Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
The capital of Bangladesh is spinning into an asphalt crisis.
When you stop by the bank, would you care to make a personal donation for a billion-dollar infrastructure project that had its World Bank financing cancelled due to widespread corruption? At any bank in Dhaka, you can.
Welcome to the capital of Bangladesh, the world’s densest metropolitan area.
Of the planet’s most populous cities, Dhaka is one of the least well-known. Though it is the world’s 16th biggest city, and the capital of its eighth-most populous country, Dhaka lies beyond the reach of our media radar. But it occupies several superlative positions, not the least of which is its exceptional crowdedness.
How dense is Dhaka? According to a July study by Demographia [PDF], its 15,414,000 inhabitants live within 134 square miles, giving the city a suffocating density of 115,000 inhabitants per square mile. Among the world’s top thirty metro areas, Mumbai is a distant second (80,100 psm), Karachi is third (66,800 psm), and fourth is Kinshasa, with 40,200 per square mile, or one-third the human density of Dhaka. Of all the world’s metro areas, only Hyderabad, Pakistan approaches the density of Dhaka, with 100,900 people per square mile, but the Pakistani city is home to only 2.8 million people.
The capital of Bangladesh is also the world’s third-least livable city, according to the rankings of the Economist Intelligence Unit. Last year it was #2, behind Harare, Zimbabwe; it jumped ahead of Lagos, Nigeria, after the inclusion of a new "spatial factors" analysis [PDF], without which Dhaka would have ended up dead last. (Those "spatial factors" prize density; in America, urban density is a coveted and elusive goal.)
In a density-focused analysis in New Geography by Wendell Cox, a professor and policy consultant who owns Demographia, Cox nominates Dhaka as a contender for the "worst situated urban area in the world." Dhaka sits above the river Padma (better known by its Indian name, the Ganges) and flooding is a persistent danger.
But the city's dilapidated roads are the dominant problem. Another superlative about Dhaka, via Cox: "Not only is Dhaka the largest world urban area without an urban rail system, it is also the largest without a motorway (freeway)."
Getting the roads ready last week for the Eid-ul-Fitr – the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan – was like "preparing for war," according to the Communications Minister Obaidul Quader. Speculation in the media about the state of the infrastructure grew so intense that Quader urged reporters not to exaggerate the condition of the roads. "Circulating propaganda creates panic," he said. "Many have informed me through Facebook that the bad condition of the roads portrayed in the media is incorrect."
The backdrop to all this is the World Bank decision to strip funding from the bridge over the Padma after Dhaka refused to review allegations of corruption. The $1.2 billion loan would have helped pay for a 3.9 mile bridge over the section of the river near Dhaka, currently traversed only by ferry. The entire bridge is projected to cost $2.9 billion and was one of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s key election pledges. The closest bridge over the river is a 2.5-hour drive to the north.
After the World Bank announcement, Hasina said the charge was a matter of national honor and accused the Bank of wanting “us to continue as guinea pigs.” But after an ambitious attempt to mobilize alternative resources, in late July she asked that the Bank reconsider, after the resignation of a top-level government official. Last Thursday the Finance ministry ordered all the country’s banks to open “collection accounts” to receive donations from Bangladeshis towards the construction of the bridge.
That same day, Shafiqul Alam, in an editorial in the Financial Express, “Planning for a Liveable City,” wrote that scatter-shot, short-sighted planning was to blame for the recent failure of the bridge project and the low ranking by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The city of possibilities, in other words, has become a city of curses and a wretched place. And lamentably, still, there is relentless pursuit of monetary profits rather than a recipe of careful planning and civic promise that can turn things around… A well-functioning city is carefully designed and planned and there is no shortcut to it.”