Kim Dovey is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and Director of the Informal Urbanism Research Hub InfUr–. His research on social issues in architecture and urban design has included investigations of urban place identity, creative clusters, transit-oriented urban design and the morphology of informal settlements. He is a distinguished scholar in Urban Design and his books include ‘Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form’ (1999/2008), ‘Fluid City’ (2005), ‘Becoming Places’ (2010) and Urban Design Thinking (2016). He has a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and has served as Associate Dean, Head of Urban Design and Head of Architecture at the University of Melbourne.

TS + SK     The premise of this conversation isn’t that we’re looking for a Western scholar who has visited Dhaka to impart “expert knowledge”. Rather, we would like to hear your reflections based on your experience. We understand the limitations of the short visit and perhaps it is best to start there. What led to the Dhaka visit? Do you think Dhaka is important globally as a place for urban studies?

KD     I went to Dhaka because I direct a research hub called InfUr-, the Informal Urbanism Research Hub at the University of Melbourne, which is where we are trying to research a range of issues to do with the relationship between formality and informality in cities of both the global North and global South. Melbourne, despite being a long way south, is actually a kind of global north city in that global sense. It’s a highly formalized city, perhaps over formalized, in my view. We’re interested in studying highly informal cities such as Dhaka, perhaps, an over-informalized city. In order to do this, we are trying to build some collaborations and relationships, in this case with BRAC University and the Urban Development Program at BRAC.

TS + SK   How do you situate Dhaka in terms of its potential to study urban issues?

KD         Dhaka, in my understanding, is a city that is particular of its own kind, but is also not atypical of a range of megacities. It’s a very big city that has grown very substantially and where much of that growth has been in an informal manner. But perhaps we should define what informal means. In one sense, it is urban development that occurs outside the formal control of a planning scheme. The state puts in place a planning scheme and says that this is a residential area or that it has a particular street morphology and then the informal processes take over and a different kind of functional mix and land use emerges. Indeed a different kind of morphology often emerges if there are height limits and setbacks – they are often violated. Therefore, you get a very informal process layered on top of a formal process.

TS + SK      It seems that you are interested in that relationship of the formal to the informal. However, many people in Bangladesh would actively argue that functional mix is quite negative. They might use examples of the recent fire in Puran Dhaka, which I am sure you are aware of. The incident is largely seen as the result of unregulated informal mix of functions and therefore, you can notice a quest to sanitize the city, to formalize, to strip out uses into different parts. How would you counter that?

KD      The idea of functional mix is often seen as a problem in the over-informalized cities in the Global South, and yet is seen as something that there is not enough of in what I call the over-formalized cities of the Global North. The discipline of urban planning began in the early 20th century in order to solve problems of mix, such as noxious industries located right next to places where children are growing up or being educated. So there is such a thing as a dysfunctional juxtaposition of functions. You can’t have a steelworks and a housing project adjacent to each other. So that there are many legitimate reasons to separate functions. It’s just that urban design theory in the West since Jane Jacobs, the famous urbanist in the 60s, has moved decidedly towards the idea that a mix of functions is a necessary part of every city.

This doesn’t mean that all forms of functional mix are good. She wasn’t arguing that. She was basically saying that the modernist ideology in urban planning was the notion that there is a place for everything, which led to planning with zoning maps. This ensures that if you have a residential area, then there aren’t any shops or schools and that if you have an industrial area, then nobody is allowed to live there. While it is important to stop the potentially wrong kind of uses together, in the end, separating everything was paralyzing the city, causing dysfunction and interrupting the walkability of the city. It was entrenching car dependence. This enabled the suburban ideology, where people might want to live with a garden and a bit of space and a garage for their car and maybe two cars. This, at least in the rich cities of the West, has led to a situation where you end up living in one place, working in another and shopping and doing all the other stuff in a third place. Then, you need a car to get between them or at least becomes difficult for public transport to work in those cities. The separation of functions creates more traffic.

But it’s not only about the kind of functional mix. It is also about the density and about access networks just. It is about what I call the urban DMA, the assemblage of density, mix and access that all comes together and lies at the heart of how effective cities operate.

TS + SK     You had a cross-sectional tour from Puran Dhaka to North Dhaka. And then you have visited particular segments like the Geneva camp, which is co-located with an ethnically different neighborhood with particular tensions. How would you characterize the fabric of Dhaka from your experience?

