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Linking Young Minds Together
|Volume 3 | Issue 21 | May 29, 2011 ||
The sprawling fields brought out the most timid child out of the corners come afternoons. Single unit houses, some two-storied, stood elegantly away from the streets where rickshaws and a few private cars leisurely plied. Quaint shops sat here and there and most of the area shopkeepers knew their customers well. One would long for the krishnachura trees in full bloom during the monsoons, when entire stretches of roads came alive with a riot of colours. Stress was a word not heard of, nor was the word traffic jam. After visiting the neighbouring Kolkata, Dhaka was always a welcome relief, because it was so much cleaner and a safer city.
Now imagine this.
Rows of buildings springing from just where the road ends; they house everything under the sky -- flats, hospitals, schools, universities. People here have mastered the dexterity to calculate the exact flow of the traffic that these spots attract, down sizing it to minutes and seconds. The view of the winding lake is no longer there -- billboards and banners of all shapes and colours perfectly blot out its astonishing greenery, something that has become an all too precious luxury. And the krishnochuras are a far cry in this part of the area; no one has heard of such trees ever existing here; you will only be laughed at. Why would someone need trees around when there are thousands of people to be taken care of? Why in your right mind, would you even want an open space to play or walk on when education is most essential? And so, the teenager who grew up cycling and running in the field over the wall suddenly sees half of it dug out, and a flashy signboard bearing the name of a university, a name that did not quite make sense.
For us, those who have heard stories of a Dhaka from our elders and seen them in pictures, and remember it from the dim recesses of the minds, the heartbreak (thankfully!) cannot be as tragic as it is for those who saw how it was all like, and now live in a land that has transformed beyond all familiarity. However, fortunately for us, there are actually those who decide to study these changes and breathe out the anomalies, at least the extreme ones, and strive for a better looking and well functioning city, a city that we can call home. They study to be planners of towns and cities, or more specifically, urban planners, who dream of taking our capital city, to the same place as those renowned capitals of the world, while giving it back its identity that somehow, faded away with time.
The discipline of Urban and Regional Planning has existed in our universities for decades, the oldest departments being in Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Jahangirnagar University and Khulna University, that only until recently, have been the only three universities to offer the programme in graduate and undergraduate levels. Today, with 80,000 people per square kilometre of land in Dhaka, informed and intelligent planning is needed like never before.
Final year students of Urban and Regional Planning of BUET, have their own visions for an idyllic Dhaka City. Their words are those of concern, often bordering on despair as they consider the impossible demands that we, as citizens, expect from our city. Nusrat Jahan, a final year student of the department, points out the figure of more than 20,000 people commuting into Dhaka everyday. “If we are to make Dhaka liveable, then we need to decentralise the city and develop its suburbs and neighbouring towns. The uncontrolled migration that we keep talking about cannot be stopped unless regions around the city help provide sustainability too.” Talking about the 20 plus shopping malls that line Mirpur Road alone, Yousuf Mahid, another final year student of the department, talks about the madness of it all. “This is not what a city should look like. The only reason all of these malls are making full business is because there are none of such kinds outside the city. Dhaka cannot and does not have the resources to meet the needs of such an overwhelming population.”Urban planning takes all aspects of a city into consideration. It includes plans for safety, aesthetics and common sense placement of everything from houses to factories. Parents wouldn't want their children's playground next to the water treatment plant, for instance, and urban planning helps eliminate such problems. Goals for attractive architecture for city buildings are put into place and pleasing green spaces are planned. Good urban planning gets schools into the neighbourhoods
where they are needed most, places hospitals in centralised locations, allows growth and plans highways accordingly. Elevated expressways or flyovers are only temporary fixes, fashionable mantras that fizzle out before they are made full use of. What results in is, of course, the gridlock that we see everyday. Mass transit and non-motorised vehicles take up only 30 percent of Dhaka's streets, negligible compared to that of private cars, and yet they mobilise 80 percent of the people -- just goes to show the intense need for more public transport, which would bring down traffic jams significantly. “The first and only concern is to provide free movement; if it is on foot, then walking will be the mode of travelling. But that is hardly a realistic scenario, considering the plight of our pedestrians, which is the poorest!” says Nabila Nur, another student.
When plans are only made to serve individual purpose and not the purpose of a whole community, when there is no regulating body to monitor growth or day to day planning, the voices and actions of the young are going to be the most effective in sending out the ripples of change. It would have done wonders, if policy makers, for a change, shared the floor with young planners and exchanged ideas. The effort that a student puts into research is bound to bounce off fresh with innovative ideas that higher officials could make use of considering the feasibility. As Dr Ishrat Islam, Associate Professor of the Department of URP, BUET points out, “As professors, it is our duty to train our students as best as we can, ground them to the realities of Bangladesh by teaching them to interact with individual communities and understand their needs, so that they know their region well before being planners. All of this training goes to waste once they graduate and go abroad, frustrated with the un-co operating environment of their workplaces, which are usually state-run. Their voices mostly go unheard, and the brilliant ideas they had had to offer are lost in the monopolies of the higher authorities. We are losing out on talent, our resources.”
The professor voices out the trend that certain bodies approach the whole idea of development, wherein everything is judged economically, leaving out all environmental and social issues. According to her, Dhaka could not have had a better location, right on the banks of Buriganga, rivers criss-crossing it from the east and west, the perfect setting for a well-planned city. Perhaps, a social movement, preferably initiated by the youth, is our answer for a city with better standards of living. Mehedi Haque, a Masters student of Urban and Regional Planing department of BUET mentions the cleanup drive of the Gulshan-Banani Lake, a campaign by “Project Renewal,” a student-based concern aimed at community development. “It is these successful drives that give us the courage to keep going and stay involved, because without these movements, there is no hope.”
A pretty city goes a long way in making a statement -- about its culture, traditions and the life it nurtures. This is where the aesthetic value lies, the value that shows the world the unique identity of a city. Dhaka, rich in history, has the most awe-inspiring structures that will draw tourists from anywhere in the world. Yet, poor regulations and monitoring have seen numerous high rise buildings creep up all around Lalbag Kella, and
Ahsan Manzil re-painted in a startling shade of pink. Clearly, the young planners mourn for the shocking steps for preservation and restoration of these places of heritage. “These structures no longer stand prominent like they should. It might be a little late but what we can do now is renovate the buildings around, which were not supposed to be built there in the first place, so that they look as closely to the historic buildings as possible, and not stand out so garishly,” says Mahid. “If I were given the chance to change one thing, I would definitely work to conserve these sites.”
In the face of apathy and non-co operation, hope still burns; the budding planners still dare to spread their wings, determined to have their voices heard, not ready to give up just yet. Let's hope our young planners give Dhaka a face that it once so regally wore.
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