DESIGNING LIVABLE ENVIRONMENTS

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Ar. Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, Director General of Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes, and Settlements, shares his thoughts on reimagining Dhaka’s urbanisation with a ‘terraqueous’ vision.


 

With temperatures soaring over 40 degrees Celcius in parts of Dhaka this April, urban dwellers in our country have seemingly woken up to the inevitability of rising temperatures impeding their well-being. How has the heat island effect gotten so worse in the city?

The whole city is a heat island now. It has gotten there through a series of deliberate and consequential actions. Decreasing water assets, cutting down of trees, loss of green areas, diminishing open spaces, and more built areas are some of the deliberate actions. Exhaust from cars, machinery, and vehicles, and widespread air-conditioning are some of the consequences of the so-called technologised life that we have adopted – all of which contribute to rising temperatures in the city. At the same time, we must not also forget that what is happening in Dhaka is also part of a larger global condition of rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns.

 

Any effort towards transforming our urban spaces has to be within the confines of the Detailed Area Plan (DAP) by RAJUK. You recently underscored the importance of incorporating pedestrian infrastructures to complement the MRT systems in DAP 2022-35; what makes this so crucial for Dhaka’s sustainability?

I have been talking about the virtues – and necessity – of urban spaces for a long time. Dhaka lacks such spaces. Cities are made livable not through stunning buildings but by the quality of public and civic spaces. There are many scales to urban spaces. It includes the open spaces in Sangsad Bhaban to a small park in Mohammadpur, although unfortunately and totally unnecessarily the spaces in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar have been made inaccessible to the public. The sidewalk or footpath is another critical urban space in a city, but planners and engineers in Dhaka treat it like a cover on the drain. The sidewalks are extremely unsuitable for walking and oftentimes hazardous whereas they should be a seamless network of walkability. In any successful transit-oriented city, such as Tokyo, Hong Kong or Manhattan, the pedestrian infrastructure complements the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. The idea of the MRT is to reduce individual vehicles on the road so that people take trains. In the cities I mentioned, people walk to or from the station. If they are expected to take a vehicle – any vehicle – to reach the station, it will defeat the very purpose of the MRT. So far, in the staging of Dhaka’s MRT, we have not seen any plan for pedestrian infrastructure. If people are still taking smaller vehicles to reach the station or their destinations, the overall result of vehicles on the street, traffic congestion, and fuel usage may not see substantial change. At the same time, the joy and benefit of walking will be lost.


For any city or town in Bangladesh, and certainly, Dhaka, to make it sociable, healthy and ecological, and sustainable, we have to begin with the water system, that is, the presence and flow of any kind of water conditions.


Please elaborate on the idea to foster a humane neighbourhood development, relinquishing our ferocious attachment to plots and real estate.

Dhaka’s planning strategies for residential area developments have emphasised only plot divisions. This has catered to a frenzied drive for acquiring and owning plots. A plot in this city is a pot of gold. Real estate development has exaggerated that drive into making apartment buildings as a money-generating mechanism catering mainly to individual ownership and profits. Developers call it housing, I don’t. Earlier, I described that drive as plotting and scheming. With such plot-based planning, we have failed to generate a more collective condition in our urban living – what you describe as a humane neighbourhood – and in how we should get together beyond our plots and apartments. That getting together is very important in creating social cohesion, how we meet others, how we circulate in the network of walkable spaces, and how we avail of common and civic facilities. Again, I have said this for a while that Dhaka needs a new model of area development, not by small plots but by group housing with designated areas as commons and for sociability. One good thing about DAP 2022-2035 is its emphasis on creating such larger housing and development that has the potential for creating such neighbourhoods.

 

We often talk about unique ideas that can save us from the urban mess we have created. Why do you believe Dhaka needs a hydraulic vision?

We have created the mess, we will have to clean it up ourselves. The problem with the development and planning of Dhaka is that it is administered by many who have confusing ideas about the needs and virtues of a city. Then there are many stakeholders and many agencies, and they do not talk to each other. The first task in a collective effort is to set our priorities right. For any city or town in Bangladesh, and certainly, Dhaka, to make it sociable, healthy and ecological, and sustainable, we have to begin with the water system, that is, the presence and flow of any kind of water conditions. The developing city has to modulate itself to the water matrix and not the other way round. We have to create a new urban language of buildings, spaces and infrastructures that respect the various watery realms – rivers and canals, ponds and lakes, floodplains and wetlands, etc. Through the work of Bengal Institute, we have demonstrated what the nature of a humane, ecological and healthy Dhaka can be. We need a new city imagination. Yes, a hydraulic vision. I also call it a ‘terraqueous’ urbanism in which the conditions of land and water have become integrated and mutually enriching. When that happens, Dhaka will be a model of urbanism.

 

About Ar. Kazi Khaleed Ashraf

With over four decades of experience in the field, Ar. Kazi Khaleed Ashraf has extensively researched and written about the architectural heritage of Bangladesh and urbanism in Dhaka. His works have been featured in reputable publications such as The Architectural Review, Architectural Design, Topos, Economic and Political Weekly, and other periodicals. Architect Ashraf’s current area of interest revolves around the intersection of water and urban environments, particularly in the context of Bangladesh’s dynamic hydrological conditions, exploring the implications for the future of cities.

 

 

Photograph courtesy of Bengal Institute

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