Old jail area and challenge of urban space in Dhaka

Mahbubur Rahman | Published: 02:38, Oct 02,2016 | Updated: 13:38, Oct 02,2016


THE issue with the use of central jail area exposes our short memory. Sir Patrick Geddes, the father of modern town planning, advocated creating a park on the freed land in 1917. In fact, 1959, 1981 and 1997 plans for the city of Dhaka did suggest the same. As the much-hyped detail area plan based on the last Dhaka structure plan is there, it is only justified and legal to see that regarding the use of this valuable land. There was a public presentation of draft DAP in September 2007 at Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha. Keen to voice a citizen’s conscience, I was dismayed to see that the consultant had proposed commercial use on the said land, even asserting that it has no historic value. It was instantly opposed in favour of keeping it as a much-needed open area for the Dhaka residents which should have later been adopted in the revised final version.

The central jail, originally a fort encircled by mud walls, was erected by Sher Shah on the outskirts of the then city. In 1602, Man Singh set up his garrison there; his entourage settled in between the fort and the Dhakeswari Temple, in an area that was, hence, named as ‘Urdibazaar’. When Islam Khan stopped at Shahjadpur because of rain and flood on way to Dhaka, he sent an advance party to repair the fort in order to make it suitable for his court and residence. It is suffice to say that the central jail area is historically very important. The architecture of the Mughal secretariat including of a 40-pillar Diwani-i-Aam, later buildings, and other important uses and historic events during the nation’s thrust towards independence, have been elaborated in my book City of an Architect.

The most befitting reuse for the central jail area has been a popular architectural exercise in different architecture schools of the country. One of my friends in 1983 took this as his thesis and proposed a low-rise mixed use in an intimate scale that we usually associate with Old Town of Dhaka. Five years later, another architecture student took up the same exercise as his final project. Another attempt was made by a student under my supervision in 1992–93 at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. His proposal with symbolic contents was surrealistically simple. It had two bold premises and the postulations thereof, connecting Old Town with the new with an axis through the land. The axis originated at Sowari Ghat, connecting the Chawk — originally an open plaza surrounded by important structures such as the fort and mosque — through the Bara Katra. On the other end of it via the Central Shaheed Minar was a point in Suhrawardy Udyan where the Swadhinata Stambha now proudly stands.

The axis represented the city — starting from when it became a capital for the first time and till 1971. Islam Khan in 1610 landed near the ghat, Pakurtuli at Babubazar area, paraded by the outer periphery of the city, and reached the old Afghani Fort. This will separate 85 per cent of the land on the west, which he proposed to keep green, from the more historical east part with Purba Darwaza as a formal entry. This part had a mix of small-scale civic-cultural uses. The statement the proposal made was bold and definite, and unseen for years in a project at this level in any architecture school in Bangladesh. The project was exhibited at the Shilpakala Academy. But all such proposals, many of which are valuable and posses a high level of practicality in directing towards enhancing the amenities and liveability of the city, are never taken up to be implemented.

Public spaces, important assets to our cities, provide people with opportunities to come together and engage with the community. Successful public spaces are inclusive of the diverse groups cities have, creating a social space for everyone in society to participate in. Many human geography scholars have explored the interactions people have in the public space such as city squares, the social networks, and the connection they form with the space. Having social events such as music concerts or projecting sporting events on large screens are also a great way to get people to engage with one another — forming a sense of ‘togetherness’ in the space. This is a powerful way to create more positive environments for people to assimilate and come together as a society.

There are enough data to support the need for public spaces that improve the lives of city dwellers in many ways, like improving health, bringing people together, and offering places to break the stresses of urban life. Local economy also improves if public spaces are designed right as more people gathering means increased trades at nearby retail establishments, restaurants and coffee shops. But cities such as Dhaka, one of the worst liveable in the world, have instead ignored the urbanites’ need of better public spaces. For Dhaka residents, access to public spaces isn’t just an incentive, it’s a right too. These spaces need to be safe and offer a connection to nature. In fact, spaces offering this connection are often the most successful, bringing out higher numbers of visitors. Most liveable cities such as Vancouver and Calgary have done great at having public spaces to let users seek out the best of nature without leaving the city. Above all, our health and that of our cities depend on it.

As contexts change over time, use of this core city land need to be carefully re-examined and a proposal be made and executed, considering the history of the land, morphology of the surrounding area and its impact on that and need of the Dhaka residents. More importantly, the site provides an opportunity of lifetime to do something for the city that its citizens can be proud of. We have wasted such other opportunities with part of the old airport or the Sangsad Bhaban area. Here I could write several paragraphs or cite statistics in favour of having more public open spaces in Dhaka. But a reading of ‘Can city design prevent terrorist attacks?’ by Adnan Morshed, an architect, urbanist and architectural historian, published in an English-language daily in August would suffice. Below is an excerpt which is thought-provoking:


The city’s young needs playfields to exhaust their energy…. 

… how serious are urban administrators in Bangladesh about preserving neighbourhood playgrounds as a way to keep the youth engaged with city life and away from the dark underworld of nefarious indoctrination? About 52 out of Dhaka’s 90 wards (60 per cent of metropolitan area) have no access to parks or playgrounds; only 36 have some open space ranging from only 0.01 acre to 0.21 acre per population.

Have we thought about how neighborhood playfields would help create more Shakib al-Hasans and less Nibrases?

… where are our plazas, piazzas, malls, and maidans? Public places are where democracy finds a voice and a physical presence. Cities in Bangladesh have been experiencing unprecedented population surge. The demand for urban land is skyrocketing, leading to misguided policies of gentrification and a mastani culture of land-grabbing.

Experts recommend that a liveable city should have a minimum of 25 per cent of its area as open space…. Dhaka’s open space of only about 14.5 per cent is rapidly shrinking. Research has shown that without adequate public plazas — essential for a city’s democratic practices, recreation, and community-building — the anti-social instincts of city dwellers balloon.


Now we have 25 schools of architecture with several thousand students and about 3,000 professional architects practising in Bangladesh. Let us organise a two- or three-phase open urban design idea competition for both students (maybe from architecture, planning, history or any background from the nearly 100 universities) and professionals (who similarly could include architects, planners, engineers) or groups thereof. The first phase can be a one-day on-site design charrette; a brief can be developed from ideas of this phase. But such brief must include a symbolic representation, iconic structures, an open area, and mixture of small scale cultural uses.

Such participatory design approach will, indeed, contribute to the sustainability of whatever use that would be proposed and built in the area as a result, protected by the community and will remain as a milestone in the city’s history.


Mahbubur Rahman is professor and dean of engineering and design in the Kingdom University, Bahrain.

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