KD       Dhaka is very diverse, so I don’t think there’s much you can say about Dhaka as a whole. It is a mix of lots of different neighborhoods of different character. We often think of urban mix in the city in a singular way, only in terms of the different uses (the functional mix). But in reality, the functional mix is linked to a mix of urban forms. A shop is a very different kind of a building than a residence, it has a different street interface than a residence. So you get a mix of forms in the city as you get a mix of functions as well. Then there is a social mix that is layered on top of that as well. All of these mixes are important and the mix of mixes becomes important.

The social mix is really a mix of different social classes and ethnicities because a good city will have multiple people from different backgrounds and people with different levels of resources all sharing the same space. Every neighborhood in the city needs people who are willing to take low-paying jobs as well as high-paying jobs and you want a mix of those. You do not want to see a city that is segregated into the rich and the poor, or into Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and so on. Otherwise, you exacerbate the tensions between them. One of the things that struck me about old Dhaka was the mixing of Hindu and Muslim cultures in old Dhaka, which was not true in many other parts of Dhaka.

TS + SK    Let’s bring back the concept of urban planning and its clear stance of being very much in that formal side of how cities evolve. How can you come to a balanced mix between the formal and informal in such a formal planning and managing process of cities like Dhaka? How do you “plan for spontaneity” with the current tools of the planners, the zoning map, the endless codes and all of that.  There seems to be a gap between that knowledge as a body of theory as opposed to how that Dhaka is working. Is that a fair assessment?

KD      I think it is really important to acknowledge the real city – Dhaka is a highly informal city. So often as a planner, you treat the city as if it were formal and you put in place a formal plan and then you’re surprised that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because you have mis-recognized the city. If the city has a very large informal aspect, then you need to acknowledge that and not just seek to erase it because all cities have a mix of formal and informal.

 I don’t know the research on Dhaka in particular, but it’s often the case that the state makes decisions about which kinds of informality will be tolerated and which kinds will be erased. The state draws a line and declares that some parts of the city will be an exception to the rules, for example the “middle-class informality” of a few extra unsanctioned floors in Gulshan might not be noticed but an informal settlement might be evicted.

The big question is how does and how should the state operate? There’s no easy answer to that. I don’t have a formula for the right mix of formal and informal. However, I do think that recognizing the way in which the city is actually working, not from a planner’s god-like view, but from an average citizen’s everyday life, is really the first step. Let’s just take street vending (hawkers) as an example. The state may come in and say that “we’ve got all this informal trading and it’s illegal. Only those people who own shops or rent shops are going to be able to trade. We will just get rid of the street vendors.” You can clear the streets for some time, but they will return, because again you have mis-recognized the problem.

You will push them around the city but not get rid of so-called illegal street vending because for those people this is their livelihood. It is also the livelihood of all of those people who trade with them. That is where they get their food and all things necessary at a more affordable price. So there’s a whole economy that relies upon the informal trade. That is precisely why you won’t wipe it out and you can only push it around and harass it. You will reduce its effectiveness and you will damage livelihoods. So the first thing you need to do is to know how it is working and then work out some kind of negotiated outcome that does not cause undue harm to the city.

Informal trading making Dhaka affordable and vibrant | Courtesy: Kim Dovey
Informal trading making Dhaka affordable and vibrant | Courtesy: Kim Dovey


When I say that the city is always a mix of formal and informal. I mean that for formal cities like Melbourne as well. I co-wrote a book called Urban Choreography (2018), which is about Melbourne and the success stories that central Melbourne has seen over the last five years. A lot of that success has to do with acknowledging that the important parts of the city are informal. In some cases there’s a turning of a blind eye. Melbourne has a thriving street art scene, which many people see as vandalism, yet many other people see as a vibrant art form. They see value in the fact that it engages the young people in the city and that adds something valuable to the city by covering all of its blank laneway walls with artwork. Street art has become one of Melbourne’s key tourist attractions that gives it a unique character. How to manage that is kind of difficult because there’s an element of turning a blind eye and my sense is that is true with most informal activity in the city. If you value the informal activity, then sometimes you have to value the idea that it is a bit spontaneous and unpredictable. It is better to try to look at reducing the harm that such informal activity causes rather than trying to eliminate it.

