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Capitalizing on our heritage

  • Published at 05:17 pm May 23rd, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:30 pm May 23rd, 2018
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Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

An urban renewal project can greatly benefit our ailing tourism sector

What if Old Dhaka had a high-end shopping street with branded stores in colonial buildings? Or, what if 19thcentury houses in the old town were converted into hotels? Could the ruined caravanserais, the Bara Katra, and Choto Katra, be restored to attract tourists?

A tango club can be set up in one of the many colonial mansions with courtyards. Cafes with outdoor seats can dot the streets of neighborhoods like Farashganj. Sailing races can be held on the Buriganga River. Remnants of the Mughal period can be refurbished to provide a grand backdrop to the bustling old city.  

I would like to advocate the preservation of heritage in the four centuries-old city that is now Bangladesh’s capital. There are an estimated 3,000 heritage structures in Dhaka. As was recently reported, the government delisted many heritage structures in Old Dhaka to the surprise of many. For the government, the cost of compensation to private residents who breach regulation is an unnecessary burden. 

While it is understandable that a developing country like Bangladesh has different priorities, neglecting the heritage of the capital is a detriment to the country’s economy. Dhaka has a truly unique Eurasian heritage that is comparable to no other city. Indeed, many of its Mughal and British era structures in the old town should be collectively listed as global heritage centres because of the melting pot of influences from different parts of the world. 

Why does Dhaka keep its heritage derelict?

Cities across the world are engaged in urban renewal, which refers to the re-development of neighbourhoods. Many cities often choose to concentrate on historic neighborhoods by restoring and regenerating heritage buildings. Tourism, real estate, retail, gastronomy, entertainment, and artwork are often the themes of such renewal through economic activities. 

The French city of Bordeaux represents one of the most successful examples of urban renewal in terms of heritage. The project to revitalize its downtown areas resulted in improved living space, a mass transit tramway and the promotion of the city’s heritage for tourism and culture. 

Public-private partnerships have emerged as the most effective solution to heritage preservation. In Beirut -- a once thriving city devastated by civil war -- the Lebanese government created a special joint-stock company with land acquisition powers to redevelop and restore the city’s Ottoman and French era central business district.

In Jakarta, the Indonesian state formed the Jakarta Old Town Revitalization Corporation as a partnership between state-owned enterprises, the municipal government and the private sector. 

Bangladesh can form a consortium between the government and international companies to invest and redevelop Old Dhaka. Experts should be involved in ensuring accurate restorations. The consortium should include companies with experience in operating heritage properties. 

Given the concentration of businesses and industries in the old town, an urban renewal project can boost the city’s economy. Bangladesh should capitalize on its heritage.  

Umran Chowdhury is a law student of the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School