Dhaka has seen a fair number of town/ master/ structure/ urban plans developed in the last 150 years by quite a few experts, professionals and authorities. Among them, the first proper plan for the city was done in 1917 by famous town planner and one of the forefathers of urban planning, Sir Patrick Geddes who was a biologist, sociologist and geographer. Back then in the British colonial period, it was actually the job for the Civil Surgeon of a town to plan for it, mostly emphasizing on the health and sanitation. So, Dr. Henry Charles Cutcliffe, who was the Civil Surgeon of Dhaka in 1868 developed a plan for the city, But he basically proposed a general grid pattern with broad traversing streets and rectangular blocks for the modernization which was very conventional and ignored the geography of the region and organic and historic nature of the city. In part 1 of this instalment, we touch upon the first three chapters of how Dhaka city came to be.
Sir Patrick Geddes
Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was born in the town of Belter in Scotland. He was well ahead of his time on issues such as ecology, preservation—both of green space and of historic structures and the involvement of citizens in the planning process. Versed in sociology, he brought its new methods of scientific research to bear on questions of urban form, expansion, interior structure, change over time, ethnic makeup, income distribution, and seemingly every other aspect of cities. He authored the book ‘Cities in Evolution’ in 1915 where he makes a clear link between the fields of biology and urbanism. He is called the “father of modern town planning”. As Pierre Clavel writes in his introduction to a 1971 reprint, Geddes: “began as a biologist, spent a fruitful but largely unreported middle period as a university and civic reformer, and then began, in his 50s and 60s, a highly visible and international public life with an increasing focus on city planning.”
The planner was invited by the Governor of Madras to advise on emerging urban planning issues and to develop a few strategic plans for the towns in the Indian subcontinent. In the end, between 1915 and 1919 Geddes wrote a series of “exhaustive town planning reports” on at least eighteen Indian cities, Dhaka was a part of that initiative.
Versed in sociology, he brought its new methods of scientific research to bear on questions of urban form, expansion, interior structure, change over time, ethnic makeup, income distribution, and seemingly every other aspect of cities.
Report on Town Planning, Dacca (1917)
So, what was exactly in the report by Prof. Patrick Geddes? As mentioned above, the report was the first known initiative of town planning for Dhaka. It is organized in several chapters on important components and subsequently divided into smaller subsections. He clearly mentioned that the town development plan should always be seen from a wider perspective. It must include the socio-economic wellbeing of the inhabitants with respect to aesthetic and environmental benefit. City planning is not simply about the infrastructures, rather it’s about the people living there.
In the very first chapter, he introduced the idea of a physical model for Bengal Delta, not only for the city. He took the whole river system to perceive the riverine connection to Dhaka with other peripheral regions of East Bengal. He described the geographical features and later defined how the natural drainage system of the city was determined by numerous Khals (canals), ponds, ditches and marshlands and how they meet their end accumulating the rubbish from the ever-increasing population. The evolution of Bazaars as the growth centre for trade and commerce and transportation hubs are also briefly described.
The second chapter talks briefly about the need and significance of a survey of the old town, especially along the Dholai Khal (mentioned as a great natural moat) domination of Bara Katra and Choto Katra, some temples and mosques, all other civic facilities like sanitation, institutions and connections with major facilities by roads and railways. Moreover, he recommended that the survey outputs should be displayed on the walls of the City Council, Municipalities, Public Health, Medical School and in neighbourhoods so that the general public can participate and voice their opinion.
The third chapter deals again with an in-depth survey of the old town, especially Wari, Thana W. C. area, main streets and esplanade and improvements of Shakhari Bazar area (a heavily congested area even back then). Furthermore, criticism of the encroachment of 18-20 acre of land by courts, municipal offices, college, schools and missions. He also described and provided how to improve the main thoroughfare by distributing the traffic load towards Panitola. He wanted to propose an East-West connecting tram line but wondered about the narrow streets. Sir Patrich Geddes was indeed a futurist.
Stay tuned to learn more how the cityscape wonder that is Dhaka came to be and has evolved since in Part 2 in our next issue.
Head of Research & Development
Perceive Research, Design & Consultancy
Transport Planner for Bus Route Rationalization and
Company based Operation of Bus Service in Dhaka
Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority