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Being a pedestrian in Dhaka

Category: ⚐ EN+city+dhaka+mobility+urbanism

Stuck between a street vendor, his living hens and a rickshaw (first mean of transportation in Dhaka), trying to cross a four-lane road in the middle of an intersection among clouds of dust… being a pedestrian in Dhaka can look like a risky adventure. Ecosistema Urbano experienced it when we were in Dhaka for the Dhaka Upgrading Urban Project.

In 2016, Dhaka was the 11th megacity in the world with 18.237.000 inhabitants. In 2030, the UN estimate that its population will be around 27.374.0001 inhabitants. In rapidly growing megacities like these, with large, unplanned neighborhoods, both private and public spaces are affected by dynamics determined mostly by the pressure of the local and global economy. Public space, in particular, tends to be approached as an afterthought and becomes the residual (and scarce) space between the buildings, merely regarded as the minimum right of way and thus becoming hugely dominated by traffic. Due to lack of planning, parks, squares or boulevards are nonexistent, and when they exist, the spaces consist of bare land, often misused and treated as dumping grounds.

Walking is the main form of transportation in the Greater Dhaka Metropolitan area since 37,2% of the trips are made by foot2. However, this mode of transportation is far from being the safest. Being a pedestrian can be very complicated as one may encounters lots of obstacle through his journey.

Walking in Dhaka’s streets

The typical narrow street in Dhaka features a continuous surface. There are no curbs, and the whole street can be used either by pedestrians or by light vehicles without much conflict. One of the most noticeable problems is the quality of the pavement. Most of the streets are made of concrete, sand and dirt and become unusable during the monsoon. The only obstacles are the steps that give access to the buildings, which have different heights, and the open drainage channels (side drains). Inhabitants often put “homemade bridges” above them. Street lighting can be found in some streets, but not all.

By Jorge Toledo

A street with an uncovered side drain // An example of a “homemade bridge” above the side drain.

In wider streets, pedestrians have to share the street with trucks, cars, rickshaws and street vendors. In this kind of street, there are usually sidewalks, separated and elevated from the traffic lanes by a curb. Part of the traffic lanes and sidewalks are typically blocked by piled goods, stopped vehicles, construction rubbish and hawkers.

Invaded sidewalks in Lalbagh, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Dhaka Metropolitan city has approximately 388km of footpaths, 155 km of which are occupied by hawkers3 forcing pedestrians to step down the sidewalk and to use the traffic lanes where they must compete with cars for mobility space. There, they have to avoid parked rickshaws and streets vendors who sometimes also invade the road. Pedestrians have to step up and down the sidewalk to avoid obstacles. The elevated curb becomes an added barrier. Some streets can also be momentarily appropriated by inhabitants to organize events or for a mechanic workshop (see the previous article about “5 things you can do in Dhaka’s public spaces”).

Diagram showing pedestrian space in a street of Dhaka

Crossing the roads in Dhaka

Even if walking is the first mean of mobility in Dhaka, public space is not designed for pedestrians and is dominated by traffic. In some large avenues, there is no infrastructure to help pedestrians crossing the roads. In Attish Deepankar Avenue, for instance, pedestrians have to make their own way to reach the other side of the road. They have to cross several traffic lanes, separated by a central elevated strip, and a railway, avoiding several obstacles. By doing so, they draw small informal paths in the urban landscape that urban planners call “desire lines”. These desire lines can help urban designers to shape public spaces.

Desire lines crossing a street in Dhaka

Can you spot the desire lines?

Through the Dhaka Upgrading Urban Project, Ecosistema Urbano worked to improve liveability, accessibility and walkability in Dhaka´s public spaces. One of the challenges of the project is to make public spaces more accessible and visible, easier to move to and from and to increase safety for pedestrians. Some of the key actions towards this goal are:

Diagram showing a proposal for recovering pedestrian space in a street of Dhaka

  • Removing architectural barriers like steps, elevated curbs or open side drains whenever possible, in order to increase walkability and accessibility.
  • Widening or creating new pedestrian spaces.
  • Permeating limits, establishing visual and functional connections between spaces that are currently disconnected by the presence of physical barriers like walls. This specifically includes opening closed green areas to the surrounding streets.
  • Creating inner pathways in green areas or open spaces in order to enable more direct and comfortable routes for pedestrians.
  • Increasing visibility and protection of pedestrian crossings.
  • Adding greenery to increase attractiveness, comfort, climate and the diversity of urban ecosystems.

All these interventions are aimed to improve the pedestrian experience in Dhaka’s public spaces. Each intervention will be connected to a larger system or cluster. Public clusters, referred within this project as “neighborhoods”, are networks of public spaces or facilities created by connecting urban nodes with continuous corridors. Each urban node is a public space or a facility that could act as a driver for urban change. Those nodes can have different characters and uses: community centers, markets, playgrounds, parks, water surfaces and other singular spaces.

To know more about the Dhaka Upgrading Urban Project, read our next article next week about “An Urban Design Scheme to improve mobility in Dhaka”.


1. Bird, Julia Helen; Li, Yue-000316086; Rahman, Hossain Zillur; Rama, Martin G.; Venables, Anthony J.. 2018. Toward Great Dhaka : a new urban development paradigm eastward (English). World Bank Group.
2. Data taken from Dhaka Transport Coordination Board (DTCB), Ministry of Communications (MOC), Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Preparatory Survey Report on Dhaka Urban Transport Network Development Study (DHUTS) in Bangladesh Final Report (Appendix Volume). JICA, March 2010.
3. Data from the 2012 Strategic Transport Planning Report.

