The city is to grow to 26 million people by 2035. An Urban Thinkers Campus assessed prospects for intermediary cities, risk planning and more.

DHAKA — Dhaka is a city of contrasts. The capital is Bangladesh’s most dynamic city, generating more than a third of the nation’s economic output. The country’s booming apparel industry, in particular, has prospered in this 400-year-old city.

But the megacity’s population is growing unsustainably, due mainly to the flow of rural migrants who pour into the city seeking jobs. This influx has contributed to strained services and environmental decay. Today, Dhaka is quickly losing its sheen as a liveable city, worsened by slow mobility, rising pollution and the looming danger of climate change.

So, increasingly, some are coming back to an older idea: that developing Bangladesh’s intermediary cities could transform Dhaka back into a healthy city, one that is mobile, inclusive, well-governed, heritage-rich and environmentally sustainable. The idea came at the recent Dhaka Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC), one of more than two-dozen such stakeholder events taking place in the run-up to next year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization.

“Dhaka shouldn’t act alone. Let other cities grow equally,” said Iqbal Habib, the general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (the Bangladesh Environment Movement), promoting the idea of diversifying growth engines away from Dhaka.

Housing for all

Even ahead of the incredible population explosion forecasted for the coming decades in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s urban housing shortage is already significant. In 2010 alone, this shortage surged from 1.13 million to 4.6 million units, a spike attributed to a combination of population growth and underinvestment.

The World Bank says Dhaka’s housing market is characterized by a surplus of upper-echelon housing stock and an acute shortage for lower- and middle-income groups. Likewise, prohibitively high land prices and high interest rates on mortgage lending contribute to demand and supply gap that keeps widening.

Further, the capital’s housing shortage is expected to double by 2021. This gap is as acute in Dhaka as in other cities and secondary towns.

Speaking at the UTC, Hossain, the housing and public works minister, announced that the National Housing Authority would build 100,000 “affordable” apartments, where people can buy homes on a roughly 10 percent charge, repayable in 20 years. Even in Purbachal, a satellite town, authorities plan to build 10,000 dormitories equipped with sewage-treatment systems for lower-income workers such as drivers, domestic help and cleaners.

Currently, the government’s goal is to provide housing for all by 2021. Yet Nazrul Islam, chairman of the Centre for Urban Studies, said it should ensure that those who cannot afford to buy homes get them first.

Further, while the government has had some success in meeting housing needs for low-income people in recent years, participants expressed concern that nothing has been done for pavement dwellers since Habitat II took place in 1996, in Istanbul. It was at that event, two decades ago, that the government made soft pledges to provide shelter for all.

Today, however, hawkers, garbage pickers, vendors and small traders constitute a third of the urban population, said Mostafa Quaium Khan, an adviser with campaign group Bangladesh Urban Forum. “You can’t start or finish your day without them.”


Unity and strength

What unique experience could Dhaka offer to the Habitat III process and the crafting of the New Urban Agenda?

“Dhaka city people’s unity and strength,” said Ishrat Islam, a professor in the urban and regional planning department at BUET, which organized the UTC along with the university’s architecture department. “In disaster time, residents stand shoulder to shoulder. This is the strength of Dhaka.”

On this, Islam was referring in particular to the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, near Dhaka, one of the worst industrial disasters in modern history. Following the collapse, locals engaged in initial response efforts event before the arrival of trained rescuers. This strength, Islam said, can be harnessed for national development by including all city inhabitants in planning processes.

In this, cities can also learn from each other. “We have to decide whether a model fits in. We need to tailor any model to our local needs,” Islam said.

The World Urban Campaign’s Suri agreed. “Dhaka can never be Singapore; Mumbai can never be Shanghai,” she said. “Dhaka has to find its own way, its own solutions.”