Sheikh Serajul Hakim and Faysal Kabir Shuvo
United Nation's Environmental Programme recommends a minimum of 25% open space (plantation and water body combined) within a city's total area; yet it is only about 14.5% of the Dhaka City Corporation's total area that according to a 2012 study can be designated as open space. Urban built-up area within Dhaka has soared from 5,500 hectare (ha) in 1975 to 20,549ha in 2005, while wetland and vegetation cover reduced to 6,027ha and 2,812ha respectively during the same period. A recent study conducted by URP department of the Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET) estimates that the total area of water body and lowlands was 2952.02ha and 13527.58ha respectively in 1960; which shrunk to 1990.71ha and 6414.57ha respectively in 2008. Regarding the green cover loss in Dhaka, statistics are even more alarming. The systematic decline of vegetation cover were 7743ha, 2871ha and 198ha in 1989, 2002 and 2010 respectively in the Dhaka metropolitan area alone. The scenario is even worse in the core area, i.e. the area under DCC jurisdiction:
Poor planning and planning's utter absence coupled with a corrupt authorizing-monitoring regime in the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) have allowed the individual land owner, corporate developer and industrialist to engage in widespread extra-legal building activities. Although an approved master plan (Detailed Area Plan or DAP) has been officially gazette recently, the available data identifies only a 96.69km2 chunk (though DCC area is 106km2 according to DAP) allocated in 13 categories of land cover and land usage. Yet, it is clear that the highest proportion of land cover is in the built-up areas (all land uses except agriculture, open space, water body and vacant land), which is about 88% (78.56km2) of the dynamic core area. These areas were massively built up by replacing vegetations and wetlands without leaving much chance to revert to the original. These areas are also the same areas that have been constructed prior to the introduction of FAR, and where most building code violations have taken place for the last three decades.
Dhaka as a city and RAJUK as its regulatory authority therefore continue to struggle with the rule-violating constructions. In order to recuperate the 'livability' and revitalize its ailing core, one of the most essential tasks that awaits the planner is to envisage an alternative approach. To compensate for this damage that has already taken place in Dhaka's social, physical and aesthetic environment, a realistic option can be the engagement of the same violators in the 'restoration of green' itself. The lost green can only be replenished through the legislative adoption to a strategic use of greening with long term spatial and socio-economical consequences in mind. A policy tool, called 'Compensative greening' hence is needed that incurs lesser socio-political, financial and aesthetic hurdles yet yields long term benefit.
'Compensative greening' potentials for Dhaka: Greening, as Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Technology (OECD) defines it, is a "certain policy topics or business sectors, including the design, construction, maintenance, and dismantling of buildings; resource extraction; agriculture/ gardening; natural resource management (e.g. air, water, land/open space, forests/other ecosystems, fisheries) and other environmental services (e.g. planning, engineering, monitoring, financing, education)". Urban greening hence promises a lot; yet, in comparison to these developed-world cities and their adoption to 'greening', Dhaka's case cannot easily be conceptualized. In reality, Dhaka and its prevailing land-use complexities need a number of immediate hurdles to overcome; some of these preconditions remain crucial. One such issue, certainly, should be what to do with the overwhelming number of illegal establishments; these include buildings owned by individuals, developers, public organizations and even by RAJUK itself. Such constructions are found in Dhaka's both core and peripheral areas. Violations typify middle-class and affluent housing areas alike. It is estimated that around 90% of Dhaka's pre-FAR buildings, in one way or another, are constructed in violation of statutory codes including the breach of height rules, set-back violation, unapproved construction and illegal alteration to the RAJUK approved plans.
This is exactly where our proposal for a strategic use of greening fits in; the object of our proposed framework is to compensate for the loss of green that these violated projects caused in the first place. We also feel the code-violation penalty is not compensating enough for the long run. The traditional penalty schemes -- monetary, physical demolition or imprisonment, and also as it is practiced lack practicability and imagination altogether. For monetary penalty for example, the official documents never clearly mentions how the money collected through penalty will be used, for what purpose, for whom and for which duration. It is not at all clarified how this money should be able to compensate for the damage caused earlier.
