Madan Shahu laments the capital city's disappearing space
The capital city is suffering not only at the margins but also at the core -- the heart of the city). The streets are getting suffocated with too many buildings, built higher than allowed by zoning regulations, rising on either side, seldom leaving much space between them despite the mandatory four-feet space required.
Business districts do not have much parking and/or breathing space for people converging there for business. Residential areas have been allowed to grow without any grounds for the children to play and elders to walk in, because buildings have occupied all the compounds, canals, and ponds.
You need not go as far back as the 1950s, when Dhaka was still bracing to be a provincial capital, or the 1960s when it was a provincial capital, or the 1970s when it became the capital of a sovereign country. Even in the 1980s there was much serenity left.
In the Motijheel commercial area, by then already very busy and crowded, some blocks were left empty in a way that gave a sense of relief. (But a couple of decades later they were no more.) In Wari, the favourite residential area in the old part of the city, or in Dhanmondi, the first posh residential district in the new part, you could smell trees and flowers while passing by -- such was their intensity and extent. A shop here and there was coming up on the main Rankin Street in the former and along Mirpur Road or Satmasjid Road in case of the latter. No multi-storied whole-plot apartment building spree was taking over the bungalow serenity.
Now you will only strain your eyes trying to find a bungalow in Wari amidst the crowd of multi-storied apartment blocks almost huddled together cornice to cornice, occupying all of the 10 katha plots. The same thing is occurring in Dhanmondi, and even in much newer Gulshan-Banani areas.
Well, inside a fast growing mega-city you can't keep a plot occupied by a single- or double-storied bungalow for long. Such luxury has gradually shifted to the outskirts. But then the multi-storied and high-rise concept crept in not to suffocate a locality, but to relieve it from apprehended suffocation. In high-rise or multi-storied construction you can accommodate several times more homes in only half of the plot area than can be accommodated by occupying the whole plot area in horizontal expansion. With planned high rises, occupying half of plot areas leaving the rest open and green, we could have a wonderful city to live in. But alas! Our greed overtook our wisdom. And we are still oblivious of the doom we are heading for in the grip of our greed.
This matter of construction seems a free-for-all proposition, hardly any rule is being followed. Not only are people not leaving the mandatory 40 percent of the ground area free, they are also encroaching upon the adjacent road by a few inches or a foot -- not to speak of the protruding balconies and verandas above.
Moreover, multi-storied buildings are coming up on lanes and by-lanes too, never paying any heed to the fact that such narrow thoroughfares just cannot take so much extra load. With multi-storied buildings, the number of residents is multiplying, leading to crowding of people and transports on the streets, which cannot be widened even a bit. And this is happening not only in the not-so-planned old parts of the city but also in the supposed-to-have-been-planned new parts as well.
Who allowed them to erect 7-8 storied buildings on even 7-8 feet wide by-lanes? Or is there no authority to check this ownership abuse? Yes, you can be the owner of a plot, but that doesn't give you the right to violate the law of the land. This unplanned crowding not only usurps the scope of minimum natural light and air, but also overloads the essential service lines to the breaking/choking point. Everything needs its space.
Why don't the housing estates follow the still existing government colony concept, with some adjustments, of course, in consideration of growing population and the space constraint, but without compromising the basic relief aspect? Well, then they couldn't go for their apparent "more accommodation more money" approach. But then, what have the relevant authorities done? Apparently they allowed the rules to be violated with impunity. The authorities asked for keeping 40 percent of plot or land area free, but passed plans covering the whole plot or land area. They urged for planting trees everywhere, but allowed the landowners to leave no space for this purpose. What a contradiction! And in such a prevailing situation how can you expect any solution to the existing problems?
Had the real estate developers followed, or been made to follow, the government colony housing concept in their layouts, it would have been convenient for the dwellers to stay there for say 50 or more years without much difficulty. But now, with the service lines choking here and there, and bereft of any verdure or even breathing space, these buildings, with all the costly fittings and finishing they might boast of, may not remain useable or healthy for use after say two-three decades.
