With over 44,500 people per square kilometre, Dhaka is one of the world’s most crowded cities. Photo: A.K.M Emdadul Islam Bitu

By Ashekur Rahman.

Ashekur Rahman is an urbanist and the Assistant Resident Representative of UNDP Bangladesh

The Blog was first published in The Daily Star Click here to read the original publication.

According to media reports, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) recently decided to demolish and rebuild 805 bridges nationwide to pay the price of erroneous planning. This is just a microcosm of what is happening across the country. Can we imagine the situation if 600 or so urban centres are built, defying planning standards? Would we still have the liberty of demolishing to rebuild again? Aside from the obvious financial implications, who is to suffer from the consequences of such an erratic process?

Dhaka's development and associated challenges should be a good example for growing cities that need to ensure sustainable urbanisation. Planned development of secondary cities can salvage the capital from drowning from the effects of mass immigration and maintain its potential of offering a good quality of life to its citizens.

With over 44,500 people per square kilometre, Dhaka is one of the world's most crowded cities. Located in the middle of the country, Dhaka has become the primate city that has served Bangladesh's economic growth since independence by attracting the most investment. It accounts for one-third of the country's total population, one-fifth of the national GDP, and one-third of all jobs. It is also disproportionately larger than other Bangladeshi cities. In fact, Dhaka's population is over four times greater than that of Chattogram, Bangladesh's second largest city. Unfortunately, a lack of effective urban management has led it to be featured regularly among the least liveable cities in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Index. But cities can be densely populated without being overpopulated. Singapore—a small island state—is the best example of this.

At this juncture, we must also ask—are large cities losing their competitiveness? The garment factories in and around the capital have fuelled Dhaka's economy and population since the 1980s. This has, in turn, resulted in almost 44 percent of the country's urban population living in Dhaka, which has generated immense pressure on its ability to provide essential urban services to its residents. Despite high population density, the World Bank found that the economic density in Dhaka declined between 1996 and 2010 based on night-time light intensity and economic census data. This trend is especially alarming for Dhaka and Chattogram. Job growth has slowed down, with many industries reaching saturation points without further diversification. Experts are also warning about manual jobs being slashed in manufacturing units due to greater automation and the fourth industrial revolution.

Furthermore, with worsening climate change, the practice of migrating to urban centres from rural areas is increasingly becoming a common coping strategy. The World Bank projects over 13 million people will be internally displaced by 2050, leading to migration towards major cities like Dhaka. IFPRI warns that the corrosive effect of salinity on local agricultural economies could further displace up to 200,000 people from the coastal areas of Bangladesh.

Besides 12 city corporations and 327 municipalities, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics identified 570 urban centres in Bangladesh. The population size in these urban centres has been rapidly increasing due to people living in a specified central place with urban amenities and utilities. The urban population for 2030 is estimated to reach 86.5 million, with a further increase to over 100 million by 2050. In this context, the secondary cities and urban growth centres could effectively accommodate these increasing urban populations across the country.

Globally, developing new towns and relocating populations often emerge as tempting policy options to improve living standards in the most prominent cities. The strategy is to make the "economic hubs" bigger, with higher economic density and high-value industries. For this to happen, investment in the largest cities/old divisional towns, metropolitan areas, and secondary towns with potential economic opportunities, particularly export processing zones (EPZs), needs to be prioritised.

However, the challenges of secondary cities are enormous too. With current growth rates, Bangladesh is likely to transform itself into an urbanised country soon. Cities within Bangladesh vary significantly in size and urban growth rates, but existing development practices lack a sustainable model that aims to preserve the unique cultural identity and rich geographical and indigenous heritage offered by each city, alongside planned urbanisation efforts. Cities lack a clear "vision" of dedicating an appropriate budget allocated for sustainable development relevant to the context of each city. For example, the development agenda priorities for Chandpur should differ significantly to that of Ishwardi.

This is a critical policy concern that is affecting the balanced spatial development of cities across Bangladesh. A result-based budget allocation approach is essential for optimum use of resources, which would promote balanced urban development.

To this day, urban growth remains "big cities-centric". Bangladesh is around 38 percent urban and mainly concentrated around cities like Dhaka and Chattogram. While countries with high-income status are mostly accompanied by 70 to 80 percent of people living in cities, historically, no country could achieve its development targets without developing its small, medium and large cities to accommodate its growing urban population. Following the pandemic, existing socioeconomic inequalities have been further exacerbated, challenging the government's ambitious goal of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2031. The prolonged public health crisis has led to the creation of millions of "new poor", mostly in large cities like Dhaka and Chattogram.

The importance of developing holistic policies and action plans ensuring the global agendas of "leaving no one behind" has thus become urgent. Translating the economic density of big cities like Dhaka and Chattogram into other cities and ensuring equal prosperity across Bangladesh is a priority.

Bangladesh has a unique urban system, with at least one secondary and another large town in each district and divisional headquarter, including a small township at each upazila. These include Bogura, Sunamganj, Jashore, Kushtia, Noakhali and Cox's Bazar, to name a few. These cities are rapidly being urbanised—such as Bogura and Jashore, which are hubs for small and medium-sized engineering industries—but the true potential of urbanisation at the regional level remains untapped. Sunamganj and Kushtia, for example, are considered cultural capitals of their respective regions, banking on their rich, edifying strength originating from Hason Raja, Lalon, and the Tagore residence. Cox's Bazar has the potential to become the second largest city in the east after Chattogram, building on booming tourism and growth potential fuelled by several mega-projects, such as the Matarbari deep-sea port.

Higher urban primacy can foster economic growth at the earlier stages of development, which is a fact for big cities like Dhaka and Chattogram. With uneven urban growth patterns across the country, investing in secondary cities can effectively attract people and boost the economy. Well-planned, compact, connected, and climate-resilient cities can increase economic efficiency and boost competitiveness, while improving liveability and protecting the natural environment. Thus, developing a complementary system of diverse secondary cities should be supported, which would prevent derailing existing metropolises like Dhaka. Bangladesh needs to pay more attention to mitigating growing trends of rapid and unplanned urbanisation, particularly in small/medium-sized and secondary cities, which offer the greatest potential to build a sustainable urban future. This will also give back an opportunity to rejuvenate the "unliveable" Dhaka.


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