From: Kazi K. Ashraf (University of Hawaii, Honolulu) with Saif Ul Haque (in Dhaka) and Alex Kliment (in New York City)
Published August 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Revealing Dhaka: The Hope of Bangladesh

Deep within the Bengal Delta,

amidst a maze of rivers and

canals, lies Dhaka , the vibrant

capital of Bangladesh . Dhaka

is in fact the last big urban

stop on the great Gangetic

stream as it cascades into

the sea. Home to over ten

million people, this fast-growing

city is one of the most densely

inhabited places on earth.

Beneath the teeming and colorful

appearance of Dhaka , which

enigmatically means “concealed,”

lie great cultural and historical

legacies, but also worrying

urban crises that threaten

the city's future.

First settled in the 10th

century C.E, the city became

a Mughal provincial capital

in the 17th century. Its fertile

soils and strategic location

within the Ganges river system

made Dhaka a global exporter

of muslin and jute, and it

was via Bengal that the English

first made inroads into the

Indian subcontinent. After

the partition of the subcontinent

in 1947, Dhaka became the

regional capital of East Pakistan

, and when Bengali nationalists

won independence from Pakistan

in 1971, the city became capital

of independent Bangladesh.

Dhaka has given rise to several

urban morphologies, each of

which represents a particular

social, economic, and environmental

destiny—there are, indeed,

many Dhakas. In the old city,

which hugs the Buriganga river,

colorful mixed-use buildings

are crowded cheek-by-jowl

around narrow, winding streets

in traditionally organized

neighborhoods called moholla

s. Further from the river

is the colonial quarter, studded

with bungalow-and-garden type

governmental, cultural, and

residential buildings, many

of which were built during

the British rule. Louis Kahn's

iconic Parliamentary Complex,

which officially opened in

1982, is another major focal

point of the city's civic

life and development. However,

alongside these more formal

areas are vast, amorphous

swaths of largely unplanned

residential and commercial

growth lacking adequate infrastructure

that are glaring symptoms

of planning failure in addressing

the rapid transformation of

the city. A vast population

of Dhaka remains untouched

by the fruits of urbanity.

All cities are alike, and

each city is different, and

what truly makes Dhaka distinctive

is the dominant natural feature

of water. Dhaka is a fragile

land-mass framed by an aquatic

landscape of flood plains,

rivers, and canals. Annual

rainfall approaches 80”, and

yearly flooding can, as we

have recently seen, be severe.

From what was truly a garden

city on the water with its

spacious green spaces, majestic

trees, crisscrossing canals,

and boats plying through the

heart of the city, Dhaka now

faces a certain civic and

environmental crisis for all

that is now lost. Nearly fifty

years of relentless greed,

political nonchalance, and

planning ineptitude is turning

the city towards a calamitous

future. The tragedy in Dhaka

today, however, is that its

planning institution is fragmented

and unimaginative. For decades,

hidebound bureaucracies have

stunted the creativity needed

to plan effectively for Dhaka

. With failures in urban planning

and management, development

has thus fallen largely to

private interests, which often

act without regard for natural

resources, urban context,

or larger community benefit.

As chaotic urban development

places increasing strain on

its social and environmental

fabric, the people of Dhaka

must negotiate a civic deterioration

that is, ironically, exacerbated

in the name of growth and

progress. Thus the paradox

of city-building: one can

undo a city by building it.

Nowhere is this more evident

than in the rambling development

of Dhaka.

What is needed are new central

planning mechanisms that are

imaginative and effective,

and yet sensitive to Dhaka

's people, to its landscape,

and to its future. The good

news is that in Dhaka there

are a number of young architects

and planners engaging in grassroots

activism, educational initiatives,

and transnational dialogue

towards this end. The bad

news is that as ever more

migrants pour into the city

and myopic attitudes engulf

the developers of the city,

the floodwaters around its

precipitous future continue

to rise.


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