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The election and the city

  • Published at 05:50 pm November 17th, 2018
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We need to rebuild from the ground-up SYED LATIF HOSSAIN

A view of the upcoming election from an urban planning perspective

The 11th parliamentary election is pivotal in order to enhance the emergence of Bangladesh as a rising economy in the world. 

Considering Bangladesh has achieved a GDP growth of around 7% in the past years, the target of the next government should be to achieve double-digit for GDP growth.

In 2018, Bangladesh met the UN graduation criteria to be promoted from LDC to “developing country” status, so the next government has to meet the same in the next triennial review scheduled in 2021, and ultimately lead the graduation process in 2024.

The major task of the next government not only includes formulating and implementing a solid development plan, but also ensuring that such developments can be environmentally sustainable along with being socially equitable and just.

The expectations of the public from the next parliamentary election, as well as the next government, are high. 

Can we progress without taking care of planned urbanization in Bangladesh?

Dhaka usually ranks as either the first or second worst liveable city in the world. We do not need to critique the methodology or outcome of such rankings. In reality, it is easy to see the transformation the city has gone through, as it is now home to 18 million people, where one-third of the population is living in slums as squatters.

Overcrowding, traffic congestion, air pollution, and gross income inequality are among the many observable negative traits the city has adopted. The influx of people coming into Dhaka has rapidly exceeded its capacity.

The country as a whole is also getting urbanized rapidly as per the projection of the UN Population Division in 2014, more than 45% by 2030, and half of Bangladeshis will be living in urban areas by 2040.

Dhaka will be the sixth largest mega-city in the world by 2030, with a staggering projected population of 27.7 million.

Why people flock towards urban areas

The urbanization trend in Bangladesh is heavily influenced by rural-to-urban migration, which focuses on large metropolitan areas where people see greater social and economic opportunities.

At the same time, there is a worrying increase of environmentally displaced people in slums and squatter settlements that engage in the lowest employment segments. 

Bangladesh is already experiencing the adverse impacts of climate change and in the upcoming years, the impacts will be more acute, which will create extra forces of rural to urban migration.

If the predicted impacts of climate change take place, a large number of people will lose their entire assets and be made to migrate to other cities and towns.

Our urban areas are not yet prepared to tackle these challenges as the rapid pace of urbanization remains mostly unplanned, unanswered, and unrecognized -- resulting in acute problems of deteriorating infrastructure, poor housing, inadequate drinking water, flooding, etc. 

If all of our urban challenges can be transformed into urban opportunities, the economy will grow sustainably and more equitably.

To achieve this, we need to think of Bangladesh itself as a planning unit and develop long-term strategies.

A few suggestions

Bangladesh does not have any acts regarding planned urban development. The Draft Urban and Regional Planning Act was approved by the cabinet in 2017, but the draft has not been placed at any session of the 10th parliament for final approval. For the next government, this should be one of the top priorities.

Bangladesh requires a “national urban policy,” something similar to which was originally prepared in 2006, and since then has been revised several times -- but, frustratingly, the approval is still pending.

Traditional economic planning dominates the public policy formulation in Bangladesh, as there is no national spatial plan in our country.

Bangladesh needs something in that vein to strategize balanced and decentralized urbanization as a means to develop rural areas with urban facilities. 

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Although it should not be argued here that more efficient urban planning alone would solve all of our urban challenges. Its absence clearly makes matters worse. Urban development cannot be steered without some kind of effective urban planning in place. 

To ensure long-term sustainable impacts on the urban fabric requires functional urban planning practices in different tiers of local government (city corporation, pourashava, district council, upazila council, and union council) that are equipped with decisive powers over the allocation of funds, that coordinates with all other concerned entities cooperates regularly with the local as well as the central level and that is accountable to both the government and to the general population. 

The responsibility for planning lies within the public realm and there is a need for integrated planning approaches to overcome the continuous silo-thinking. Bangladesh has impeded the long-due revision of the institutional set-up to deliver sustainable urban development. 

Until now, there has been a duplication of mandates in urban planning and there is still no dedicated ministry for urban planning and management.

The institutional reform is essential to establishing a dedicated urban development ministry equiped with trained human resources.

The Institutional reform itself cannot deliver the desired results until or unless they are equipped with trained manpower.

Until now, the bureaucracy in Bangladesh has been heavily dependent on generalists than specialists. 

It is obvious that urban planning and management functions should not be carried out by other professionals, while currently seven public universities are offering urban and regional/rural planning courses at the undergraduate level, and every year 250 students are graduating as professional urban planners. 

Right now we have more than 1,500 graduate urban planners in the country but only a few of them are employed in the public sector. The next government can utilize these homegrown professionals to steer the sustainable urbanization of the country.

It is pertinent for Bangladesh to give proper attention to sustainable urbanization which would be making an attempt to meet the domestic demand along with meeting the international goals. Although there is a dedicated goal -- SDG-11, which seeks to make cities and human settlements safer, resilient, and sustainable -- in order to achieve other goals oriented towards poverty, hunger, education, and so on, proper attention is needed for sustainable urbanization due to the significant number of people living in urban areas. 

The dimensions of urban poverty are much more complex than rural poverty.

In order to achieve all the SDGs, urban areas have to be developed in a planned and inclusive manner to align our effort with respect to the New Urban Agenda formulated in 2016 where Bangladesh is a signatory. 

Ensuring sustainable urbanization will also significantly contribute to achieving other important international agreements, ie Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 and Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015. 

Urbanization is a lifetime phenomenon and Bangladesh cannot afford to get it wrong. The future will be more unpredictable and the way we are managing our urban areas will fail to face the upcoming complex challenges.

In the democratic trajectory, it is obvious that the country will be led by politicians who are the true voice of the general public. It would be a humble request to our political parties to integrate the above points into your election manifesto as well as into the public policy of the next government to achieve a paradigm shift that will significantly contribute towards achieving our goals as a nation. 

SM Mehedi Ahsan is an urban planner, currently serving as the President of Khulna University Planners’ Alumni, Bangladesh and is an Honorary Member, Central Advisory Council to the Center of Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighborhood (SHLC), University of Glasgow, United Kingdom. This article is the first of a two-part op-ed.