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OPINION July 19, 2017

Seize the Opportunity Now to Make Dhaka a Great, Modern City

The success of Dhaka, one of the mega-cities of the world, is critically important for the economic and social development of Bangladesh.  The city’s astonishing growth, from a population of 3 million in 1980 to 18 million today, represents the promise and dreams of a better life: the hard work and sacrifices made by all residents to seize opportunities to lift themselves from poverty towards greater prosperity.

However, as Dhaka has grown to become one of the most densely populated city in the world, its expansion has been messy and uneven.  Dhaka’s growth has taken place without adequate planning, resulting in a city with extreme congestion, poor livability, and vulnerability to floods and earthquakes.  Many residents, including the 3.5 million people living in informal settlements, often lack access to basic services, infrastructure, and amenities.

Unplanned and uncontrolled growth has created unprecedented congestion: the average driving speed has dropped from 21 km per hour 10 years ago to less than 7 km per hour today.  Continuing on current trends would result in a further slowdown to 4 km an hour - slower than average walking speed!  Congestion eats up 3.2 million working hours each day and costs the economy billions of dollars every year.  Some of the most important economic benefits from urbanization are missed out due to this messiness, resulting in lower incomes for the city and the country.

These problems will not go away on their own.  Dhaka’s population is expected to double once again by 2035, to 35 million.  Without a fundamental re-think requiring substantial planning, coordination, investment, and action, Dhaka will never be able to deliver its full potential.  Dhaka is at a crossroad in defining its future and destiny.

Up to now, urban growth has mainly taken place in the northern part of Dhaka and expanded westward after the flood of 1988, when the government built the western embankment for flood protection.  This resulted in high-density investments near the city center where infrastructure and social services were accessible.  However, real estate investments were not coordinated with other infrastructure and transportation services.

A similar process is taking place eastward of Dhaka despite the absence of an embankment to protect from flooding.  If properly managed, the development potential of East Dhaka is massive, as it is mainly a rural area with parts that are within walking distance of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods.  A well-planned East Dhaka could boost productivity and livability, while helping relieve congestion in the rest of the city; but with a business-as-usual approach, doubling the size of Dhaka could amount to little more than doubling the current messiness.

For Bangladesh to become an upper-middle income country by its 50th birthday, a lot depends on the success of Dhaka’s urban expansion.  Based on the current path, East Dhaka runs the risk of facing the same low productivity and high congestion as the rest of the city, with greater vulnerability to floods and earthquakes.  Retrofitting infrastructure in the current, dense and congested Dhaka is much more difficult and costlier than planning and building towards the East, with the future in mind.   However, this needs to be done quickly, before East Dhaka densifies too.  The time to act is now.

Today, ministries and agencies responsible for Dhaka’s development and experts from around the world gather for the “Dhaka Toward 2035” conference to share global experience in managing urban development while presenting scenarios and options for Dhaka’s future.  Rigorous simulations of the city’s development will be discussed, and the experience of other major developing country cities that achieved a radical turnaround will be reviewed.

For example, Shanghai’s population growth from 6 million to over 24 million has been accompanied by improved access to services, economic activity, livability, and mobility through greater transportation services.  Much of this success has been due to its strategic approach to the development of East Shanghai (Pudong), and its integration with the rest of the city.  The Pudong “miracle” transformed Shanghai into a global city in just 25 years.  The experience of Shanghai and other cities shows that success requires a clear vision - one that is embraced by government agencies, private investors, citizens and development organizations, and supported by careful planning and tight implementation.

Leading up to a forthcoming report, to be released this fall, the conference presents four scenarios for Dhaka’s future depending on the actions that it takes today, through decisions such as completing an embankment in East Dhaka, investing in transportation, and managing and enforcing planning and zoning laws.  The simulation results show what a big difference a strategic approach to Dhaka’s urban development would make.  The opportunity to create a bright future for Dhaka, as a vibrant and livable city, must be seized now before it is too late.

The authors are, respectively, Country Director for Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, and Chief Economist for South Asia Region, the World Bank.