Considering imprisonment as another form of penalty, scepticism prevails. In the context of Bangladesh, where bribery and political influence run deep, it does not sound convincing that the affluent landlords and influential developers will be imprisoned for such a 'petty' crime. The option for demolition seems even more dubious; one can always question, for example, the criteria for selecting the buildings/projects to be demolished. Although RAJUK has been found active in its demolition drive, most recent cases of demolition aim to recover RAJUK's own or other government agency's land or target squatters in rich neighbourhoods; temporary road-side constructions; newer housing projects by private developers and high-rise apartments or commercial buildings on Dhaka's periphery - deemed "most vulnerable". RAJUK seem to have run short of ideas about how to deal with the remaining majority of height-, set-back or landuse-violating constructions, that can be found particularly in the older and designated housing areas such as Dhanmondi, Uttara and alike.
Demolition, both in terms of financial feasibility and the associated health and environmental hazards, is also unsustainable. Demolition -- similar to the cases of RANGS building at Airport Road and many alike, has been doubly damaging. Such acts not only caused millions to evaporate off our ailing economy, they also cost RAJUK to involve precious man hours by deploying its own resources, and outside consultants and contractors to demolish only a few amongst the thousands of illegally constructed buildings spread all over Dhaka. Even if we consider that a fair and unbiased situation will prevail, with its current resources and manual demolition system, RAJUK will have to work a few hundred years to actually get rid of the mass of prevailing illegal buildings. Indeed demolition or imprisonment may be necessary in some particularly severe cases, yet demolition as 'the ultimate solution' comes under serious scrutiny.
Also, if any compensative or green regeneration project is developed in the foreseeable future, one can earnestly doubt the sustenance of such projects for lack of funding. Government-run projects as such, as in many housing or other government sponsored projects in Bangladesh, are certain to fail due to a sheer lack of resources needed during their operational phase. And if a possible scenario arises where only government money is expected to be channeled in and the government people should be in charge, a lack of participation and belonging of the actual user groups -- in both monetary and decision-making terms, should surely affect the sustenance of the projects. To replenish at least some part of the lost greenery from Dhaka's landscape, none of these aforesaid mechanisms comes to use. The outcomes of these mechanisms remain less 'visible'; one becomes sceptic on how much penalty money has actually been collected, or whether someone has actually been imprisoned. RAJUK and other government agencies appear to lack necessary policy support to execute and manage such projects for the longer run. Compared to the piecemeal solution that RAJUK is currently practicing, compensatory greening thus offers a chance for both RAJUK and the rule violator to go for a win-win situation. It gives them a chance to balance for the damaging acts they are party to.
A framework for 'compensative greening': Global experiences show that planning and managing urban green spaces is better accomplished when the overall responsibility is assumed by a single organization. Although top-down, this facilitates planning and implementation equally. More organizations' involvement means sharing responsibilities among different institutions -- leading to weaker coordination, conflicting decisions, a more bureaucratic planning system, slower work process in both planning and application etc. More outside organizations' involvement should also produce a more complex structure with reduced space for community's participation. In Dhaka, it is RAJUK that should assume the overall responsibility to conceiving and implementing Compensative Greening. The primary focus should be on restoring greening in the more aged neighborhoods -- subject to highest building construction rule violation. RAJUK, for example, may commence with the idea that smaller neighborhood-level successes on compensative greening should add to and hence yield larger accomplishments at the level of the city. A set of 'must follow' statutory guidelines may be designed that at first should force engage pre-identified 'violating' property owners (individuals, developers etc.) of one chosen neighborhood (e.g. a particular Mohalla or one particular Dhanmondi Residential Area road) to a mandatory adoption of re-greening for restoring its physical and visual conditions. Force engagement of the violators should also appear politically correct if it is promoted as something alternative to demolition. A framework as such, however, should be initially debated on by academic and civic forums.
Since a top-down process initiates the process, a social campaign through various media should run parallel; this should explain the socio-economic-environmental benefits of compensatory greening while re-affirming the responsible individuals' role as 'the most crucial' instead that of a mere 'social villain'. The success of urban greening hence depends on the level of participation in the project particularly by the concerned community. This facilitates acceptance at the users' level and ensures economic sustainability. Any sort of green space, which is associated with citizen support also satisfy planning authorities and citizen alike. A certain justification and support to planning and implementation activities is also proven by this. For Dhaka, the once 'social villains' therefore hold potentials to becoming 'the saviors' in other ways if their engagement is guaranteed. First, participation of these affluent property owners should compensate, to a large extent, to the previously mentioned fiscal deficiencies of RAJUK and other government agencies in planning and implementing such a project. In addition to his/her other social contributions, an outline of the exact nature of 'sector-wise' monetary expenses that the property owner would require to furnish, should enable a better management of costs for greening owner's own buildings and also for creating a 'community fund' for taking care of the expenditure at the community level.
