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Rethinking Public Spaces in Dhaka: an Urban Design Scheme

Category: ⚐ EN+city+design+dhaka+movilidad+urban social design+urbanism

Introduction: the Dhaka City Neighborhood Upgrading Project

During our trip to Dhaka, the last march, we wandered through public spaces and we experienced what it is like to be a pedestrian in one of the densest megacity of the world. Our assessment was clear: the capital of Bangladesh really needs to improve its public spaces. Because of the city’s urbanization pace, public spaces tend to be approached as an afterthought and become the residual and scarce space between the buildings. And, as such, it is usually lacking the most basic comfort, accessibility or healthiness.

Public place, however, is one of the most valuable assets of every city. A common ground where public life finds its way regardless of the economic or social status of its inhabitants. That inclusiveness is the basic condition for providing quality of life and equity, especially in a developing city like Dhaka. As we explained in our previous article “5 things you can do in Dhaka´s public spaces”, public spaces host a wide mix of uses. For the poorest in Dhaka, public space is also a place of livelihood, one of the only resources available for a large part of the population. They use public space as an extension of private space or as a place to make commercial exchanges, to organize public or private events, to do sports or to meet with friends, among many other uses.

In Dhaka, public spaces are inconsistent with their uses and don’t meet the inhabitant’s needs in a supportive way. Thus, through the Dhaka City Neighborhood Upgrading Project, we took on the challenge of rethinking public space and adapting it to the context of a dense developing megacity. The resulting combination of general principles, specific design guidelines, and sub-project maps is what we refer to as an Urban Design Scheme within this project.

Urban Design Scheme: A new typology of public spaces

The focus of this project is to invest in what is sometimes seen as the last priority in the urgencies of developing countries: public spaces. It focuses on the rapid improvement of streets, open spaces and public buildings. The proposed strategy has three main drivers: maximizing the benefit for disadvantaged communities, leveraging on the specific potentials of each place, and enhancing connectivity and capacity of building a larger system. Each intervention is considered in connection to a coherent network, as a way to scale up the impact of the proposed improvements in the daily urban experience of Dhaka’s citizens.

According to these goals, we proposed to rethink three typologies of public spaces:

  • Comfortable streets
  • Natural Open Spaces
  • Active buildings

In order to turn this “framework approach” into specific proposals, around 70 sub-projects have been identified: specific streets, open spaces, and buildings where these guidelines can be applied and tested during the forthcoming 5-year long implementation phase.

A map of the proposed locations and networks, colored by type.

Comfortable streets: Making urban space livable

At this project’s scale, which leaves out larger scale planning actions regarding complex aspects like traffic, the main challenge regarding the streets of Dhaka is improving their comfort and accessibility, especially for pedestrians, which most intensely suffer the current conditions. The “Comfortable Streets” approach seeks to improve climatic aspects, accessibility, safety, and walkability.

Recreation of a wide road with a “curbless” design, vegetation and urban furniture, improving walkability and comfort while respecting the flow of traffic.

Actions will vary depending on the dimensions, character and current situation of each street. Some streets will be newly developed, and others will be improved in certain aspects like pavements, sewage system, lighting or shading.

The general approach is to establish a “soft” delimitation of areas in order to improve safety and accessibility without completely denying the spontaneous flexibility of movements that can be observed in Dhaka. This is why, for example, we proposed a “curbless” design instead of creating elevated sidewalks… but that will be explained in our next post.

In order to improve resilience and mitigate floods, the proposal is to integrate passive water retention, drainage and infiltration systems in street sections. Another proposed action is adding vegetation to increase attractiveness, comfort, climate and the diversity of the local urban ecosystem. This natural shading will be completed with the installation of artificial shading (made of textile and/or bamboo structures) in several streets as a city-wide pilot project to evaluate their design, function, and maintenance.

 

Natural Open spaces: A more sustainable and resilient city

The scarce open spaces in Dhaka are one of the most valuable assets of the city. The “Natural Open Spaces” approach treats them as opportunities to reintroduce nature in the city, improving aspects like resilience through water management, air quality, attractiveness and general quality of life.

