Anika Saba and Shamiul Hossain

At a time when Dhaka city is slowly being stripped bare of its precious greenery, as mindless landfilling goes unabated with a huge number of trees already felled for building homes, the government entities who are supposed to fight for saving breathing spaces have been caught napping, failing to allay worries of environmentalists. Besides, newspaper reports on ‘modernising’ a historical park – Suhrawardy Udyan – by uprooting hundreds of old trees have only fuelled speculation that the authorities hardly care for the city environment.

For decades, disregard for protecting the greenery has remained a major cause of concern for the millions of people who call Dhaka – one of the fastest-growing megacities in the world – their home. The concern stem from the fact that hardly any part of Dhaka could save itself from the greed for profit which has come under the garb of different housing and development projects.

In the meantime, the open spaces in the city have only shrunk. In 2018, The Daily Star reported that Dhaka had 0.7 acres of open space for every 1000 residents, although the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan stated that the optimal allocation is 0.16 acres of open land for every 1000 people.

With no visible afforestation or recovery activities, the situation appears to have worsened over the years. When this is the case, hardly any action from the authorities to reclaim the filled-up lands or increase the greenery has come to the public’s notice. Hardly anyone has been punished for chopping trees. There are environmental laws in the country, but they appear to remain only on paper.

Colonising Southasian skies

This crisis is palpable in Southasian as well as in the global context. It is worrisome because nearly 70 percent of the world population will live in towns and cities by 2050, according to estimates by the United Nations. This means, unless urgent steps are taken, the situation will only escalate. Six large cities in India – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad – jointly hold the largest concentration of megacities in one particular country of the world. Southasian countries, which have been growing rapidly in the last decade due to globalisation and industrialisation, have seen residential and office blocks mushroom in every corner of their cities. To accommodate more people, such buildings keep going higher in their “attempt to colonise the sky”, as British author J G Ballard famously put it in his novel High-Rise. In cities like Dhaka or Mumbai, eyes can see only glass and concrete everywhere, whereas only a decade or two ago the scenario was completely different. So, what went wrong?

Parks vs ‘beautification’

Public parks have become emblematic of a better quality of urban life in many countries around the world. Yet, there are many criticisms of the manner in which such spaces have been constructed. For example, in the United Kingdom, ecologists warn urban planners against reducing wildlife through the beautification and modernisation of parks and other natural habitats. The same is happening in Dhaka.

Urbanists are calling Dhaka apocalyptic and nightmarish.

Trees at Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Udyan are witnesses to the Pakistani forces’ mass surrender in Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War, and when news spread in May 2021 that hundreds of trees at the historic ground were being cut, it caused a public outcry. The trees were to be razed to the ground for the Swadhinata Stambha construction project (which is in its third phase now). This project, jointly run by the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs and the Ministry of Housing and Public Works, will build sculptures where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave his famous speech of 7 March, and where the Pakistani army surrendered on 16 December 1971. While these memorials are needed, environmentalists do not want the uprooting of trees. A petition from six environmental and legal bodies has been sent to the High Court to stop the mass cutting of trees in the guise of beautification and memorialisation.

Why is there such an uproar about this? Suhrawardy Udyan is located in the heart of the capital and is one of the country’s oldest and biggest parks. On its other side is the equally magnificent Ramna Park. Over the last two decades, these parks have lost much of their greenery. Many other small parks throughout the city have been ‘modernised’ by shrinking open spaces or have vanished altogether due to urban growth. An investigation by The Daily Star in 2016 showed that at least 10 of the 54 surviving parks in Dhaka were uprooted to make way for concrete structures such as event centres, market places, prayer halls, repair shops and truck parking lots.

We found at least three city playgrounds which bore the brunt of so-called development work. One ground in Lalmatia’s D-block has been closed for over a year, depriving local children of their open place to play. It is a similar situation at a park in Gulshan near Niketon Housing Society. In Shyamoli, city corporation authorities shrunk the space of a field by building concrete seating steps. Due to lack of space, many local adolescents now choose to sit in circles there and are seen busy with their mobile phones instead of playing.

While Dhaka is undoubtedly contributing to the country’s fast economic growth, many fear the city’s poor environmental conditions might cause its collapse.

Often, the beautification projects promise afforestation, as seen in the case of Osmani Udyan, another major park in Dhaka, named after General MAG Osmani, the commander-in-chief of Bangladesh forces during the 1971 Liberation War. The project started in January 2018 and was supposed to end in ten months. After more than three years, no end is in sight. The authorities have said that there will be a car park and many such amenities with the planting of more trees before the completion of the project. But experts pointed out that cutting down old trees and replacing them with new seeds or saplings cannot be the answer. Existing trees support an entire ecosystem. So, chopping down an old tree means throwing a community of animals and microorganisms in harm’s way, affecting the nutrients in the soil and the airflow in that region.

