The new Dhaka Structural Plan (DSP) has been proposed with a vision of “Making Dhaka a Livable, Functional and Resilient Metropolis Respecting Local Socio-Cultural Fabric and Environmental Sustainability”.
Very nice! But the question is how are we going to achieve this and what are the ramifications of the proposed strategy? Ever since the proposed new building rules were made public at the end of October 2020, there have been worries and concern amongst the real estate developers and the landowners in the city of Dhaka. If the proposed building rules come into effect, the worst affected group will be the landowners because with reduced built-up area their land will surely be devalued.
The Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan (DMDP) was prepared in 1995 by RAJUK for the entire 1528sq.km area of Dhaka. It was a package of three plans- Structure Plan, Urban Area Plan and Detail Area Plan (DAP). The DAP is the third tier of the three state DMDP plan package. RAJUK took up the DAP project in 2004 and completed it in 2010. The primary objective of DAP was to implement zoning rules within the RAJUK area. Barring a few errors, the zoning rules have been prepared satisfactorily. An example of a common error is that land in the middle of the city which stands fully built up has been erroneously shown as a water body. Owners of plots of land who have fallen victim to such errors have suffered much in trying to get clearance from the Town Planning Department of RAJUK. Aside from such minor lapses, the zoning is clear and more or less logical. That being said, after ten years of enactment of the present zoning rules, it’s definitely time to review it. Large swathes of land in Dhaka Metropolitan Region are shown as “Rural Settlement Zone” and “Agricultural Zone”. With the pressure of population increase in Dhaka, it just does not make sense to continue with such classification of prime land in the metropolitan city. The biggest failure of the existing DAP has been in its enforcement. There have been rampant violations of the zoning laws and RAJUK has been a silent spectator of this debacle. The fact is that RAJUK just does not have the manpower or the infrastructure or the political clout to enforce rules.
The proposed building rules aim to reduce the built-up density of Dhaka. Dhaka Metropolitan Region has a density of 245 people/hectare which is indeed high. However, Cairo has a population density of 320 people/hectare and Mumbai is about the same too. The point is that it is unrealistic to compare our population density with cities such as New York or London. Dhaka is the metropolis of a country whose economy is growing at more than 8% per annum. This means that there is a huge migration of people from all over the country to Dhaka. I agree that the quality of life in Dhaka leaves much to be desired but I do not agree with the knee jerk proposal presently on the table which aims to make Dhaka more livable by changing the building construction rules.
From the newspaper reports we gather that there will be new height restrictions on the buildings being constructed in the city’s central area. Building heights will be limited from 4 to 7 stories depending on the area. This information in itself does not give a clear indication of the outcome. In 2008 we adopted the “Floor Area Ratio” (FAR) concept for determining the built up area and the thus the height of the building based on the permissible “Maximum Ground Coverage”. FAR is the most commonly used metric by town planners everywhere for controlling the built-up area. Ergo, if the authorities wish to reduce the built up area density of the city they can change the permissible FAR. For example, if the existing FAR for a particular area is 4, then for a 5 katha plot (3600sft) the maximum built up area would be 3600×4= 14400sft. Now if the city wishes to reduce the built-up density, the simplest way would be to reduce the permissible FAR. Thus, if the FAR were to be reduced to 3.5 then the permissible built up area would be 3600×3.5=12600sft. Then why talk about irrelevant metrics like the maximum permissible height of the building? While it is being proposed that the maximum permissible height of the buildings in different parts of the city will be between 4-7 stories, no clear indication is given about setback or the maximum ground coverage. So for the earlier mentioned 5katha land, under the present allowable maximum ground coverage of 50% and the height being restricted to 5storey, the permissible built up area would be reduced to 3600×0.5×5=9000sft. This would seriously jeopardize the interest of so many land owners in the city. These people would be the biggest losers of this new rule.
Apart from devaluing the most valuable asset of so many citizens, the vagary of the new rules puts the entire real estate development industry into a tailspin. Should new deals be signed with landowners without a clarification about what the new rules would mean? What if we sign based on the present allowable built up area and then the new rule suddenly comes into force and the built up area is reduced whereby the project is no longer viable? And what about the landowner who has 3 sons and has planned to give one apartment to each of his three children and keep one for himself but suddenly finds that now he will get one flat less? What if the said landowner is not agreeable to a reduced number of apartments in his share? Inevitably this would then lead to litigation. With all this uncertainty, many developers have put a pause on signing new deals till the situation is clear. What damage is this doing to the economy? The real estate industry contributes about 15 percent to the GDP of the country. For every month lost in this uncertainty the country’s economy is suffering a body blow.
The objective of our town planners is to keep the density to 300 persons per hectare. If we consider the fact that the actual built up area for residential buildings in our city is a mere 15 percent of the total space of the city after allowing for roads, commercial and retail spaces, educational institutes, parks and open spaces, transport hubs like airports and railway stations etc, then the present FAR rules of construction do not pose a threat to the population density of Dhaka.
If as stated in the Dhaka Structural Plan the objective is to “Make Dhaka a Livable, Functional and Resilient Metropolis” then the authorities need to focus on the real reasons why our city is gradually becoming uninhabitable. The problem is not with the current building construction rules; it is in the failure of RAJUK in enforcing the rules. There is scant respect for zoning laws as shown in the existing DAP. Industries are operating in zones shown as urban residential in the peripheral areas of the city. Schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, hotels and restaurants are operating with impunity without approval in the residential zones of the central city. Land grabbers are constantly filling up rivers and other water bodies under the nose of the regulators. Rivers which are the lifeline of our city are being killed by the dumping of industrial waste. We do not have safe drinking water and there is no proper sewage treatment. Garbage collection is a mess and there is no recycling. The roads in most parts of the city are dilapidated. Traffic control is a shamble with pollution spewing vehicles which should never be given fitness certificates plying our roads. The list goes on. In comparison to the suffering of the citizens due to the mismanagement of the city, the population density of buildings constructed within the ambit of the existing building rules is totally inconsequential.
We have a free market economy. Private sector residential development happens because there is a need for housing. If this development is curtailed, where will people find housing? The logic that curtailed development in the central city will push people to the outskirts does not hold water. The fact is that unlike the developed countries where suburban living is common, the road and transport infrastructure of Dhaka is totally inadequate to support a large number of people commuting to the city centre every day from the suburbs to earn their livelihoods. Even today the cost of residential accommodation in Savar and Gazipur is much lower than in the city center. Why then are people not settling in these suburbs and commuting to work in the city centre?
There is no silver bullet which will magically transform Dhaka to an idyllic city. The present line of thinking of our town planners is dangerous. Not only will it fail to create new developments in the suburbs because of the lack of an efficient transport infrastructure, it will curtail the real estate development industry. It will also cause acute housing shortage in the city while devaluing the prized asset of many landowners. Such major decisions should not be taken without consulting all the important stakeholders. The Institute of Architects has already voiced its concerns about the proposed plan. I am sure that the association of real estate developers (REHAB) will also have objections to this short-sighted proposal. Other relevant bodies like the Institute of Planners should also play a responsible role. An error of judgement on such an important matter can have very serious consequences on the future of the city that we love so much.