View of a Natural Open Space. A direct relation between the water and the street, and a strong presence of nature and people.

Under the definition of “open spaces”, different typologies can be differentiated: Playgrounds, parks, squares, ponds and jheels, and open spaces along the riverbank.

In order to create more continuous urban experiences and improve adjacent spaces, one of the first proposals is to remove walls and steps, connecting those spaces to the surrounding streets and between them, creating a network of public spaces at the scale of each neighborhood.

To increase the general quality of open spaces, they will be systematically equipped with urban services like public toilets, waste management facilities or drinking fountains.

The multiples jheels in Dhaka´s public spaces are an opportunity to integrate them as a unique landscaping feature and a system for stormwater management. Adding vegetation will increase attractiveness, comfort, climate, and biodiversity.

A flexible spatial design, combined with some permanent infrastructures and the installation of temporary structures, can support a greater variety of uses: street markets, small food and drink related businesses, meeting areas that enable sitting, resting or eating, sport facilities, play areas for children, open spaces for cultural events or for the concentration of big crowds, etc.

Active Buildings: Stacked public spaces with a rich mix of uses

In the highly dense urban center of Dhaka, there is a clear need for public facilities that enable the cultural, social and institutional life of the city as “urban catalysts”. Active Buildings are a new urban typology defined by the mix of uses, the sustainable design, the creation of open floors and the integration with urban services and public spaces.

View of an Active Building in front of a public space, offering flexibility, bioclimatic comfort and a sense of openness

These Active Buildings will be implemented in the existing network of community centers owned by the DSCC (Dhaka South City Corporation), and other buildings in vacant lots will be built.

Such buildings will permit the concentration of uses that could not find a place in the scarce public spaces and public building of Dhaka. Floors with permeable facades, shaded rooftops, and open ground floors will actually work as “stacked” public spaces with a higher level of comfort and security, making them accessible to children, women, elderly people, and other vulnerable urban collectives. These new public spaces will include sports facilities or areas for meeting and relaxing. Closed, more protected floors will host offices, libraries, computers and other equipment to enable educational, social or cultural activities.

One aim is to create more continuous urban experiences, by connecting the building with the surrounding spaces and the nearby streets. The ground floor will be left open, acting as a protected extension of the adjacent public spaces. It will increase the surface devoted to public spaces, enable a more flexible use and achieve more visibility and safety in the affected spaces, avoiding black spots. These new public spaces will integrate urban services like public toilets and waste management.

The buildings will be built according to bioclimatic principles, adding shading and vegetation on rooftop and facade to protect against the direct sunlight and to filter air pollution. Open floors and permeable facades will permit natural ventilation. Energy generation and water accumulation will be integrated at rooftop level in order to increase energetic sustainability and decrease their dependence on the city’s overloaded services.

Conclusion: Three Ways of Making Dhaka more livable

One of the main urban design related challenges in Dhaka was to think of new types of public places that can fit in the dense urban fabric of the city and meet the inhabitants’ needs. These three redesigned typologies of public spaces were proposed in the hope of improving comfort, security, sustainability, inclusiveness and several other aspects that can take a city towards the more general goal of livability.

In following articles we will dive into specific ways of approaching other important issues like traffic and walkability in congested cities, informal activity and use of public spaces, and gender inequality.

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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.

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Dreamhamar network of european workshops: The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture.

Category: ⚐ EN+arquitectura+dreamhamar

Copenhagen 5-9th september 2011

During one week master students and 3rd year students from the Royal Academy of fine Arts, School of Architecture in Copenhagen were working around dreamhamar project. The students were mainly from Denmark but there was an important amount of them coming from countries all around the world. There were students from: Australia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Chec Republic,
Island,…
The workshop was lead by the danish professor Frans Derniak and the ecosistema urbano partner Jose Luis Vallejo (@jlvmateo).
The main aim of the workshop was to experience public spaces in Copenhagen by directly acting on them and later extract the learning of the process and comunicate to Hamar citizens involved in the design of the new Stortorget Square. continue reading