So if you looked at the harms that are sometimes caused by street trading, there may be harm to the formal sector of retail, there may be harm to the walkability or mobility of the street. Whose interest do you want to serve? I do not think you would automatically jump to the conclusion that you have to eliminate the street trading. You may argue that the street trading is more important than the car traffic because it actually has a higher value. There is always some risk of harming the livelihoods of the urban poor?

Therefore, you need to know a lot more about how street vending works and about what is likely to happen if you try to eliminate it. At the same time, if you do decide that the imperative is to keep the car traffic flowing or allow more cars, you perhaps need to rethink the relationship of cars to cities. Part of the story of Melbourne has been the story of slowly, incrementally trying to get people out of their cars, build public transport and encourage walking by expanding sidewalks. Walking is a primary, healthy, active way for people to get around the city.

TS + SK     We are glad you mention mobility and traffic. You have sat in some of those legendary traffic jams in Dhaka. One thing that you had mentioned is “Dhaka does not need any more roads”. Would you care to elaborate why? We ask because it goes against the normative narrative right now of expanding roads and building more flyovers.

KD         Well, this is not based on any detailed studies of Dhaka, but it’s got to do with my experience in a lot of other cities. With more roads you get more parking, and then more people go and buy cars, and then you need more roads and more parking. It becomes a positive feedback cycle. In Melbourne, we largely stopped building public transport around a hundred years ago. We had a train and tram system, which is still in place but nearly all of the investment went into roads. The more investment we put into roads, the more people bought cars and the more people bought cars, the more roads we needed. You get to the point where you realize that building more roads is not going to produce an answer. It is only going to increase car usage.

You really need to build public transport and then, to some degree, let road congestion be the negative factor that gets people out of their cars. If you’re sitting in your car for hours on end, then just think about how much public transport you need to get all of the other cars off the road, because that’s the thing that can do it. Building more roads can’t break that nexus and building good public transport can. Dhaka does seem to me to have a lot of road space.

When people complain about the traffic they don’t realize they are the traffic. We’re all complaining about each other. The real task of planners is to get some of those people out of their cars and into public transport. People will get into public transport once public transport is competitive with the car. People often complain about public transport as if it’s a form of welfare thing, that somehow public transport is subsidized. But what about roads? The roads are not free, they are a subsidy to wealthier people with cars.

TS + SK    We know that you have an interest in how public space and its link with democracy. So how would you describe the public space quality that you see in Dhaka? I put this question with reference to the large gated communities in Dhaka such as the DOHS Residential areas or even Gulshan, Banani or Baridhara, which shuts their gates at night. All of these places effectively act as an enclave. How would you comment on that?

KD     Whenever there’s an attempt to stop people flowing around the city, when gates are put up to stop some people from going through particular streets or gated conclaves, it seems to me to be antithetical to the way in which good cities work. I understand that there are security issues at times, but we have to be critical about who’s benefiting from those from territories being closed.

When we were driving through the Cantonment, it did seem to me that there was a bit of symbolic display going on there. The military was saying that here’s a piece of the city that we control and if only we were in charge, maybe the whole city would be a bit more like this. It is true that you could have a more regular, orderly kind of life but at what cost? Democracy is a bit messy. I’d be very wary and very critical of any effort towards that end. It is easy to get order in the streets and get rid of the chaos, with a more authoritarian government. You can rid the streets completely of any activity and ultimately have martial law. But that’s not the kind of city you want because that it’s not a livable city. It’s not a kind of city that where the rights of citizenship prevail. So I wasn’t impressed by the gated compounds. I have long written against the idea of gated communities which I think are damaging to the city. They interrupt walkability, creating enclaves that are usually socially homogeneous or reserved for certain classes of people. Sometimes they are ethnic enclaves.

A designed public space under lock and key | Courtesy: Kim Dovey
A designed public space under lock and key | Courtesy: Kim Dovey


I think public space is a place where the rights of citizenship should be reflected. Now, I know that a lot of political debate happens on television and on other kinds of mass media and these days on the Internet and social media and so on but public space still has a role in relation to all of those more digital spaces. I haven’t looked at how that works in Dhaka, but I did find it curious that when I tried to get close to the beautiful National Parliament buildings, I couldn’t due to the fences and I was still several hundred meters away! And that’s as close as the public are allowed to get. Is this for security? I don’t think so. I think it’s largely a symbolic thing.