Participation from liable building owners will also give them a chance to find satisfaction from possible contributions back to the socio-spatial ills they are party to. Individual initiatives to compensate for a lack of open space by developing personal green roofs or building fronts, or group projects to compensate for the decaying social interactions by developing 'green cooperative' may just be the two of many alternative forms of participation. In the older neighborhoods, however, formation of any community organization dedicated solely for greening should also be easier as neighbors should be known and trusted to each other for a longer period of time. And even if gentrification might be widespread, there should be already established social platforms (e.g. a mosque-based committee should be fairly common), which should support a dedicated community cooperative for compensative greening. This body should ensure 'self-disciplining' as they may be formed in the shape of proven micro-credit samittees. Here, members will know closely about the other members' personal initiatives, while any deviation from RAJUK directives should bring in automatic sentence to community.
Engagement of NGOs with other stakeholders is also vital for green initiatives. Notwithstanding their many operational drawbacks and critiques, NGOs are also known for their ability to oversee large grassroots-level projects. With their rapid resource mobilization capacity, efficiency, networking capability and accessibility to both public and private realms -- NGOs should be able to raise awareness amongst rule violating individuals and community cooperatives at the initial level if designated by DCC. They should be able to organize them, arrange training sessions, help implement according to statutory frameworks, monitor progress and critically evaluate and report back to DCC. If properly designated by DCC, specialized green NGOs may even be formed, whose presence between community and RAJUK should also minimize potential tensions between these two parties that may arise occasionally. NGO presence should also make sure that green success stories and case studies are officially disseminated to similar neighborhoods through their networks. Considering NGOs overwhelming presence, social acceptance and proven role in partnering local governments (such as DCC) in most Bangladeshi cities -- one can ascertain that NGOs are one important stakeholder for a successful implementation of the proposed compensative greening project.
This proposed framework should also ensure that greening occurs at both private and public levels though it primarily concerns the rule violating individuals and individual buildings. At the private level, for example, the building owner may develop small gardens or do personal landscaping on building roofs, front-yards or facades, or transform house-front sidewalks while at the public level, the 'greening committee' may take it further to the Main Street or any open space in the concerned neighborhood and develop accordingly. There may be other forms of 'grey' sites as well including derelict community gardens and parks, old landfills, wetlands and stormwater storage corridors and ponds, rail tracks, rooftops of parking lots and superstores etc., schoolyards, reservoir tops, rivers and canals, cemeteries, road-sides, and dead-end streets can all become public level compensative greening sites for communities to engage upon. In doing so, compensative tools such as Green Plot Ratio (successfully tested in a green city like Singapore) can also be considered.
Epilogue: RAJUK, not so long back, has approved of DAP; it did so in order to implement a master plan for Dhaka city for the first time. It is unfortunate however, that any visible strategy is non-evident that aims to address the green loss of Dhaka generally, and its greying core particularly. With regard to greening, the current practice of RAJUK is actually not strategic. Lack of a strategic direction thus frequently results in a collection of haphazard efforts and intervention, and lead to a makeshift approach to planning and provisioning. A greening framework therefore, will not only base on clear objectives and methodology, it will also save a lot of human and monetary resources for both building owner and RAJUK. This, we believe, the newer parts of the city (and also the non-violators) would also want to follow closely and leave future generations with a healthy path to pursue.
There is also a mainstream political imperative to urban greening. There is certainly an 'image factor' associated with this urge for legitimization that Dhaka can learn from. Although compensative urban greening is very likely to face local political resistance, adoption to it will certainly enhance the image of Dhaka and its mayor to the outside world. In today's global competition of cities, little achievements are frequently sold off with big value. For a derelict city like Dhaka, whose image in the outside world is nothing more than 'a city of slums', Compensative Greening promises ample opportunity for significant achievements. Considering rooftop-greening and apartment-surface landscaping to be an emerging trend in present day Dhaka, a timely enforcement of our proposed framework, may actually turn it into a culturally embedded movement for Dhaka's present and future communities.