World Environment Day 2020

Nature-based solutions in urban planning of Bangladesh cities

Grey concrete structures of the capital city
Grey concrete structures of the capital city

The sudden disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has paved its way towards some positive impacts in context of environment and climate all around the world. It has lead towards declining travel significantly as well as restricted economic activities in many countries resulting in significant decrease of air and water pollution and has immensely impacted the ecosystem. Humanity is passing through critical times. Nature is repairing itself and re-creating itself while providing evidence that without taking care of environment, biodiversity and nature properly, the human race will have to encounter an even bigger crisis in the coming years. We are so overly dependent on Mother Nature for all our basic needs such as food, air, water and the thousands of wonderful gifts we are blessed with from nature.

The current pandemic that began in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province of China, is now spreading to all over the world. Nature is teaching us that to take care of nature for the sake of our own survival. It is appropriate that this year’s slogan on World Environment Day is ‘Time for Nature’.

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Nature Based Solutions (NbS) and cities in Bangladesh

Cities and built environment among others are blamed as one of the major enemies of the nature. But we need a place to stay and sleep, a place to buy our essential products from, a place to get treatment, education, to play and so on. Thus we need cities, the engine that drives economic growth. The question is, how can we plan and build our cities while integrating natural solutions which can cater to the societal demands?

The waters of Buriganga and Sitalakhya rivers that are no longer treatable and suitable for drinking. And there is the frequent flooding in Dhaka, Chattogram and in all major cities which is literally unmanageable

There is a common belief that concrete-based development is a benchmark of progress. So almost all cities in Bangladesh are built following this concept of traditional grey infrastructures and so are covered by hard surfaces - such as concrete drainage canals, concrete flood walls and river embankments, construction of new housing areas by dredging and paving the wetlands and flood flow zones, with very limited provisions of parks and open spaces which have simply presented us with jungles made of concrete. The mindset is predominantly set that grey infrastructure is safe and reliable development options – tested and bankable - as if the only option in planning and building our cities. This false mindset is already proven to fail in the endeavor to provide sustainable solutions to our urban challenges. As a result, it is the waters of Buriganga and Sitalakhya rivers that are no longer treatable and suitable for drinking. And there is the frequent flooding in Dhaka, Chattogram and in all major cities which is literally unmanageable.

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The potential of Nature Based Solutions (NbS) and integrated approach combining grey, green and blue concepts are not yet explored fully, neither by research and in the academic community nor by policy planners and built-environment practitioners.

This write up attempts to explain NbS along with providing recommendations on how to integrate these into urban planning and management practices in Bangladesh.

What is it NbS?

According to IUCN, the “Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are: actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”.

In some parts of the world it is already evident that NbS can address urban challenges aggravated by economic growth, increasing population as well as the impacts of climate change. As NbS is multi-functional, cost-effective and provides a wide range of benefits, it assists in improving public health, energy efficiency, pollution reduction and regenerating urban spaces thus connects human being with built-environment.

NbS can be classified into two categories – hybrid and natural. Hybrid is the combination of ecosystem elements and hard engineering interventions to address development objectives and the natural one is creation, protection or restoration of only ecosystem elements to address development objectives. In an urban setting, NbS is essentially needed to create open spaces, bio-retention areas, green roofs, permeable pavement, etc. Most importantly, the appropriateness of NbS is very specific to context and location, which requires careful assessment, planning and designs, implementation, operation and maintenance given that the strong ownership from communities and all the key stakeholders are engaged and involved.

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NbS in urban planning and management of Bangladeshi cities and built-environment

The major purpose of urban planning and management is shaping the cities, towns, regions and built-environment by guided and controlled land use and spatial exercises to facilitate efficient provision of infrastructure, and services with long term vision, medium and short term actions which is realised through strategic plans, local area plans, programmes and projects.

So the question is how to integrate NbS into the entirety of this process?

Firstly, NbS needs to be integrated with the land use plans. The priority of such land use plans will be greening and rehabilitating natural elements such as ponds and parks as well as creating a network of interconnected green spaces and corridors. In addition to that greening core urban areas, residential neighborhoods, as well as industrial and business zones are also equally important to make our cities more habitable. A set of land use standards need to be incorporated/adopted for the desired intent.

NbS could also be a powerful instrument for regenerating urban areas through identifying new uses for under-used and unused lands and grey infrastructures. This will improve the well-being in the urban areas by providing access to green spaces and good quality landscapes to all citizens in order to promote human health, well-being, social cohesion and reduction of crime. A very contemporary example is, generating Hatirjheel area in Dhaka city by combining grey, green and blue solutions. Rajshahi City is performing better so far in integrating NbS in spatial development.

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Secondly, we need to change our traditional mindset and be open to accept the use of green infrastructure and nature-based solutions as an essential alternative or complementary approach to conventional urban infrastructure and development planning. Green and blue solutions shall be considered as the foundation for any kind of infrastructure planning process through harnessing full potential of local landscapes and natural systems, their network and functions to take advantage of their multiple benefits including building urban resilience and sustainability. This will be a paradigm shift in the way urban infrastructure – roads, drains, flood gates, river banks, water and sanitation facilities, electricity supply, and buildings – are conceived of, designed, and managed.

There are already evidences how NbS is integrated in urban water and flood management by creating room for rivers, protecting natural water bodies and plantation; stabilising slopes by live crib walls, vegetated gabions, or vetiver grass; managing pollution by bioswales, graywater recycling, or raingardens; and management of energy efficiency, heat island, and GHG reduction by green roofs and walls, waste recycling, urban tree canopy and urban agriculture.

The ownership of local communities is extremely vital in this process. If any of the measures are co-designed, co-constructed, co-managed together with the local communities, in that case the sustainable use of green urban infrastructure is done in the most fitting manner and the process becomes resilient to the impacts of climate change.

On World Environment Day 2020, let us promise to create room for nature in our cities and built-environment. No other alternative can help better for us moving towards an approach that ensures sustainability.

Thirdly, we need unified nationwide approach in defining standards and specifications, scoring and prioritising indicators as well as monitoring and results indicators for all different bodies including ECNEC, the planning commission, line ministries and their agencies, city corporations, pourashavas, and other local government institutions. All involved should collaboratively contribute and prepare the plans, programmes and projects complying with the unified approach. This will require reforming urban planning systems toward area-wide approaches of development control, integration of nature, and adaptation of key infrastructure assets. Institutional development including continuous capacity development and retraining of urban and regional/rural planners, engineers, architects, developers and bureaucrats should be integral part of that reform process.

Mainstreaming NbS into urban planning and management has multifold benefits. It helps to achieve sustainable urbanisation while ensuring essential ecosystem functions and by promoting urban regeneration as well as restoring the functionality of degrading ecosystems and their services. NbS also enhances the capacity of cities to tackle the climate change in context of both adaptation and mitigation aspects through integrating grey with green and blue infrastructure and contribute in pollution reduction, carbon storage, biodiversity conservation, reducing heat stress, and enhance water retention.

On World Environment Day 2020, let us promise to create room for nature in our cities and built-environment. No other alternative can help better for us moving towards an approach that ensures sustainability.

SM Mehedi Ahsan is an urban and rural planner, a DAAD alumni, and is an honorary member of the Central Advisory Council to the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy, and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC), University of Glasgow.