This phenomenon is not limited to Dhaka but part of a wider global issue around deforestation. In the last few years, almost all parts of the world have faced extreme weather conditions like heat waves, droughts and floods. Knowing the right type of trees is also important because most foreign trees which have been chosen for beautification in different parts of Dhaka are aesthetically appealing but have not served any purpose for social or environmental gains, the experts added.

The price of modernisation

So, what happens when park spaces are shrunk or get modernised? Parks are among the best public and open spaces for city dwellers to grab a breath of fresh air. In parks, children and youngsters can play, the elderly can walk or jog. They provide refreshment and entertainment to people of all classes, gender and ages. With the reduction of them, people are stuck within the four walls of their homes. This is especially harmful to young people who need to play and run for their emotional and physical well-being.

In cities of Bangladesh, it was a common sight to see young children playing cricket on the streets even if there was no field or park nearby. These children are now disappearing from the streets, especially in the urban areas dominated by middle to upper-class residents. It is clear that there should be more designated places for young people to play.

A petition from six environmental and legal bodies has been sent to the High Court to stop the mass cutting of trees in the guise of beautification and memorialisation.

Another reason why fewer children are seen in parks is the opening of indoor play and gaming stations, which are often pricey, but parents pay the cost out of concern for the safety of their children. There are indoor gaming zones in big malls like Bashundhara Shopping Complex and Jamuna Future Park, and other smaller ones in Gulshan, Dhanmondi, Mirpur and Uttara areas of the city. Each ride costs about BDT 50 on average, meaning an hour-long stay there can take up to BDT 300-400. Parents also take children to fast food outlets where they have small but designated places for children to play while having a meal. However, not everyone can afford these.

Cities often witness appalling income gaps, and in Southasia, a large proportion of the poor live in urban slums and engage in low-income jobs such as cleaning, cooking or driving. These people live in crowded areas and prefer to stay out all day and only go home to sleep at night. Parks and public spaces in the city are more than simply means of recreation for the lower-income population because they provide shelter and a sense of belonging. Sometimes, they also provide a space for earning a livelihood.

Health complications

The artificial playhouses built by and for some sections of society cannot be a permanent solution because children need to play in the natural setting with trees, grass and soil. Being in contact with the bio-diverse soil strengthens people’s immunity. Microorganisms like bacteria, viruses and fungi, among others, though invisible to our naked eyes, are crucial components of our ecosystems. These microbes are not all bad; rather, trillions of microbes inside humans help with bodily functions such as digestion. Exposure to microbes in the air or soil boosts immunity, so being closer to trees or the soil means better physical and mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we need stronger immunity and, therefore, fresher air and greener spaces.

In almost all residential areas of Dhaka, shops and malls have mushroomed because they are commercially viable, whereas hardly any parks have been freed of illegal occupation, town planners pointed out. The old housing societies like Mohammadia Housing Society and Niketan Housing Society do not have parks or designated playing fields within their boundaries. There are, however, exceptional cases where importance has been given to free space.

At least 10 of the 54 surviving parks in Dhaka were uprooted to make way for concrete structures such as event centres, market places, prayer halls, repair shops and truck parking lots.

For example, the DOHS (Defence Officers’ Housing Society) projects usually have large, well-maintained playing fields. The DOHS is a gated community for retired defence officers, but civilians can buy apartments. New housing societies or “model towns” like Bashundhara Residential Area and Purbachal Model Town, which are in the city’s expanding areas, have more open spaces and thus designated playing fields for the residents.

In the meantime, screen time is taking a toll on children’s health. Citing a study titled “Is physical inactivity associated with depressive symptoms among adolescents with high screen time? Evidence from a developing country”, a reporter of The Daily Star noted that thousands of teenagers in Dhaka city were at risk of depression and other health problems. The report quoted the mother of a teenage girl who said, “My daughter used to be an outgoing kid. But in the last few years, she apparently lost her interpersonal skills and became grumpy. Doctors say it’s because she doesn’t interact with other children much. She wouldn’t let go of the computer and other smart devices and go out to play in the yard”. The 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has also shown how this is a global concern.

Environmental problems and liveability

One major environmental issue in all cities is pollution, and Dhaka is no exception with the city becoming infamous for the presence of lead in the air during the late 1990s. The two most polluting sources affecting the city are vehicular traffic and the presence of brick kilns on its outskirts. Some state measures, such as the replacement of two-stroke engine taxis with CNG taxis (compressed natural gas), reduced the levels of pollution from these sources in the early 2000s. However, the pollution level is still high. Recently, there has been debate over high levels of methane gas being emitted from the country. Citing satellite images of a data analytics company called Kayrros SAS in Paris, Bloomberg has recently reported that clouds of methane gas appear regularly over Bangladesh. Bangladeshi scientists have contested the claim saying that there is no proof of this. Some have added agricultural activities and leaky pipelines in neighbouring countries as the source of the gas. On the other hand, loss of vegetation means a lack of rainwater penetration and preservation in the soil. This is increasingly causing groundwater levels to fall in cities where drinking water is already in short supply. According to the Global Liveability Index 2021, a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka is among the ten least liveable cities (ranking 137 among 140 countries surveyed). The study has considered five factors: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure, according to The Guardian. Though Dhaka has done better, improving its previous positions (138 in 2019 and 139 in 2018), the progress is at a snail’s pace. Karachi, another Southasian city which is also among the ten least liveable, is doing better than Dhaka by holding the 134th position. Interestingly, this study has included culture and environment factors in one category which may look odd, yet increasingly there is a consensus that the two are intrinsically related and crucially dependent.

