MANY DHAKAS

READINGS

A CRISIS IN CIVILITY

While no city remains fixed in form and function, the very process of building and developing a city, if not undertaken carefully, can destroy the intangible qualities that are at the heart of urban life. In this respect, the greatest damage that can be unleashed on a city is the erosion of its urban civility. Every day the people of Dhaka negotiate increasing signs of a civic deterioration that is, ironically, exacerbated in the name of building, development and progress. Thus the paradox of city-building: One can undo a city by building it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the wanton development of Dhaka.

If piling buildings after buildings next to each other, on top of one another, does not make a city, what does? The term "city" itself derives from civitas, a Latin word with a cluster of meanings: citizen, civic, and civilization. As the city draws people from various ethnic, racial, and social categories into one space, it becomes a place defined by differences and complexities. The most critical need for a city, then, is a civilized means of addressing and sorting out these differences. The city ought to be a place where one may find one's personal and spiritual fulfillment in the company of others, uncoerced, and in the light of human dignity. The ultimate expression of a well-formed civic place is the cosmopolis that becomes, as French philospher Jacques Derrida describes it, "a city of refuge,"—a place that guarantees anyone the right to residence and hospitality, and the opportunity for work, recreating and creative activity in a "durable network of fulfillment."

So how is Dhaka's civility in crisis?

First, there appears to be no no coherent vision for how to address Dhaka's current fractures and future development. There is no real plan for catering to the pragmatic and spiritual needs of most Dhakaites. What passes for a master plan is a jumble of outdated and uninspiring zoning regulations and building byelaws.

Second, the immense dysfunctionality of the institutions entrusted with the planning and management of Dhaka has aggravated the planning crisis.

Third, Dhaka is a traffic terror. The street manner is a vivid manifestation of the general urban behavior: self-centered, undisciplined, and life-threatening to others.

Fourth, the extent of Dhaka's air pollution due to factories in the city, automobile and other exhausts, etc., is nearly apocalyptic, and yet Dhaka's people and authorities carry on with nonchalance—economic interests dominate environmental concerns.

Fifth, open spaces urban spaces, water bodies, parks - are the most important ingredients of a city, like lungs to the body, and yet they are vanishing one by one in an avalanche of greed and manipulation by private interests often in partnership with the authorities.

Sixth, if the sidewalk is a major mark of the civility of a city, revealing what the city patriarchs think about a fundamental human condition - the pedestrian and his humanity - then Dhaka, which has very few sidewalks, evidences no such concept of civility with respect to many of its citizens. Seventh, a city ought to be more than simply the dreary setting for minimal economic subsistence, it should be a site of inspiration catering to the mental well being of its citizens. Why shouldn't such notions as imagination, inspiration, and creativity be enshrined in the byelaws of the Master Plan? Yes, indeed, why shouldn't Dhaka be a "eutopia," a "good place"?

Constant construction
Commercial street