Akter Mahmud
Akter Mahmud

Urban planner Akter Mahmud is a teacher at Jahangirnagar University's department of urban and regional planning and president of Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP). In an interview with Prothom Alo, he speaks about various aspects of Dhaka's Detailed Area Plan (DAP).

After 1995-2015, the draft of Dhaka's Detailed Area Plan (DAP) for 2016-2035 has now been drawn up. This has been amended in various ways at various times and there are all sorts of discussions about the new draft. How do you assess it?

The new draft is an integrated and holistic future development plan for land use, housing, transport, drainage, economic activities, environment, education, healthcare, recreation, social and civic amenities, and so on, in the 1,528 sq km of Dhaka and its adjacent areas. So the plan has to be assessed as a whole, not in parts.

The capital city Dhaka has become the main hub of the country's economic, administrative, educational, medical and other activities. While Dhaka has been extended in size, its population density has also been stretched to the limits. It is not easy to plan such a city. The present proposed Detailed Area Plan is a development document of over 1000 pages drawn up by local experts. It has been prepared at a time when Bangladesh is advancing towards becoming a mid-income country and is implementing its new urban agenda and also the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In all respects, this plan is an extremely important document.

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Does the new plan include all the factors that need to be taken into consideration for a city's detailed action plan?

All routine matters of a plan have been taken into consideration. The methodology of preparing DAP, sector-wise discussions and proposals, implementation method, institutional structure, rules and regulation as soon have all been included in the report. But there are differences of opinion over certain matters, there are shortcomings and that is only natural. It must been seen whether the plan is inclusive of people from all socioeconomic strata, class and professions and whether social equality has been reflected in the plans pertaining to the use of land. Amendments must be made where there are shortfalls.

What are the important aspects of the new plan?

This DAP is quite innovative in terms of modern urban planning. It includes certain factors that will ease the lives of the city denizens, such as metro station-based transit-oriented development (TOT), block development, community-based development plans and decentralisation of services, transfer of development rights (TDR), ward-based healthcare, quality government educational institutions, recreation centres, etc. It also strongly promotes pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and bicycle lanes and non-motorised transport. The plan includes land readjustment and re-development to develop unplanned areas according to the plans.

According to UN Habitat 2017, a total of 44,500 people live per square kilometre in Dhaka metropolitan area. Dhaka is the most densely populated to mega cities in the world

What are the problematic areas of the plan?

The proposed Detailed Area Plan must certainly be compatible with higher structure plans and the legal validity of DAP's structure plan must be ensured. The proposed DAP has proposals for extensive multipurpose use of land in Dhaka Metropolitan area which will exacerbate the healthcare, public security and environmental problems of the people. If permission is given to construct structures without making it compulsory to widen roads, it will not be possible to take urgent assistance to these areas in times of calamity.

It will in no way be possible to implement this plan with RAJUK's present organisational structure and workforce. There is need for consideration here. There is need to specify the formal and informal economic activities of the city and the related land use. Also, the location of the working and poor people must be determined and its management must be strongly included in the plan. There must be guidelines concerning the information habitats.

How far will the new plan contribute to keeping the city livable?

It has quite a few good proposals. If the shortcomings mentioned can be addressed and the plan implemented, then Dhaka's livability will certainly increase. Dhaka's livability indicators must be improved if it is to be built up as competitive city on a global and regional level.

There are allegations that the new draft will be harmful to natural water bodies.

The structure plan gives importance to the flood flow zone and agricultural land, but the proposed DAP does not give due importance to creating a blue network, water retention ponds and flood flow zones. These factors, vital to the city's drainage, needs to be compatible with Dhaka's drainage master plan. If the natural water reservoirs are identified in DAP, then the natural water reservoir conservation act can significantly contribute to protecting these reservoirs. The plan must have provision to identity and protect all ponds in the DAP area. The areas must be speedily acquired so water retention ponds can be conserved for public use.

If the population density of any country reaches above 120 persons per acre, its livability begins to decrease. Dhaka's population density is 550 persons per acre
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There has also been opposition to the proposal to control the construction of hi-rise buildings. How justified is that, given the limited land area of Dhaka city?

The matter of controlling the construction of hi-rise buildings has basically arisen due to the excessive population density in Dhaka. Due to the high floor area ratio (FAR) in the construction of buildings, the number of people living in the city is beyond the city's capacity and this has put excessive pressure on transport, water, gas, electricity as well as social and other civil services. According to UN Habitat 2017, a total of 44,500 people live per square kilometre in Dhaka metropolitan area. Dhaka is the most densely populated to mega cities in the world. There are other mega cities with higher population than Dhaka, but the population density is much less and these cities also have good transport systems and a lot of open spaces.

If we take Dhanmondi for instance, it was developed with 1,083 plots. It was planned for a maximum 15,000 to 18,000 people. Later the plots were divided further, buildings were constructed higher and the use of these changed. So now the population of Dhanmondi stands at 150,000. It has the same capacity as before, but with 10 fold more people using the utilities.

How can the population density of the city be controlled, taking into consideration Dhaka's civic utilities and amenities?

There is no single simple solution to this. Parallel measures can be taken inside and outside of Dhaka. These can include preparing area-wise population density maps, area-wise list of social and civil amenities and infrastructure, and accordingly issuing development permits. Depending on the size of plots, dualing units can be fixed and the floor area ratio index can be determined accordingly.

Though work on creating the large residential areas like Purbachal, Uttara Phase 3, Jhilmil and so on were taken up 25 years ago, houses are still not be built there. If the essential infrastructure could be put in place in these areas so that houses could be built, then the population of the main city would decrease. The pressure on Dhaka would automatically lessened if there could be decentralisation, with advanced communication systems set up between Dhaka and its surrounding townships, and employment opportunities, quality education and healthcare ensured in the divisional towns, district towns, pourashavas and upazila towns.

Health awareness has been brought to the forefront by the COVID outbreak. Health and hygiene is part and parcel of modern urban planning. How far will the new proposal ensure a healthy and hygienic city?

Urban planning and public health are historically connected. In modern urban planning, playgrounds, fields, parks, gardens and water bodies are considered to be health infrastructures. The proposed DAP mentions parks, water parks, eco parks and small parks. It has proposals for ward-based healthcare, schools and civil services. These proposals can contribute in making the city healthy and hygienic. However, population density and pollution are serious challenges to creating a hygienic city.

If the population density of any country reaches above 120 persons per acre, its livability begins to decrease. Dhaka's population density is 550 persons per acre. It is necessary to prepare an urban plan by determining the area-wise population density. Also buildings codes, regulations and urban planning are required for adequate sunlight and passage of air in the city buildings so that the city's public health can be ensured.

What initiatives should be taken to finalise this draft plan?

I hope that the Detailed Area Plan (2016-2035) can be finalised, taking into consideration views taken at a public hearing and the views of the concerned partners. A good plan and its implementation will help increase Dhaka's livability. A sound plan is essential to build Dhaka as a city competitive on a regional and global level.

This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir