Backed by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, the World Cities Day was observed on October 31 all over the globe with general theme of 'Better City, Better Life', and specific theme 'Changing the world: Innovations and better life for future generations'. It was aimed at generating dialogue on how urbanisation can be used to achieve sustainable development, promote implementation of new urban agenda globally and enhance cooperation among countries for addressing the challenges of urbanisation.
This year, main goals of the Day were: increase awareness of how digital innovations can be used for urban service delivery to enhance quality of life and improve the urban environment; show new frontier technologies that can create more inclusive cities; present opportunities for renewable energy generation; and explore how frontier technologies can promote social inclusion in cities.
At present, more than half the global population live in cities. Urbanisation has therefore become one of the most transformative trends in the globe as the world population is expected to double by 2050. It poses many sustainability challenges mainly related to housing, environment, climate change, infrastructure, basic services, food security, health, education, decent jobs and natural resources. Cities have traditionally been the drivers of innovation, manufacturing, technology, entrepreneurship and creativity, thereby creating affluence, enhancing social uplift and providing employment opportunities. Transformation of cities has therefore become a critical tool for achieving sustainable development through tailoring the ways cities are planned, designed, financed, governed and managed.
Our metropolitan city of Dhaka is over 400 years old. But the population growth rate here in recent years has been quite alarming with the current megacity population estimated to be around 20 million. The living standard of the city dwellers has not improved much in conformity with population growth. Dhaka, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, is now the third most unliveable city in the world. Urban development experts say principal challenges faced by Dhaka today are population explosion, inadequate housing-cum-civic services, chronic traffic congestion and environmental pollution. Comprehensive, well-coordinated and all-encompassing initiatives are, therefore, needed on an urgent basis if Dhaka is to be made habitable for future generations.
Although Dhaka statistical metropolitan area occupies less than 1.0 per cent terrain of the country, its population is over 10 per cent of the aggregate number. Around 40 per cent of country's urban population of over 45 million live in Dhaka. But required civic services and facilities could not yet be ensured in the city. There is acute dearth of roads, open spaces, water bodies and recreation centres. The city lacks a proper mass transportation system, as a result of which people are forced to waste hours together in traffic jam on the roads.
Besides, adequate education, healthcare and employment opportunities need to be created outside Dhaka in order to curb the inflow of people towards the megacity from other urban and rural centres.
Traffic jams have been a chronic problem that has been haunting the Dhaka city dwellers during the past two decades. Experts opine that average speed of vehicles has now cone down to below 7 kilometres per hour and financial losses incurred due to traffic jam stand at around Taka 370 billion per year. In this context, the government has built some flyovers in the city to ease the situation. Metro-rail or MRT (mass rapid transit) and bus rapid transits (BRT) are also being built. But experts believe, benefits to be derived from these structures would be insufficient in the long run.
A leading transport specialist and BUET teacher Professor Shamsul Haque holds the view that development works are not being implemented in the megacity in a coordinated manner. He told the media that some policymakers are getting attracted to big investments and mega projects, but they display lack of interest in smaller ones. The flyovers have not proved to be very effective, and the same may happen with MRT or BRT unless the public transportation system is rectified. Besides, the smaller vehicles should be discouraged from plying on the main roads.
There is also much suffering with regard to residential accommodation, as around 90 per cent of the housing facilities have been built by the private sector in Dhaka city. According to the tenants' association figures, 80-90 per cent of the residents in the city live in rented accommodations. A large slice of their incomes is spent on paying house rents. The government has no control in this area. The Consumers Association of Bangladesh found that house rents have quadrupled in the metropolis in the past 25 years, whereas the price of essentials has risen by 200 per cent. The government should therefore intervene and take appropriate measures including enforcement of the rent control law and construction of flats for low income people. The low income citizens may be extended credit on easy terms and low interests, as is the practice in many other countries including neighbouring India.
The environment of Dhaka is facing serious crisis due to excessive population and unplanned urbanisation. In terms of air quality index prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency of the USA, Dhaka is now rated as the third most polluted city in the world.
When a city is built and developed, emergence of new challenges and problems are quite natural. But these problems need to be resolved or minimised through managerial, technological and innovative measures on a regular basis and the solutions need to be sustainable. There is no alternative to planned urban development in the country in order to make the cities including capital Dhaka liveable for the new generation.
At the same time, equitable distribution of civic facilities, amenities and services need to be ensured based on population density and segmentation of city dwellers. Overall, coordinated actions and innovations are a must for ensuring better life for present and future generations in the cities and urban centres of the country.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.