for Urban Crises nearing launch]

On this, Islam was referring in particular to the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, near Dhaka, one of the worst industrial disasters in modern history. Following the collapse, locals engaged in initial response efforts event before the arrival of trained rescuers. This strength, Islam said, can be harnessed for national development by including all city inhabitants in planning processes.

In this, cities can also learn from each other. “We have to decide whether a model fits in. We need to tailor any model to our local needs,” Islam said.

The World Urban Campaign’s Suri agreed. “Dhaka can never be Singapore; Mumbai can never be Shanghai,” she said. “Dhaka has to find its own way, its own solutions.”

[See: Citiscope’s calendar of Habitat III events]



Dhaka Declaration

The 10-point list of recommendations that came out of the Dhaka Urban Thinkers Campus is as follows:

  • Promote capacity building of authorities and ensure efficient governance through accountability, transparency, and empowerment of stakeholders.
  • Inclusiveness planning to address need of people from different economic class, occupation (formal and informal), gender, age (children, youth and elderly), physical and mental ability.
  • Promote intermediate town /city development with linkage to maintain identity of mega city and reduce concentration of pulling factors in Megacity beyond its capacity.
  • Ensure access to affordable housing, transport, utility services, facilities (education, health etc) and safe food.
  • Engage appropriate professionals and ethical practice in development agencies to ensure the implementation of policies and plans. Address the nexus of vested interest groups which is the major barrier towards development.
  • Elements of housing e. g. land, finance, supply and management must be planned at the macro level and strategic planning must be done for implementation. Cross subsidy must be considered for housing provision to the low income group.
  • Integration of land use and transportation and planning for an integrated multi-modal transport system with special emphasis on walking, bicycling and public transport.
  • Immediate action is required to stop air, water, soil pollution and ruthless destruction of natural resources like water bodies, open spaces and heritage sites. All natural and physical urban features which contribute to the city’s Identity should be identified and enlisted for preservation and public use.
  • Risk sensitive land use planning should be ensured based on contextual experience and knowledge of local community. Socially inclusive plan to create awareness and understanding to cope with a post disaster management plan at local level.
  • Increase resource support for home grown research agenda and ensure integration among research, policy making and implementation.

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AZM Anas

AZM Anas is an economic editor at The Financial Express, a Dhaka-based business newspaper.