TS + SK      You’re talking about symbols.  I think another line of your work always talks about image and desires. The image of the western life, the western city, the dream of modernity that still seen as the golden dream to chase for Dhaka. Would you care to comment on that?

KD    There’s a lot going on in that comment. A lot of this hinges upon this rather difficult notion of what modernity means. What does it mean to say Dhaka wants to be modern? Modernity means many things, and to a lot of people, modernity is actually a kind of an image. It’s an image of a clean, green city, where the image is new, modern. But modernity has a much, much broader meaning as well, modernity is linked to the Enlightenment. It’s linked to reason and rationality, turning back the predominance of religion and ideology, cutting through that to a sense of democracy and a free press and so on. This is the longer project of modernity that is linked to progress, not simply achieving a particular image. Modern architecture captures that dream in certain ways and in certain moments. But now we’ve moved on to a very, very complex world where the idea of being global and of being world-class has a particular kind of currency.

Tall glass buildings -not the only mode of developing cities | Courtesy: Kim Dovey
Tall glass buildings -not the only mode of developing cities | Courtesy: Kim Dovey


Now there are league tables for the world’s ‘most livable’ city where Melbourne always figures fairly high. When I’m in other cities, I’m often asked about this – what does Melbourne do to get this kind of honor of the world’s most livable city? My sense is that this is a very narrow kind of a metric that is geared to not having traffic jams, being relatively safe and so on. It doesn’t have a lot to do with what I think actually makes cities work. Some of the world’s most difficult cities are highly intensive and interesting but they never figure on that table – London and New York are never there. They’re fabulous, vital, vibrant cities. Melbourne just ticks more boxes. Sure it’s a great city, but it’s great for reasons that are not part of that metric of what of what they call ‘livable’.

TS + SK   Let’s pick the idea of livability and its relation to the image of progress. You are aware that, Karail, the largest informal settlement in Dhaka, is going to be evicted  building a high-tech park that follows the image of the global city. There is currently a limbo due to a high court order of no eviction without resettlement, despite the UN-Habitiat recommending cities to get out of the mindset that slums are illegal. No one really knows how to deal with Karail. How would you deal with Karail, let’s say from a mayor’s perspective?

KD      I’d say even though that’s the scenario that’s playing out right now, it is important to have a very hard look and do some detailed research on how Karail impacts Dhaka’s economy and on the ways in which Karail actually works. This must be done before you come up with some grand plan that you think will fix it.

Karail is a very large agglomeration of relatively impoverished people. I have been there and I think it’s livable. I mean, people live there and, they can live a healthy and happy life there. It has it’s problems – it certainly needs some kind of development, it needs upgrading. But I think that proposals to demolish Karail in its entirety and to redevelop it as a smart village [hi-tech park] is not very smart and probably won’t work in the way in which it’s intended. It seems to be one of those political plans that looks good at the front end. And then you wonder a few years later how could you have thought that it might work.

A flower in a slum window - slums are places of affordable housing and dreams for a better life | Courtesy: Kim Dovey
A flower in a slum window – slums are places of affordable housing and dreams for a better life | Courtesy: Kim Dovey


I think Karail serves a purpose, the first need is to understand the kind of role that it serves economically and socially. Informal settlements are a complex phenomenon that are driven in many ways by rural-to-urban migration, which is in turn driven by economic forces that are beyond anybody’s control. This is not something that a national government can change. Technology and new forms of employment, capital markets and so on are leading to urbanization. Cities are where the jobs are being produced and so urbanization has meant also an urbanization of poverty with informal settlements and slums.

Informal settlements are the way in which rural migrants find a foothold in the city. Some people call them ‘arrival cities’ but it’s not just about arriving. It’s about establishing a foothold in the city and get access to those jobs that the city is producing. Residents of Karail are filling those roles. They’re working in the formal city, building the buildings. They’re developing and servicing the formal city. They are the guards, the maids, the workers. Many of the people that richer people are in contact with everyday live in settlements such as Karail. And if Karail is not serving the function of affordable housing, who is going to do that? Even the replacement of affordable housing for such people generally leads to displacement – an apartment in a high rise, often far away from where the employment is. What kind of transport are they going to use? Can they get there with a rickshaw? Are they dependent on public transport? Can they afford it? They certainly don’t have cars. If they did, where would they park? So how’s the city going to function without these people? A threat to Karail is a threat to the fundamental way Dhaka works as a city.

