Talking Policies with Dr. Akhtar Mahmood : Episode 5

By Nusrat Hayat Khan

Reluctant Urbanism denotes a style of urban planning done as a reaction to adverse situations and demands, instead of being proactive and following an anticipatory approach. To delve deeper into this area, Youth Policy Forum’s flagship series “Talking Policies with Dr. Akhtar Mahmood” launched its 5th episode with the headline, “Reluctant Urbanism: Unpacking the Spatial Politics of Our Cities,” on 25th September, 2020. 

The guest speaker invited on this session was Mr. Adnan Zillur Morshed, a professor at Catholic University of America and the founder of BRAC’s Centre for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism, on its 5th episode.

On the Correlation between the Population Density of Big Cities and Covid-19

Appreciating the efforts made by Youth Policy Forum to ensure the participation of youth in policy discussions, Mr. Adnan Morshed began his discussion. He explained, it is not the density of population, but rather the lack of a proper public health and urban infrastructure that played a role behind the spread of the disease. 

On taking Lessons from Past Pandemic Experience

In 1850s London, there was a typhoid and cholera pandemic. From this pandemic, the modern sanitary infrastructure and swage system’s idea was born. Public health officials, social reformers and architects came forward to create a public health friendly infrastructure. 

On Reimagining Dhaka in the Post Pandemic Era

He explained that there is a dire need of investment in the public health sector. He emphasized on creating urban equity which will not only provide quality health care to the richer section of the society, but will also cater towards the lower class of the population.

To shed further light upon how we took an inequitable approach to formulate our urban planning, he presented the example of flyovers. “Although flyovers are necessary in a city, only about 3 million people, who own private vehicles are truly enjoying its benefits. But 30 to 40% people of the city commute to their destinations by foot. This is a discriminatory policy towards this section.”

On the Meaning of Reluctant Urbanism

Industrial revolution in Bangladesh took place in the 80’s, but we didn’t take any anticipatory plans and tactical intervention on how to deal with the huge population who moved to the urban areas in masses“- Professor Adnan Morshed explained. 

As its cause, he showcased an observation made by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on Algerian farmers. These farmers did not anticipate much about the future since their lives were centered round the routine procedure of the harvest cycle. Bangladesh too, as an agricultural country bears this mindset. 

On the Role of Spatial Politics

We can use spatial politics in both good and bad ways. For example, if we look at Gulshan, it has a definite policy frame work of its own. This is a differential treatment towards specific parts of the city and a type of spatial politics.

On his Book DAC: Dhaka

 “I included 25 such buildings in my book that would tell the evolutionary history of the city,” said Professor Adnan. He further added, “Through buildings like Aarong, Scholastica School, we can explain our changes in buying pattern and evolution of education system.

Regarding the limitation of Corporate Aesthetics, he said, “There was a time when corporate buildings were made considering profit maximization. They were constructed as big boxes to fit as much people as possible.

He also included, “Nowadays, the idea of making box like buildings have been discarded. They buildings now have community space, gardens, and are not heavily fortified.”

On Shifting the Capital of Bangladesh

Citing the example of Myanmar, Egypt and Indonesia, YPF’s policy network sought the opinion of Adnan Morshed on shifting the capital of Bangladesh. 

He replied, “I want to notify you that Myanmar and Egypt has a martial administration. We should not compare ourselves with them. They are trying to create a capitalistic and militaristic city. It does not support a democratic or people centric structure.” 

However, he emphasized on decentralizing Dhaka. Terming Dhaka as a “Primate City”, he called it the Himalayas, while comparing Chattagram to a small hill in terms of their contribution to GDP. 

On the Control of Mayors over Different Urban Planning Government Organizations

There is a lack of co-ordination amongst the different government organizations of the city. The city administration should try to bring these organizations under one umbrella,” said Professor Adnan Morshed. 

But if the mayor has all the central power, the risk of misuse of power rises. So we should rather focus on creating a public centered, resource conscious administrative system. 

On the Participation of the Public in Urban Planning

It was believed that the specialists know the most about what is the best for the people in the 20th century. But this idea has changed now. Now it is thought that the general people are more aware about the problems of the city. 

So we need to combine bottom up and top down approach in order for the city to become people centric,” said Mr. Adnan.

On Making Dhaka a More Women Friendly City

 “Although we are far ahead of Delhi in terms of Women empowerment, has it been translated to the urban setting?” He questioned. 

Despite Bangladeshi girls climbing Everest or getting international awards, women still cannot walk freely on the street without facing unwanted male gaze.  He requested Youth Policy Forum to initiate discussions regarding this issue.

On BRAC’s Center for Inclusive Architecture and Infrastructure

In 2017 when I came to BRAC University as the head of the architecture department, I observed that our teachers are stuck within the boundaries of their classroom”- Professor Adnan Morshed

 The architecture textbooks were written 30 years ago. So along with teaching the books, we need to get to the field. We need to incorporate reality into our teaching.  The main focus of this center is a broad classroom that considers this aspect of teaching.

Adnan Morshed concluded the discussion by thanking Youth Policy Forum for the insightful session. He also praised its unique youth based initiative.

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