Is Bangladesh ready for its urban future?

31 October is “World Cities Day”—a global call to promote sustainable urban development by partnering to take on the challenges and opportunities that urbanization presents.

Today, at least one in four people in Bangladesh live in urban areas. And in 30 years, at least half of the country’s population will be living in cities. Dhaka is already the world’s most crowded city and its population size will double by 2030. Chattogram will emerge as a megacity with 5-10 million people. Narayanganj, Sylhet, Gazipur and Rajshahi will experience similar growth. Over this time, the country will see its 4500 Union Parishads convert into small towns

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These predictions are in line with 2018 UN estimates that more than half of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050. Globally, cities are emerging as platforms for production, innovation and trade. And more people are moving to tap into these opportunities.

But rapid urbanization is also resulting in unbalanced growth; to name a few key issues, targeting and reducing urban poverty, delivering public services and providing decent work for all is becoming more challenging. Climate risks are compounding problems. Cities are being forced to reconsider how these can handle the effects of both slow and rapid-onset disasters such as droughts, floods and river erosion. What will these mean for governance, finance or inequality in urban areas? How can cities become more resilient and sustainable?

Bangladesh is also facing these tough questions while experiencing the fallouts of unsustainable urban development. As a reminder, Bangladesh is among the world’s most climate vulnerable countries. 200,000 coastal residents will be forced to migrate with sea-level rise, according to recent studies. The majority will likely head to Dhaka or to neighbouring districts in the coastal region. Already, inequality is rising partly because there are not enough formal jobs to absorb growing urban populations.

Dhaka and Chattogram are under pressure as secondary cities are not growing as fast as the big ones. Affordable housing is another giant challenge as urban areas have a fragmented housing delivery system; this is resulting in a rapid growth in slums and informal settlements without no tenure security. Inadequate urban policies and lack of implementation are making the situation worse.

Despite the increasing significance of Bangladesh’s cities, the role that urban areas will play is neither widely understood nor fully recognized in public debate in the country. Municipal budgets tend to be strained and can depend heavily on government support. And even while more urban stakeholders are stepping in to tackle the challenges, work tends to be either siloed and uncoordinated.

Even then, Bangladesh can showcase good examples of urban development: in 2016, Rajshahi became a global model for tackling ambient air pollution in cities. Its efforts to clean up brick kilns and make the city greener were lauded and has had far-reaching impacts on public health.

Narayanganj have demonstrated how to become financially solvent. And, Jhenaidah municipality is determined to provide quality public healthcare and affordable housing to support low-income communities and help reduce urban poverty. Success stories such as these can inspire action for building resilience for more sustainable cities in Bangladesh. Next steps now should focus on replicating these home-grown solutions to the country’s urban challenges.

Bangladesh’s action on building sustainable and resilient cities will also have big implications for how well it meets its international commitments: the country is a signatory to the New Urban Agenda and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Discussions on these agendas emphasize on creating safe and inclusive cities so that no one is left behind.

As a promising start, in line with the SDGs, the Government of Bangladesh has already noted specific strategies and priorities for promoting sustainable urbanization in its 7th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). Now, the step forward should be to translate those commitments into action. To do so, Bangladesh needs it urban stakeholders—the government, communities, NGOs, urban activists and anyone with a stake in the country’s cities—to partner. Falling on 31 October, the World Cities Day 2018 presents an excellent opportunity for doing so to help build sustainable and resilient cities in Bangladesh.

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Ashekur Rahman

Ashekur Rahman is an urbanist currently leading UNDP’s urban development and poverty portfolio in Bangladesh. He has been in this sector over a decade with various national-international organizations in home & abroad and offers top quality policy analysis, cutting edge advisory services and implementation of programme strategies focusing on innovation, evidence and transformative results. He has extensive experience and success in managing high impact development projects, advocacy campaigns and policy reform initiatives. He is an Economist and well-trained in leading the change management, social protection, smart cities, urban governance and land use planning.
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