Urban Development
Strangers in their own yard


By Adnan Morshed


Dhaka's mental image that we conjure up is essentially one of streets delineated by unsightly buildings, jammed with mechanical as well as manual vehicles, battered by deafening noise and filled with thick clouds of polluted air. The abundance of dizzying visual, aural and olfactory stimuli effectively desensitises a person in his interaction with the environment, which in turn results in his withdrawal, mentally if not physically, from the environment.  By Adnan Morshed


Most of Dhaka's urban problems derive from some sort of scarcity - of urban infrastructure, such as power, water supply, roads, efficient and economic public transportation and affordable housing; of urban space for healthy and recreational public use; and of institutions supportive of a civil society, such as museums, archives and public libraries. But one of the capital city's most glaring urban pathologies, namely desensitisation of its inhabitants toward their physical surroundings, stems from an abundance of incoherent visual and aural stimuli as well as of olfactory hazards. While there are some very interesting, albeit disjointed, spots, niches and oases within its urban limits, such as Sansad Bhaban, TSC, Ramna Batamul, Institute of Fine Arts Department, etc., Dhaka's mental image that we conjure up is essentially one of streets delineated by unsightly buildings, jammed with mechanical as well as manual vehicles, battered by deafening noise and filled with thick clouds of polluted air. The abundance of dizzying visual, aural and olfactory stimuli effectively desensitises a person in his interaction with the environment, which in turn results in his withdrawal, mentally if not physically, from the environment. In the process, people fail to register any interest in this city's latent beauty. This mental withdrawal of people from participating in the nourishment of urban life - an urban phenomenon that can be termed psycho-spatial estrangement - is one of the city's most incisive yet hitherto uncommented-upon social problems. This psycho-spatial estrangement of an individual can be traced spatially in the increasing emphasis on individual buildings, disjointed plots, private worlds of multi-storied apartment buildings and, most importantly, in the loss of urban public space for healthy social interaction of the masses. In this article, I would like first to explore the concept of estrangement in socio-spatial terms and then to discuss some of its consequences for the urban life of Dhaka. Although it will be beyond the scope of this article, a study of the relationship between people's loss of empathy toward their physical environment and urban violence would be an interesting research pursuit.

To elaborate on the concept of estrangement or withdrawal, I would like to borrow a term, the blasť attitude, from the German sociologist Georg Simmel. Although Simmel's study was based on the spatial sociology of expanding European metropolis and its urban culture in the early 20th century, I find his concept useful in explaining some of Dhaka's recent urban phenomena and their social effects. Simmel defines the blasť attitude as resulting from the rapidly changing and contrasting stimulation of the nerves. A long exposure to an urban condition, fraught with disparate stimuli, makes a person blasť as it agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity to such a degree that they eventually cease to react at all. Inability to react to new sensations thus emerges, which leads, quite paradoxically, to an opposite adjustment. In other words, in an urban condition in which there are too many incoherent visual, aural and olfactory stimuli, a person tends to adjust to such a condition by not responding to it. Thus, a general sense of withdrawal ensues among people from existing urban conditions.

Applying Simmel's analysis to the urban context of Dhaka, we can explore this concept of withdrawal that seems to be a pervasive social disease, yet one that is inevitably rooted in urban spatial phenomena. Consider, for instance, an hour-long exposure to Gulistan at three in the afternoon on any weekday. The senses, especially those of sight and hearing, receive a non-stop influx of visual and aural stimuli in the form of billboards, shop displays, people, mechanical and manual vehicles, relentless honking and raucous loudspeakers. Such an exposure renders a person blasť to Gulistan - a peculiar adaptive mechanism. But how does this mechanism affect a person's spatial perception of Gulistan? Despite his active physical presence, a person is most likely to withdraw from this place mentally. The image of Gulistan is then ultimately crystallised not as an interesting urban node, but rather as an abyss of visual and aural chaos. A similar situation occurs at Farmgate and Nilkhet. Recent research on noise pollution conducted by the National Centre for Hearing and Speech noted that the noise levels measured at different parts of Dhaka were often hazardous; they varied between 68 decibels at Banani and more than 106 decibels at the Sayedabad Bus Terminal - way above the highest 60 to 65 decibels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The characteristic noise pollution of Dhaka is often exacerbated by the flurry of incoherent visual stimuli; inevitably, eyes turn into mere optical instruments for basic navigation through urban spaces. In such situations, mental withdrawal becomes a suitable, although socially almost perverse, defence against adverse urban conditions. An individual becomes estranged from the very places he traverses.