Dhaka is suffering from innumerable ailments. To save it from impending catastrophe, steps must be taken to strictly implement the existing codes and provisions of housing, and check violations without any discrimination. If necessary, new rules may be adopted and followed in the interest of the capital city and its users. There must not be any laxity or delay in taking judicious action. In the existing built-up areas, for instance the old part of the city, under no circumstance should anybody be allowed to build a 60-foot high structure on a 16-foot wide lane. There the height has to be below 40-feet, whatever the pressure from the growing number of dwellers. They have to be judiciously dispersed, because an area cannot take a load beyond an extreme limit, both infrastructure facility and safety-wise. In fact, in the existing old part, the height of a building should not be allowed to
go beyond 100-feet, even beside the widest of the streets there. And the buildings encroaching and protruding onto the road should be slashed to restore the road width. This apparently unpleasant job has to be undertaken without any hesitation to check further violations.
Similar measures are also imperative in the densely populated areas of the new part for the same reasons. And the still existing ponds and canals must not be allowed to be filled or encroached upon by anyone under any circumstance, and any open space, playground or park still there must be restored, if necessary by evicting the usurpers. These measures may act as a bit of curative to the ailing core of the capital city.
In fact, the capital Dhaka is suffering from multiple ailments. Curing all these may not even be possible, but sincere steps are sure to ease the suffering to some extent, to at least some relief of the dwellers. Traffic jam, street crime (hijacking), and pollution are some of the said ailments which also deserve immediate and adequate curative measures.
Too much has already been written, and volumes are appearing every day on the unbearable traffic jams of Dhaka city. Not much has been done as yet to effectively ease the situation, when the volume of traffic on the streets is increasing by the day. Little improvement is expected until road space is increased. However, of late, some hope seems to have arisen, with the authorities contemplating two east-west connector roads for the city and studying the feasibility of having passes both above and below the surface. In fact, no large, populous city can rest only on its surface communication mode anywhere in the world.
We grossly lack discipline everywhere. Indiscipline of a higher degree is there on the streets. If we can impart at least a semblance of discipline in the traffic and pedestrian movement the unbearable jam can be eased to a certain extent. And to do this, not only motivation but also some punitive rules should be applied. For instance, buses stopping at an undesignated space or spot should be fined without any discrimination. Similarly, pedestrians crowding traffic lanes instead of footpaths should be fined, and so on.
However, the problems are so many and suggestions for solution can also be more than one. These problems, as well as the recovery and restoration of ponds and canals, parks and playgrounds, may be discussed, and suggestions made
some time soon. For now, we may return to the houses and localities once again.
The authorities concerned must not allow the already felt problems to aggravate further at core points of the city. They must check further crowding, both horizontal and vertical, with curative measures as the rules prescribe, without any leniency. It is a question of keeping the capital habitable. Let's not fall prey to the lure of short-lived profit. Do without today to be without pain to-morrow. And there must be preventive measures to check the disease from spreading further to save the fringes from contamination by the craze.
What else other than craze can you call it? Yes, it's the craze for money that instigates you to go for a multi-storey building in say, Ashulia, because you can get more money per floor on the same space of land. It's the craze for money that drives you to bring almost the whole plot under built area without caring a fig for natural light and ventilation and a bit of verdure, even in sub-urban Mirpur or satellite Uttara. Let us come out from this craze and think of as many right things as we can conceive of.
Of course, in a populous country, we cannot be oblivious of the concept of accommodating more people in less space, but, of course, not without adequate provision of breathing and moving space. For that, we can go for semi-high-rise, or high-rises on given plots interspersed by equal size open spaces criss-crossed by modest thoroughfares, as shown in the illustration.
For instance, each building may have four sections of 1,600 sq. ft. each divided by an 8-foot open aisle criss-crossing the building, covered only by a roof of transparent fibreglass. This will give the sections or apartments an all side opening. Moreover, the corner facing the criss-crossed thoroughfares can have a 12-foot by 12-foot floor to roof open verandah secured by railing and grille, providing further integrated-with-nature feeling.
We can well go for these or similar set-ups at the fringes or peripheries of the city, where the real estate companies are contemplating developments. Even a developer firm can go for this at the core of the city where it is planning to build by demolishing an old structure on, say, a 10-katha plot. Let us get out of the suffocation syndrome and let our progeny never feel it in the future.
Madan Shahu is Senior Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.