Cover Focus

Making Dhaka More Livable

Dhaka is bursting at its seams as more and more people continue to come in every day to the city to live and work. A culturally vibrant city with a rich history, it has also become one of the most densely populated urban agglomerations in the world.
With such a vertiginous growth, Dhaka now accounts for one-tenth of Bangladesh’s population, one fifth of its GDP, and almost half of its formal employment. Therefore, whatever happens to Dhaka, happens to Bangladesh. If one has to think about the growth of Bangladesh, and Dhaka does not succeed, then it will be challenging for Bangladesh to do so.
Unfortunately, some of the most significant benefits from urbanization are missed out to congestion and low livability. In the last ten years, average traffic speed has declined from 21 km/hour to 7 km/hour, with people spending an average of 2.4 hours a day in traffic. Congestion takes up 3.2 million working hours each day and costs the economy billions of dollars every year. The result is a massive income potential being lost for the city and the country.
How can these challenges be addressed? Last month, an international conference was held in Dhaka to discuss the preliminary findings of a new World Bank draft report, “Towards Great Dhaka: A New Urban Development Paradigm Eastward.” Participants agreed that the city’s urban growth pattern has been messy and uneven, and discussed development options for Dhaka towards 2035 – when its population is expected to have doubled to 35 million people.
At the conference, there was a consensus that Dhaka is now at a critical juncture. Widening streets and adding public spaces are important priorities, but they are costly in already crowded areas. People seem to be arriving in Dhaka faster than the city can develop the infrastructure to accommodate them. Between 1995 and 2005, road surface in Dhaka increased by 5%, while population grew by 50% and traffic by 134%.
The real transformational change would be to add a vast expanse of high-quality urban land to the existing city and to use this additional space to decongest the older parts of town.
Just across the areas of Progoti Soroni and close to Gulshan, lies the most largely rural East Dhaka area. Participants emphasized that with proper planning, this eastward development has the potential of making Dhaka a highly productive urban agglomeration, comparable to other megacities in the world.


Other cities in the world have gone through such transformations. For example, only 25 years ago the now vibrant East Shanghai (Pudong) area was roughly as rural as East Dhaka is today. Under national leadership, Shanghai articulated a vision to develop Pudong in a radically different way, putting in place modern infrastructure, ensuring access to services, and providing incentives to attract high value-added activities. As a result, the city grew from 6 million to over 24 million. Productivity surged, and livability improved dramatically, making Shanghai a truly global city.
At the international conference, Zhao Qizheng, former Vice Mayor of Shanghai in charge of the Pudong transformation said through a video message: “Our objective was to enable Shanghai to play a global role and invigorate Shanghai to serve the rest of China in communication with the world.” He added, “At that time we could not build high rises… our real estate developers could only build houses to sell and no experience in housing finance and designing. But talent grows in the process of reform and opening up.”
The experience of Shanghai and other cities shows that success requires a clear strategy. One that is embraced by government agencies, private investors and development organizations, and supported by careful planning and tight implementation.

Ministries responsible for Dhaka’s development and global experts shared their experience in managing urban development. Anthony Venables, Professor of Economics, Oxford University, presented rigorous simulations of the city’s development under various scenarios.
At one end was “business as usual.” At the other, the strategic development of East Dhaka, which would include building the eastern embankment and laying out a modern transport infrastructure before the area densifies. Reducing flooding would make land available for urban development, improving connectivity would increase the investment potential. And the gains would be amplified if the cost of doing business in the new area was reduced, encourage firms and people to move in for greater economic opportunities.
Building East Dhaka correctly now will cost much less than having to retrofit it in the future for increased livability and the reduced risk of natural disasters. But panelists also emphasized that a strong vision and coordination across agencies would be needed for this ambitious scenario to materialize.

The Author Is The Chief Economist For South Asia Region, The World Bank.

Photo: Din M Shibly

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