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5 things you can do in Dhaka’s public spaces

Category: ⚐ EN+architecture+city+dhaka+mobility

As a recent project has led us to Dhaka, we are starting a series of posts to share with you some key topics and observations about this very interesting city.

Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, is one of the densest cities in the world, with 18 million people squishing in 1,528 square km. The average density of the central area of the city has reached a staggering 41,000 inhabitants per square kilometer1. The city is considered one of the least livable cities in the world, ranked 137 out of 140 cities2 in 2017. It is the lowest for any South Asian city surveyed, because of, among other things, air pollution, severe traffic congestion, bad sewage system, hundreds of slums and regular river floodings.

In such a dense and crowded city, the inhabitants make the most of each square meter, making public space a truly multi-layered and multi-dimensional entity. Public space is usually described as an inclusive space, open to everyone, formed by a network of streets, squares and parks. In Dhaka, because of the lack of private space, public space becomes an outdoor extension of living and working spaces. The boundaries between private and public places get blurred because of the way they are being used. Public space becomes a livelihood asset, a channel of flows and a place for recreation and social integration.

Ecosistema Urbano was in Dhaka for two weeks on February of 2018 to study Dhaka’s public spaces within the context of the Dhaka City Neighborhood Upgrading Project (we will write about this soon) and we were amazed by the diversity and intensity of uses in public spaces. Here are just five examples of things Bangladeshi people are doing in Dhaka´s public spaces.

1. Get a haircut enjoying a garden view

Source: Google Street view

In lots of developing countries like Bangladesh, proposing services (or goods) to customers directly in the streets is a good and easy way to make money for people with low level of income, usually migrants. It does not imply any shop or financial investment. Get an old chair, a mirror and some shading and you can offer good and affordable haircuts to pedestrians. This form of entrepreneurship is less risky and more resilient than opening a formal business.

Informal businesses in Dhaka are a huge part of the city’s economy as around 5.000.000 hawkers are working in public spaces3. Most street vendors work on sidewalks, in traffic intersections or even parks or fairgrounds at all times of the day. They contribute an essential service to all socio-economic segments of the population by offering low cost goods and services at convenient locations.

2. Attend a wedding

An ephemeral installation for a celebration in Azimpur Road, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The lack of private and public indoor spaces results in an important need of places to meet and organize events. Inhabitants appropriate public spaces for private events like weddings or celebrations, building bamboo installations for shading and privatizing entire streets for private use. Streets become an outdoor extension of private space, a place for social interactions.

This is why, in every narrow corner of Dhaka, you can find a pile of bamboo poles waiting for their opportunity to become a cheerful shading for any kind of celebration.

3. Repair your car

Outdoor mechanic workshop, English Road, Dhaka, Bangladesh

It is possible to find everything you need in Dhaka, if you know where to look for it. In some streets, it is possible to find car, truck or rickshaw4 pieces to repair vehicles and even people who would help you for a few Bangladeshi taka. This activity takes place on the sidewalks, often invading the traffic lanes, worsening the traffic congestion, forcing pedestrians to walk among the traffic and reducing the effective traffic lanes by half their size.

4. Play cricket

A cricket game in a playground in Dhaka, Bangladesh

There is a lack of playgrounds, parks and gyms in Dhaka. In this dense context, every open space becomes an opportunity to play and to practice sports. As a result, open spaces host lots of activities like street vending, recycling, begging or playing. These places can have multiple uses during the day, and one of the most typical ones is playing cricket. Bangladeshi people are great fans of this sport, brought by the British. A pile of old tiles can delimit a cricket field and some trees or an old wall can provide shading for an audience, turning a bare plot into a sport field. Dhaka’s inhabitants develop resilient tactics to make the most of every square meter and to overcome the lack of recreational spaces.

5. A street art visit

Rokonpur girls high school, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Dhaka is considered one of the least livable cities, but some parts of the city can be more enjoyable than others. Some streets of Dhaka are very colorful, their walls taken by street art. This mural was made in 2014 during the FIFA World Cup by a group of 200 volunteers that transformed a regular street with a colorful space as a part of the Goal-E project to support their favourite football team. “Goal-E” stands for “goli”, a typical Bangladeshi lane. This kind of art is a way for the inhabitants of the neighborhood to reclaim public space and to appropriate the place.

Public space in Dhaka is a multidimensional entity: a space of appropriation, of socialisation, of exchange and a livelihood asset for the poor. All these uses of space are showing how resilient and creative inhabitants of a megacity can be. But public space is also the place for pedestrians, as 37.2% of the trips in Dhaka are made by foot5. In our next article, we will further explore the pedestrian experience in Dhaka.

6. And… a bonus

A goat? A butterfly? An angel?

You can indeed see strange things in Dhaka. Let us introduce you to… the goatterfly! This fairy-dressed animal, trying to find some food among the trash, sums up our impressions of this city: vital, complex, precarious and generally difficult to explain.

If you are curious and want to see more, we challenge you to dive into StreetView and let us know any other interesting situations you find.


1. Bird, Julia Helen; Li, Yue-000316086; Rahman, Hossain Zillur; Rama, Martin G.; Venables, Anthony J.. 2018. Toward Great Dhaka : a new urban development paradigm eastward (English). World Bank Group.
2. Ranking by Economist Intelligence Unit (2017).
3. Statistics from the Dhaka City Corporation.
4. Unmotorised light vehicle with driver
5. Data taken from Dhaka Transport Coordination Board (DTCB), Ministry of Communications (MOC), Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Preparatory Survey Report on Dhaka Urban Transport Network Development Study (DHUTS) in Bangladesh Final Report (Appendix Volume). JICA, March 2010.