Karail and Gulshan _ a synergy that needs to be recognized Courtesy: Kim Dovey
Karail and Gulshan _ a synergy that needs to be recognized Courtesy: Kim Dovey


TS + SK   Perhaps the problem of mis-recognizing the city or the inability to see Karail as a place that needs incremental upgrading and not wholesale erasure lies in the way we have been trained to look at cities, and in particular trained in architecture and planning. So, let’s get back from planning the city to how planners and architects are educated in Bangladesh. Most architecture schools focus on delivering undergraduate education and train students for practice. There is also little capacity building in urban research, which is reflected in the fact that, particularly in the case of Dhaka, most of our master plans are outsourced. Usually it involves some foreign experts in the planning process. It seems we have hardly managed to understand our own city. So what would be your comment or advice in such context? What do you see as the role of research in understanding our city and to make a better architectural and urban education?

KD     I think the architecture profession has been overly focused on a particularly narrow conception of what architecture is. This stems from its history of patronage by the rich. Architecture has its roots in this notion of producing symbols of authority, stabilizing the identities of powerful people. This is what I call the production of symbolic capital – that in many ways is architecture’s market niche. I like good architecture as much as anybody and I support the early modernist conception that the role of the profession is to bring that quality of architecture to everybody, including the urban poor. But the fact is that hasn’t happened. The global image of architecture is often captured by architects who can produce images that will help to stabilize the nation state. That’s got a long history too – in your case hiring Louis Kahn to for the Assembly buildings and so on. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s just that this consumes too much of the energy in architecture. I am more interested in the idea that architects are involved with all buildings. I do not make the distinction between architecture and mere buildings, as has often been made in the history and theory of architecture. This notion goes back to the Nicholas Pevsner, for whom a bike shed is a building and a cathedral is a work of architecture. They are both architecture, in my view.

I find a lot of architecture schools are still locked into an older model of thinking about architecture as a fine art – there’s this aspiration to become the “master architect”. I think that the architecture profession should move much more towards law and medicine, where it is not about being a star. It is about providing a service with the kind of skills that architects have, the capacity to get more out of the same amount of space. This is a fundamental skill for the urban poor and they are often really good at it and there is a lot that architects could learn from them. I’m not endorsing the overcrowding that is produced by severe poverty, but the multi-use of space is a fundamental skill in any city, because density is such an important part of how cities work. If you get more things happening, more and different kinds of people in walkable contact with each other, then you’ve got a better city with a lower ecological footprint.

This is the kind of spatial thinking that architects are so often engaged in everyday way that is really so valuable, and often not valued by urban planners. The history of these two professions is that they have bifurcated. Urban planning used to be a kind of an additional degree after architecture for people who already understood architecture. And you had some really brilliant people who then could span those two areas. Now increasingly urban planners have no idea how to produce a map or to even think spatially. The result is you get brilliant planners who are actually quite opposed or dismissive of spatial interventions or thinking – to them the city is just a range of social problems. This gap between architecture and planning has unfortunate manifestations.

Much of my work is not in architecture or in urban planning, but in that gap where you are thinking about form and you are thinking about social ideas at the same time, and understanding that to address them together is not to presume that there can be any spatial fix to social problems.

TS + SK  Thank you so much for the time. We started with the notion that we aren’t looking for “solutions” from a visiting academic. In the end it seems what is needed for Dhaka is more detailed research about the way it functions before importing ideas from the West and imagining that there are some quick fixes to urban issues. Cities have lasted longer than nations and they are what you call complex adaptive assemblages. In order to change such complex assemblages, one must first attempt to gain a more detailed understanding. The evidence from such urban research will reveal the immanent potentials of Dhaka and lead to finding responses that are often neglected in the desire to modernize using ideas developed elsewhere. A new Dhaka is possible, but not without understanding how Dhaka operates currently.

Tanzil Shafique and Saimum Kabir are PhD fellows at the University of Melbourne in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. Tanzil also leads Openstudio, an international architecture and urbanism think-tank.