There are quite a few people in Dhaka. The city itself, located in central Bangladesh on the eastern banks of the Buriganga River, has a population of nearly nine million, while the Greater Dhaka Area is home to about 19 million people. That’s just more than 23,000 people per square kilometre.
"The city is growing faster than we can come up with ideas [to deal with this growth]," Dhaka-based architect Marina Tabassum told me at Al Burda Festival in Abu Dhabi this week, where there was a series of discussions about the future of Islamic art and culture.
And the population of Dhaka is only going to increase. There are jobs there. In 2016, the World Trade Organisation reported that Bangladesh had a 6.4 per cent global share of the clothing market. Nearly all of the factories are in Dhaka.
"These factories are like magnets," says Ms Tabassum, who won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2016 and the Jameel Prize in 2018 for her design of the Bait ur Rouf mosque. "They pull people from all different parts of the country to Dhaka, where they live in a dire situation. This was not necessary."
A policy of decentralisation, Ms Tabassum argues, could have relieved the pressure on Bangladesh’s capital. “[We could] have taken certain things out of Dhaka, grown one city, let’s say in the north, as an education city,” she says. “We have two major port cities, so even the garment industry could have been taken out of Dhaka. There is no reason why [the factories] should be in Dhaka. It is only because the owners live there.”
As a result, factory workers in Dhaka are being forced to rent single rooms to share with their families. “It’s really sad and crazy,” says Ms Tabassum.
Of course, a shortage of housing is not the only problem that arises when such a large population is crammed into a relatively small area. The infrastructure of a city also becomes overwhelmed. The traffic in Dhaka is some of the worst in the world. Ms Tabassum explains that 3.2 million man hours are spent waiting in the congested streets of Dhaka each day. “It’s such a waste,” she says. “Mass transport would really help us.” The Dhaka Metro Rail is currently under construction and due to open in 2019.
Ms Tabassum is also concerned that the number of people in Dhaka will have an impact on the history of the old part of the city. “The buildings in old Dhaka are mostly privately owned, so unless the government makes an acquisition, it’s impossible for them to do anything about it,” she says. “Everybody wants to have apartment blocks, you cannot help that, people want a better life. But I think at least part of the architecture can be preserved for the sake of history.”