Kim Dovey is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and Director of the Informal Urbanism Research Hub InfUr–. His research on social issues in architecture and urban design has included investigations of urban place identity, creative clusters, transit-oriented urban design and the morphology of informal settlements. He is a distinguished scholar in Urban Design and his books include Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form (1999/2008), Fluid City (2005), Becoming Places (2010) and Urban Design Thinking (2016). He has a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and has served as Associate Dean, Head of Urban Design and Head of Architecture at the University of Melbourne.

How do you situate Dhaka in terms of its potential to study urban issues?

Dhaka, in my understanding, is a city that is unique, but is also not atypical of a range of megacities. It is a very big city that has grown substantially, with much of that growth being informal. “Informal,” in one sense, means urban development that occurs outside the formal control of a planning scheme. The state puts in place a planning scheme and says that this is a residential area or that it has a particular street morphology and then the informal processes take over and a different kind of functional mix and land use emerges. Indeed, a different kind of morphology often emerges if there are height limits and setbacks - they are often violated. Therefore, you get a very informal process layered on top of a formal process.

Many people in Bangladesh would actively argue that the mix of formal and informal is quite negative. They might use examples of the recent fire in Puran Dhaka, which is largely seen as the result of unregulated informal mix of functions and therefore, you can notice a quest to sanitise the city, to formalise, to strip out uses into different parts. How would you counter that?

The idea of a functional mix is often seen as a problem in the over-informalised cities in the Global South, and yet is seen as something that there is not enough of in what I call the over-formalised cities of the Global North. The discipline of urban planning began in the early 20th century in order to solve problems of mix, such as noxious industries located right next to places where children are growing up or being educated. Therefore, there is such a thing as a dysfunctional juxtaposition of functions. You cannot have a steelwork and a housing project adjacent to each other. There are, hence, many legitimate reasons to separate functions. 


Karail, the largest informal settlement in Dhaka, is going to be evicted by two so-called development projects. One is through building a hi-tech park that follows the image of the global city on one end. On the other hand, the lake, which is filled incrementally over the last 17 years, is going to be reincarnated based on concerns over pollution. There is currently a limbo due to a High Court order of no eviction without resettlement, despite the UN-Habitiat recommending cities to get out of the mind-set that slums are illegal. How would you deal with Karail, from a mayor’s perspective?

Detailed research is required on how Karail impacts Dhaka’s economy and on the ways in which Karail actually works. This must be done before any grand plan is formulated. Karail is a very large agglomeration of relatively impoverished people. I have been there and I think it is liveable. It has its problems but I think that the proposal to demolish Karail in its entirety and to redevelop it as a smart village [hi-tech park] is not smart and probably will not work in the way in which it is intended. Informal settlements are complex phenomena that are driven in many ways by rural-to-urban migration, which is in turn driven by economic forces that are beyond anybody’s control. This is not something that a national government can change.

Cities are where the jobs are being produced and so urbanisation has meant also an urbanisation of poverty with informal settlements and slums. Informal settlements are the way in which rural migrants find a foothold in the city. Some people call them ‘arrival cities’ but it is not just about arriving. It is about establishing a foothold in the city and getting access to those jobs that the city is producing. Residents of Karail are filling those roles. They are working in the formal city. If Karail is not serving the function of affordable housing, what will? The replacement of affordable housing for such people generally leads to displacement - an apartment in a high rise, often far away from where the employment is. What kind of transport are they going to use? Can they get there with a rickshaw? Are they dependent on public transport? Can they afford it? They certainly do not have cars. If they did, where would they park? So how is the city going to function without these people? A threat to Karail is a threat to the fundamental way Dhaka works as a city.