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How compact cities can save Bangladesh

  Adnan Morshed

  PHOTO: STAR

BANGLADESH is predicted to become a majority-urban nation by 2030. This means that the country’s meager 8 percent urban population in 1971 will exceed 50 percent within the next two decades. This dramatic transformation from an agrarian to an urban society calls for a robust public policy reorientation.
The rapid urbanization of Bangladesh is not exceptional though. It follows a global trend. With the world’s urban population crossing the 50 percent threshold in 2007, urbanisation has become one of the most anthropogenic forces on the Earth. By 2050, 75 percent of the world population will live in urbanised areas. The top 25 cities of the world accounted for approximately 15% of the world’s combined GDP in 2005. Consider the case of Seoul. Twenty five percent of South Korea’s total population live in Seoul, accounting for almost 50% of the country’s GDP. In a nutshell, cities have become the engines of economic growth.
There is a darker side to the global urban narrative also. Cities present robust environmental challenges. As much as 80% of the world’s total Green House Gas emissions are attributable to cities. Because of their high carbon footprint, cities are responsible for most of global warming and climate change-related vulnerabilities.
Many urban theorists and economists observe that today urbanisation, globalisation, industrialization, and middle-classisation form the four sides of the proverbial Rubik’s Cube called city. Therefore, what goes on in cities will have long-term economic, political, social, and environmental implications for the world community.
Much of the urban growth in the next decades will transpire not in the western world, but in developing countries. According to a UN report, World Urbanization Prospects (2003), the urban population in developing countries is projected to jump from 43 percent in 2005 to 56 per cent by 2030. By 2015, there will be 21 megacities (defined as cities with more than 10 million people) in the world, of which 12 will be in Asia. There were no such cities in Asia in 1950.
The key reason for this unprecedented urban growth is a combination of push-and-pull factors prompting impoverished rural population to migrate to urban areas in search of employment and a better life. In fact, a third of the world’s population is on a rural-to-urban exodus this century.
In this global scenario of urbanisation, Dhaka is frequently described as one of the fastest growing megacities in the world. With over 16 million people huddling in an area of approximately 1,600 square kilometers and expanding rapidly, Dhaka has become an iconic Third-World urban hodgepodge. Chittagong is not far behind. Other cities in the country are also catching up. Far outside the Barisal proper, housing signposts dot pristine agricultural lands.
Given these global and local trends, urbanisation in Bangladesh will accelerate, no matter what. Is urbanisation bad news for Bangladesh, a country historically steeped in agrarian worldviews? No. In fact, compact cities are the best answers to Bangladesh’s economic and environmental future. This does not mean that the whole country needs to become one giant city or a mega-Singapore. The country can pursue the best path to a sustainable future only if its geography becomes a patchwork of interconnected, compact cities with agricultural lands and protected forests and wetlands in between.
So, a crucial policy question would be how to facilitate urban growth in Bangladesh without having to pay a devastating environmental cost and risking food security due to the loss of agricultural lands. The trick is in controlling how cities expand physically and imagining what kind of city forms would be most suitable for Bangladesh from environmental and economic viewpoints.
The first and foremost recommendation is: Stop the unchecked, laissez-faire sprawl of cities. Make them compact with an “eco-boundary.” Consider Dhaka. When a city is overburdened with a mammoth population and a vastly disproportionate concentration of economic and administrative activities, its natural propensity would be to expand ad infinitum in all directions, devouring arable lands and fragile ecosystem on the way.
If the current pattern of urban sprawl persists, within decades Dhaka will be a densely built-up city all the way to Aricha Ghat in the northwest, Gazipur in the north, Shitalakhya (its width has already been diminished due to encroaching brickfields and other industries) in the east, and MaoaGhat in the south. Turag and Balu rivers will soon be archaeological memories. Dhaka will be a monstrous Primate City with cataclysmic effects on the country’s overall ecological balance and, eventually, national economy and climate-change adaptability. Therefore, its sprawl must stop. Urban policies for Dhaka should focus on a compact, governable area with aserviceable urban footprint. Decentralisation will be a natural outcome of this policy.
Major cities in Bangladesh present an elasticperi-urban zone, a concentric spatial ring marked by poverty, slums, industrialisation, environmental degradations, speculation, land-grabbing, and administrative emptiness. The only way to deal with this elusive peri-urban ring is to reconsider the potentials of an “urban growth boundary.”For instance, reclaiming the wetlands and creating a green belt with a 20-year effectuality can save Dhaka’s fragile land-water ecology, and ensure a compact city with a fair distribution of its resources. A key policy innovation in this endeavor could be to create public parks along the growth boundary, so as to ensure its protection. Research has shown that permanent public vigilance often acts as a potent tool against encroachers and land-grabbers.
Cities in Bangladesh have a natural advantage. They are already densely populated. Urban planners and administrators around the world now view compact or “smart growth” cities with high population density as a path to sustainable development. Such cities limit the sprawl (thereby creating a smaller carbon footprint), consume less energy, and are easy to serve by public transportation systems. They are governable, pedestrian-friendly, and less polluted because there is less need for personal cars, major pollutants of city air. Such cities are natural attractions for what the urban theorist Richard Florida called the “creative class” (innovators and entrepreneurs in different professions).The creative class gravitates to mixed-use, compact cities, making them the hubs of economic growth and social mobility.
A comparison of Barcelona and Atlanta reveals the adverse social effects of sprawl. These cities have more or less the same population size (around 4 million) but Barcelona is much more compact than Atlanta, making it a transit-friendly city. Atlanta, on the other hand, is too thinly spread out with much more acreage per person, making it a commuter city. Thus, the lack of access to public transit isolates the poor (who don’t have personal autos), a phenomenon morphing into larger problems of social inequity. As the economist Paul Krugman argued, urban sprawl can arrest social mobility.
Although it is done in a different socio-cultural context, the Equality of Opportunity Project, an urban study conducted by economists at Harvard and Berkeley, could offer a lesson or two for urbanization challenges in Bangladesh. According to this study there is an inverse relationship between sprawl and equal access to opportunities. The poorer segment of the urban population is generally live in the outer (and blighted) regions of the city and, therefore, has limited opportunities for social mobility. Because these regions typically lie beyond the effective services of transportation networks, people living there are practically “stranded.” In the Dhaka context we could ask: how effective a shot does a kid from Keraniganj or Savar have at “good life?”
Even though urban compactness would hardly imply equal opportunities for allurbanites in Bangladeshi cities — because poverty and extreme economic disparity crisscross their body politic in much more complex and shifting ways than their western counterparts — the ill effects of unchecked urban sprawl deserve serious attention from policymakers. Compact cities with a growth boundary should be a top policy priority in Bangladesh because this deltaic country’s sustainable future depends on a harmonious relationship between economy and environment.

The writer is an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. He is currently in Bangladesh to conduct research.

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