Did you know that less than 0.30 percent of land in all of Dhaka city is used for recreational purposes? This is according to the Regional Development Planning (RDP) survey. For those of us living in the ever-growing concrete jungle that we call home, the abysmal allocation of land for leisure activities will not come as a surprise.
An investigation conducted by The Daily Star in 2016 revealed that at least 10 of the 54 surviving parks in the entire Dhaka city had been replaced with community centres, kitchen markets, mosques, rickshaw garages or truck parking lots—that too, mostly by the city corporation(s) itself. Currently, Dhaka has 0.7 acres of open place for every 1000 residents—the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan states that the optimal allocation is 0.16 acres of open land for every 1000 people.
The latest park under threat is the Nababganj Park, located at Ward-23 of Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC). The park already houses two infrastructure—a one-storey building that is used to provide medical services, and another two-storey structure that serves as a gymnastic centre, library, community centre and the ward commissioner's office. Earlier this year, the DSCC labelled these two buildings as “risky” and forbade people from using them. While the community might have appreciated the city corporation's effort to renovate the unsafe structures, the announcement that a multi-storied building would be established replacing the park, angered locals and environmentalists.
And why not? The stark reality is that Nababganj Park has been serving as the only source of recreation for more than five lakh residents of Ward-23. There are no parks in Wards 24, 25 or 26 either—though there should be at least one park for each, as per the experts' suggestions.
Urban planner and the former chairman of University Grant Commission, Professor Nazrul Islam, highlights that every urban and regional plan must ensure adequate open spaces (depending on the size of the population). For example, the current Dhaka Structure Plan proposes 1.5 acres of open space for every 12,500 of the population. This means that for a population of 26 million, we need at least 22,360 acres—constituting six percent of the total area of the capital.
“Once a plan is made and a park is built, the municipality cannot make changes arbitrarily. If there really is a necessity, the whole urban structure plan needs to be changed accordingly, but with the direct participation of the public,” informs Islam.
What's an open space that's not… open?
Upon visit, a corner of the Nababganj Park was found “reserved” for WASA's pumping station in violation of the law. According to a law passed in 2000 (lengthily titled: Mega city, Divisional Town and District Town's municipal areas including country's all the municipal areas' playground, open space, park and natural water reservoir Conservation Act, 2000), “playfields, open spaces, parks and natural water bodies which are marked cannot be used another way, it cannot be rented, leased or cannot be handover any other use.”
If a service organisation, including the City Corporation, needs to build an infrastructure in a public property, it needs to purchase the land at the market price, informs Mohammed Salim, assistant secretary of an Old Dhaka wing of the environmental organisation Poribesh Bachao Andolon. “When we asked them, they couldn't give us any satisfactory answer. It is unfortunate that the regulatory bodies themselves are violating basic provisions,” he says.
The authorities claim that the multi-storeyed building—which will continue to house the commissioner's office and community centre—will provide much-needed amenities to the public. However, many locals as well as environmentalists feel that replacing an open space with a concrete building will do more harm than good.
“Yes, community facilities are equally important, but you cannot create a new problem while solving another,” argues Iqbal Habib, architect and Member Secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon.
Some local residents also raise questions about the decision to mark the existing community centre—which was inaugurated in 1999—as risky. Was it only done as an excuse to be able to do construction work in the park?
“We have another community centre near the park, which was built five years before this one. They could've demolished that and rebuilt it as the multi-storied building they are planning for community services. Why choose the structure in the park?” asks a local resident, Rafiqul Islam.
Ratul Ahmed, another local resident, is concerned about the environmental aspect. “If a community centre is built here, they must arrange food for large parties, and people will use the remaining open space to park their cars. People go to parks to enjoy the nature—how is that going to happen then?” says Ahmed.
“Besides, we are hearing that the Sadarghat-Gabtali road which runs along a side of the park is going to be expanded to accommodate four lanes. If this happens, the size of the park will be reduced any way, so why take up space for a building?” he adds.
Not all locals, however, oppose the move. Some believe that the addition of new facilities—as promised by the authorities—would add to the development of the community.
When contacted, Mohammed Humayun Kabir, Commissioner for Ward-23 informs that the multipurpose building will serve the needs of the community, with separate arrangements for sports for children and the elderly. When asked about the environmental aspects of replacing the park with a building, Kabir argues, “You cannot compare this park with the Suhrawardy Udyan or Ramna Park. We are going to implement the new project so that they can use it as a place to mingle with others.”
When asked about the commissioner's office, he admits that it might be there. “And we give the land to WASA, considering the necessity of local people”. “We were unable to manage a place for the pumping station,” he adds.
According to Advocate and Policy Analyst Syed Mahbubul Alam Tahin, the way the smaller-sized open spaces are in danger of encroachment is a matter of great concern. “In fact, the situation is so bad that in 2014, the High Court ordered the DCs to protect all the canals, playgrounds and parks of the country from illegal encroachment. But no significant changes have taken place in this regard,” he says.
The future of the Nababganj Park is easily foreseeable, if we look at some other old Dhaka parks that are almost disappearing in the name of development, like Narinda, Jatrabari or Bakshibazar Park. Having access to green spaces is a matter of equality—and it seems as if old Dhaka is getting the short end of the stick.