Withdrawal at an individual level becomes a ritual practice along the daily trajectory, from home to work. There are invariably no intermediary spatial and visual experiences - between home and work - that would replace a person's inclination for mental withdrawal from his physical environs with pleasurable memories of urban space. For example, a person going from Lalmatia to Motijheel by rickshaw rarely experiences any urban spatial qualities along his journey which enable him to perceive a coherent urban environment - the foundation upon which depends a person's ability to form the image of a place in his consciousness. By coherent urban environment, however, I do not imply a highly ordered, structured, sanitised and standardised summation of visual sights. A street may offer a kaleidoscopic range of visual stimuli, yet it can have the quality of being perceived as a coherent image in the mind of an observer. A coherent image gives an observer a sort of visual ease with which he can mentally order different visual items. To better understand this concept, we can perhaps invoke what the American city planner Kevin Lynch called imageability, which can be explicated as "that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, colour, or arrangement which facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. It might also be called legibility, or perhaps visibility in a heightened sense, where objects are not only able to be seen, but are presented sharply and intensely to the senses."

In his classic The Image of the City, Lynch considers not just the city as a thing in itself - a mere agglomeration of buildings and streets - but the city as perceived by its inhabitants. He argues that a city dweller's perception of a city spirals around the very basic urban elements, such as paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks; these are the foundational elements upon which depends a person's ability to orient himself, and, eventually, to develop a strong sense of the place. An edge, such as a riverbank, or a landmark, such as an historic monument, if visually or spatially complementary to the larger urban texture, is likely to augment a person's sense of direction and the ability to form a mental image. What Lynch implies is that a city dweller needs an orientation and a vivid image of his city in order to live with a sense of attachment and pride, without which he essentially becomes estranged from the very place he lives and is provoked to create spaces which would show the nature of his estrangement. At stake is a moral issue: this kind of estrangement or withdrawal, at an individual level, may often degenerate into collective urban ills. In Dhaka, this is commonly found in the proliferation of self-excluding private spaces, plots and enclaves at the expense of public spheres. A great many urbanists, sociologists and literati argue that a city's imageability lies in the nexus of its public spheres -urban squares, markets, streets, parks, eateries, landmarks, nodes, etc. - the co-ordinated organisation of which inspires creativity, hopes, and empathy among the city's inhabitants. Imageability is what Dhaka sheerly lacks, despite the presence of such admired oases as Sangsad Bhaban, Dhaka New Market, TSC, etc. The lack of imageability due to an uninspiring assortment of visual, aural and olfactory stimuli has resulted in a widespread culture of psycho-spatial estrangement among the city dwellers. The question then is: what are the urban consequences of this estrangement for Dhaka and its urban life? In my view, the estrangement or withdrawal of the individual appears in the inter-relationship of various spatial categories: the estrangement of the individual from the neighbourhood; the neighbourhood from the region of the city; and, ultimately, the region from the overall structure of the city. Dhaka has become a conglomeration of innumerable self-alienating private spaces of various sizes and scales. Everything is about that interior space within the bounded plot; no consideration is given to the streets and public spaces. Almost everything in this city revolves around a perverse concept of interiorisation of the individual or a business establishment or a group or an economic class. Most often the separation of such an interior world is enforced socially or spatially or even visually, namely, by a high fence. The recent boom in multi-storied apartment complexes in Dhaka is a case in point. The mammoth buildings, especially in Dhanmondi, are sprouting a new skyline with a total disregard for the existing spatial and visual environment as well as for the available infrastructure of this particular zone of the city. Dhanmondi's roads, water and power infrastructure were designed in the 1950s to support a projected size of population, housed, until recently, in its mostly two-storied buildings. These first-generation low-rise buildings are being demolished almost overnight to make spaces for a confused and confusing vertical growth. The culture of constructing multi-storied apartment blocks has ironically become a visual trope for the essentially estranged nature of Dhaka's urban life. General attitude of both the patron and the designer of a multi-storied apartment complex is one of creating for a few families a "safe" private haven - an interior refuge from a perceived harsh exterior, marked by environmental hazards, social anxiety and street violence. All their efforts and energies are spent in embellishing only that interior world; conscious attempts are made to alienate it from the very urban milieu of which it is a part. In the process, not only does the individual estrangement become spatially inscribed and socially enforced within the secure and policed boundaries of the apartment complexes, but also, more importantly, lost or eroded are the public spheres - the places where a city's true life resides, flows and flourishes.

