In less than a year, world leaders will meet in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito to map out a fresh urban strategy for the coming two decades. The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development or Habitat III is expected to come up with pledges as well as obligations, thus shaping up the new Global Urban Agenda. The conference series, launched in 1976, is intended to deepen international political commitment to "sustainable urbanisation."
The summit, scheduled for October 17-20, 2016, bears extraordinary significance. It comes at a time when a clear majority of the world's population inhabits urban areas-a historic shift. And it will be the first major international gathering after the UN's SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) summit in New York in September this year and the ongoing Paris negotiations on climate change -- both having recognised the importance of cities of the future that are "inclusive, safe, productive, resilient and sustainable."
Does the new agenda have any bearing on Bangladesh? The answer is a resounding yes. Bangladesh's 7th Five-year Plan has laid out a vision for "compact, networked, resilient, competitive, inclusive and smart," vision that is broadly consistent with the international goal. Certainly, stakes are high for a country like Bangladesh, the third most urbanised nation in South Asia after Pakistan and India. Indeed, the country has witnessed the 'steepest' rise in urbanisation in the region over the past half century.
Urban areas produce as much as 60 per cent of Bangladesh's GDP (gross domestic product). The country's export-oriented garment industry has prospered in the two biggest urban agglomerations. All these make a robust case for maintaining the urban momentum. International experience suggests that no country has attained middle-income status without being at least 50 per cent urbanised. And in high-income countries, 70-80 per cent of their population live in urban areas.
One case in point is Dhaka. The mega city may be derided as the dirtiest on the planet. No worries, English poet P.B. Shelley once likened London city to 'hell'.
Still, the capital city is the most productive and dynamic urban centre of the country. With its population three times that of Chittagong, Dhaka is a primate city generating 36 per cent of the nation's annual economic output. While all urban areas deserve to get same priority, the World Bank has singled out Dhaka metro as an 'asset' in the country's effort to achieve the middle-income status by 2021.
That said, cities-especially mega cities where population is one million or more-beget mega problems, creating social tension, while exacerbating inequality. Cities are the biggest emitters of carbon, but they are also the most vulnerable to a changing climate-a real paradox. Dhaka is no exception. The mega city is beset with numerous problems-haphazard growth, congestion, deteriorating law and order, unreliable utilities, environmental decay, housing shortage, slum proliferation, excessive migration, poor governance and the looming threat of a changing climate, to name a few.
Lack of mobility is one issue enough to give one a sense of the mega city's myriad problems that threaten to outweigh its competitive edge. Dhaka's traffic is one of the slowest in Asia, even if it is one of the least-motorised cities in the continent. One estimate puts the cost of Dhaka's traffic congestion at US$3.0 billion in 2010.
Disillusioned with its deteriorating liveability, some suggest developing intermediary cities instead. This idea sounds like chopping off one's head to get relieved of headache. The challenge is to manage the migration process better. Progressive thinkers believe that an efficient Dhaka would be better able to manage the process of in-migration, while creating space for absorbing more migrants. In fact, Dhaka is growing far below its potential due mainly to its messy governance and uncoordinated services provisioning.
Historically, large-scale movement to cities is an integral part of the transformation countries go through as they grow at a rapid clip. In the last 50 years, manufacturing and services have been dominant in countries that sustained their economic growth at 7.0 per cent for a quarter century or more. As the Growth Commission report puts it, "No country has ever caught up with the advanced economies through farming alone."
It is a million dollar question: Can we ever make our cities attractive to live in? A jumble of to-do lists indeed: proper urban planning, sound law and order, better basic services, functioning drainage and sewerage system, good public transport and a sophisticated financial system that can finance building these infrastructure.
Given our weak financial firepower and governance track record, replicating Singapore model is not feasible, but in a sense ludicrous. What the country can and should do is to learn from experiences of cities in countries with similar or near-similar conditions. Ideal examples could be Bogotá or Bangkok, which may offer crucial lessons for us if we want to pave a brighter urban future.
The forthcoming urban agenda will clearly influence the development priorities of the multilateral and bilateral donors. Time is running out. Bangladesh has not finalised the urbanisation policy drafted back in 2004. Nor has it submitted the final country paper to the Forum secretariat yet. Making sure that Bangladesh's voice is heard in the Habitat III forum is the responsibility of the government, even though the potential Quito agreement is non-binding. The cost of negligence will be colossal for a country that is urbanising at an incredibly faster pace.