Parents take children to fast food outlets where they have small but designated places for children to play while having a meal. However, not everyone can afford these.

The availability and maintenance of open and public places are integral for a healthy urban environment. Often, natural spaces are modified and restructured for giving a better experience to people. For instance, lakesides or riverbanks are open public places where benches and steps are built for people to sit and relax. However, in this process, authorities should not impinge upon the natural environment. Not only the authorities but the public must also take responsibility to protect public places. Everyone must be careful not to litter or damage the property. Local administrators can take initiatives to install garbage bins and toilets, and people should be educated and encouraged to use them.

Lack of security in such places, especially at night-time, is an issue in Southasian countries. People are mugged, women are assaulted, and other criminal incidents occur, leading to closure and prohibition of public entry to these places, as we have seen with the recent restrictions in the premises of Dhaka University, which have been historically known as centres of public life and cultural activities.

Urban planners and solutions

Urbanists are calling Dhaka apocalyptic and nightmarish. Not only Dhaka but other major cities in the country are also witnessing diminishing greenery. Sanjoy Roy, a researcher and GIS/RS analyst, has observed how the greenery of Sylhet was reduced by half between 1995 and 2016. Abul Kalam, a professor at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Jahangirnagar University, writes that a global city must be sustainable and this “sustainability is the simultaneous improvement of the economy and the environment”. While Dhaka is undoubtedly contributing to the country’s fast economic growth, many fear the city’s poor environmental conditions might cause its collapse.

Urban planners have offered different ideas to build human-oriented architectural structures in cities, and the successful implementation of such initiatives are only possible with the support of the state, as seen in the case of Singapore’s “garden city”.

Although public opinion about Dhaka is that it is becoming a concrete jungle, one expert on architecture, Hassan M Rakib, Senior Research and Design Associate at the Bengal Institute of Architecture, Landscape and Settlements, commented that while there are many open spaces in Dhaka, the main problem lies in their poor accessibility. Many of these natural open spaces are in the fringes and, as mentioned before, not all open and public places inside the city are green. Therefore, even though there are open spaces in Dhaka, there is a scarcity of greenery, primarily large trees, which are more environmentally beneficial.

Bloomberg has recently reported that clouds of methane gas appear regularly over Bangladesh.

According to Rakib, though there was no acknowledgement from the government about these issues, there is some awareness and gradual planning. However, given rampant corruption, how many of these plans actually make their way through the bureaucracy and see the light of the day?

If expert suggestions are heeded, then spending should be increased, and local stakeholders made to become more involved and responsible. Additionally, there should be more investments in environmentally sustainable solutions to reduce floods and protect urban wetlands which could give the city green spaces beside lakes and canals in the city. Urban planners have repeatedly stressed the importance of Dhaka’s topography which is low and marked with water bodies.

Land pooling or readjustment, where landowners give up some of their lands to develop shared amenities like streets and open spaces in exchange for other benefits, could be initiated by the state. This idea has been popular in countries like Japan and South Korea.

Bangladesh itself has an example in Rajshahi, which is recognised nationally and internationally as an eco-friendly city. First, they promoted substitutes such as batteries and gas instead of fuel for vehicles. Next, they moved the brick kilns away from surrounding areas, and finally, they planted trees over the years. These measures have reduced pollution in Rajshahi and, with an improved waste-management system and an ‘official’ park by the river Padma, the city is cleaner and healthier than ever. It was awarded the National Environmental Award in 2013 as well as the Environment Friendly City of the Year in 2020.

Even within Dhaka, the Dhanmondi lake and connecting park is an excellent example of green space which is accessible to people from all walks of life and serves different social demands in the neighbouring area. It has modern structures like food kiosks and walking bridges, but the park has retained its natural ambience. However, there needs to be more of such places in the city.

While the task of achieving this in Dhaka seems gargantuan, the urgency to do so remains for the city dwellers who have no respite from the heavy traffic, sweltering heat or smoky air choking them. With the loss of parks and decreasing greenery, it is turning into T S. Eliot’s “unreal city”, as mentioned in his 1922 poem, The Waste Land. In this wasteland, the children of tomorrow will feel betrayed unless immediate steps are taken.

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