Contradictorily, similar situations of interiorising occur also in public buildings, such as the National Museum at Shahbagh or the Eastern Plaza at Hatirpool; these buildings just sit around and occupy their allotted "plots" without any visual and spatial negotiation with their immediate vicinity. In short, Dhaka has become an assortment of private fragments and compartments. The fact that a city's urban spaces are a city's strength as well as its image-makers receives no serious attention. The urban spheres provide the people of a city chances to interact with others and make spaces for recreation, demonstration, strolling, gathering, vending, and so on and so forth. A city becomes liveable only when it provides a workable grid of public spaces. The Paris of Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Walter Benjamin, Le Corbusier and Sunil Gangopadhay is found not in the eccentric private world of the French bourgeoisie, but in the public places of the bohemian flaneur - to cite Baudeleaire's curious urban drifter. The New York of Alfred Stieglitz or Georgia O'Keeffe is essentially a collage of its urban public spaces. The visual and spatial qualities around London's great link of urban nodes - Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, Regent Street, Leicester Square and Big Ben/Parliament - are conducive to festive public gatherings. The point is that a city's identity, held as a collective image in minds of its inhabitants, rests on its very public spaces - the identity which makes people self-conscious of their city and, ultimately, their culture and heritage. Dhaka's recent urbanisation and city life not only fail to evoke any kind of image or to inspire the construction of an identity in which people can take pride, but also ensconce a culture of isolation, estrangement and apathy.

Even a cursory observation of Dhaka's recent urban growth reveals the essentially uncoordinated nature of this growth. Rajuk's Dhaka Master Plan embodies lofty hopes of expanding city limits but most often its agenda boils down to policing and prohibiting illegal structures around Dhaka. Neither Rajuk nor the Public Works Department (PWD) undertakes any micro-level urban design projects for the inner city which would enhance the spatial experience for both the pedestrians and people on the move. Such a project may involve redesigning an important urban node, for instance, the Farmgate area through which millions must pass everyday. Although it is a true urban intersection accommodating a wide range of markets, offices, transit stations, etc., the present reality of the Farmgate area, frankly, is a cataclysmic urban experience. The deafening noise, omnidirectional vehicles and a constant mass exodus make it a place only to escape from. The unplanned, monstrous and unsightly overbridge that hovers over Farmgate further aggravates the spatial experience. But an urban design of the place - by sensibly using material and colour, by analysing and designing various visual angles, and by carefully considering and controlling the flow of people and vehicles - could immensely improve people's experience of it. Only after a mature design of the place (of course, along with the control of air and noise pollution), may the estranged people who pass through it find it a pleasurable urban square. The addition of different street furniture, such as street lights, garbage containers, sitting benches, etc., and sculpture would only enhance its spatial and visual qualities.

Dhaka is in a dire need of urban oases where people can flee from the tyranny of visual, aural and olfactory stimuli. The estranged nature of the capital city's urban life today urgently warrants the reconsideration of that very urban life in terms of a conjoined discourse of place, aesthetics and ethics. The reciprocal relationship between place and ethics could not be overestimated in the context of recent Dhaka. A place inspires hope among people, which in turn nourishes the place. The inseparability of Plato's genius and the power of the Greek Agora must resonate today among the people who reckon with Dhaka's urban future.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Architecture at MIT, USA.......


Source: The Daily Star, 24 March 2000

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