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Transforming Dhaka into a more equitable city

  • Published at 03:08 pm September 3rd, 2016

Last week, I made the case that climate change adaptation projects often reinforce existing inequalities in cities. I used the examples of Dhaka and New Orleans, two very different delta cities, where projects to reduce flood vulnerability have often displaced and excluded the poor. But I also argued that another way is possible.

“Transformative adaptation” is still a fairly unfamiliar concept. Simply put, it is the idea that when we adapt to climate change, we should do so in ways that make cities better and more equitable. Instead of adding to the inequalities of the city, adaptation projects should strive to reduce or eliminate them.

Below, I set out a few principles for advancing transformative adaptation in Dhaka:

Transformative adaptation is not limited to formal planning processes

If climate adaptation in Dhaka is to address the deeper causes of uneven vulnerability, it must include a broad range of voices beyond those typically involved in city planning or climate change policy.

Surely professional city planners at RAJUK and other government agencies have important roles to play, but transformative adaptation must include a wider range of actors, from local activists, community leaders, and journalists to designers, scientists, and academic experts.

Similarly, opportunities for transformative adaptation are not limited to planning processes that are explicitly adaptation-focused. From the expansion of Dhaka’s flood protection embankments to the east, to government sponsored new town developments like Purbachal, there are countless ongoing projects in Dhaka that could advance equity while addressing climate vulnerabilities.

Adaptation planning should embrace public debate about alternatives before disasters strike. Dhaka’s western embankments were built in a fast-tracked top-down process following the floods of the late 1980’s. Future adaptation measures can be more sensitive, more efficient, and more effective by embracing pro-active participation, technical analysis, and debate.

Adaptation context matters: One-size fits all solutions and ‘global city’ ambitions harm the poor

Many cities around the world aspire to visions of glitzy, steel and glass, skyscraper urbanisation that is equally at home in Singapore, Dubai, or New York City. To make these visions possible, cities bury rivers and build embankments to allow for a uniform spread of speculative urban development. Yet environmental conditions and the social and economic characteristics of residents vary dramatically from place to place and within a given city. By including a broad range of voices in the city’s adaptation planning, Dhaka can move beyond simplistic one-size-fits-all development models. Dhaka can create a diversity of urban environments shaped by different relationships to water that support different lifestyles and livelihoods.

Instead of adding to the inequalities of the city, adaptation projects should strive to reduce or eliminate them

The ongoing Dutch-funded “Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100” process holds promise in laying the groundwork for a long-term, proactive, ecologically-informed vision for how Dhaka fits into its watery landscape. But, the success of such a vision will be determined at least as much by how it addresses the contentious politics of urbanisation and adaptation as by its design elegance or its technical sophistication.

Adaptation politics will be messy and contentious, but open debate is essential

Many previous efforts at flood protection and adaptation in Dhaka have reinforced existing inequalities. To overcome this tendency, transformative adaptation must place justice and equity front and center and must include the diverse interests and voices of the poor.

By definition, transformative adaptation will reshape many aspects of urban life. Planners and advocates must not shy away from sensitive political discussions about how adaptation will impact the distribution of rights, duties, and privileges of urban life. Adaptation to climate change in Dhaka is an urgent and growing concern, and the city’s urban governance is complex. Yet, it is crucial to ensure that neither the urgency of the cause nor the messiness of the politics become an excuse for narrow top-down action.

Adaptation planners should manage private sector investment in adaptation

Adaptation is nearly always tied to the politics of land development. Private development interests are a critical part of adaptation planning. However, recent development activity at Dhaka’s periphery shows that private sector interests, including those with ties to government entities, are not well-equipped or motivated to support equitable adaptation, long-term livability, and safety. While the short-term profit motives of private development may be expected, they must not be unchecked. Adaptation planning can advance long-term interests by bringing together a range of actors from social movements, media organisations, and international development agencies to municipal and national government institutions to establish priorities to guide private investments and to hold participants accountable.

Though more and more cities are waking up to the urgent need to plan for climate change, examples of successful transformative adaptation are rare. It would be easy to see Dhaka’s extreme population growth, its restless politics, and its relative lack of economic resources as barriers to transformative adaptation. Yet, the city’s long history of living with and adapting to a dynamic physical and political landscape also provides a deep well of cultural, institutional, and intellectual resources that could help Dhaka to be a pioneer in advancing equitable transformative adaptation.

Zachary Lamb is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. During his research in Dhaka he has been a visiting researcher at ICCCAD and a lecturer at the Bengal Institute. This column is based on his preliminary dissertation research in Dhaka and New Orleans and on an article that he co-authored for the May 2016 issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research.