Today, the street sides of Dhaka are lined with rows of shops, restaurants, and cafes along with offices, workshops and/or residents upstairs. This pattern is evident across the city – along the major roads and in many inner lanes of residential mohallas. Academically, this type of development of diverse functions is termed as ‘mixed-use function’ or ‘functional mix’. Like many other cities of Southeast Asia these functions have also largely developed in Dhaka in an informal way.
Western scholars favoured mixed-use function for its socio-economic benefits including its role in ensuring vitality, efficient use of land, reducing the need for travel, increasing a sense of security, building a cohesive community, and the like. Interestingly, in cities of South Asia, there is widespread criticism that the unplanned intricate mix including the incompatible merge of functions is bringing challenges to the community life (Nahrin, 2008; Ratnayake, 2015; Mitra and Mitra, 2015; Verma, 1993; Raharjo, 2005). Dhaka, being one of the densely populated cities in South Asia, is not an exception. Dhaka is dominated by an extensive informal mix that exists within the formal framework of the city. It has emerged incrementally through the micro-adaptation and intensification process over time. At present, the extent and nature of informal mixing have created a composite land-use pattern. Further, the incompatible mix of hazardous functions with residential and other uses which is particularly evident in the historic core of Dhaka presents a special challenge in managing urban fire risk.
The functional mix of Dhaka has largely been self-governed. Here, the policies to regulate the urban functions surfaced much later. The renewed building regulation in 2008, provides the rules to regulate different types of functions (residential, commercial, institutional, industrial, health care, etc.), however, it doesn’t offer exclusive regulations for mixed-use buildings. Further, these regulations do not specify the types of uses that mixed-use buildings should accommodate in different residential and non-residential areas. Despite the significant development of mix in Dhaka, the master plans have not reflected its spatial distribution across the city until soon after 1995. In the Urban Area Plan 1995-2015 of DMDP, the land-use of the whole of Dhaka has been identified as ‘predominant mixed-use functions’, including existing mixed-use areas, along with areas that have the potential for future development as mixed-use. Eventfully, in the Dhaka Structural Plan 2016-2035, only 0.59% of the area of the city has been identified as mixed-use, which contradicts the previous 1995-2015 plan. In the Structural Plan 2016-2035, only the current first CBD and some parts of Old Dhaka have been identified as mixed-use areas. In the DMDP 1995-2015, the informal mixed-function was mapped by the Planning Authority, however, the Authority was apathetic about further acknowledging mixed-use functions for their informal status. Consequently, the accurate locations of the informal mixes were not presented in the Structural Plan 2016-2035. Inconsistency in decision-making among the various development authorities is also observed. For instance, in 2016, the Government declared that all unauthorized businesses should be evicted from the residential areas. Accordingly, Municipal Authorities carried out the demolition program to evict informal shops and street markets from time to time. Later in early 2019, an amendment was issued by the Planning Authority that ceases the decision. Considering the large growth of informal mixed-use functions and their necessity in the entire city, the renewed policy dissolves the discreet functional zoning in the city and declares all of Dhaka as mixed-use.
Fig 1: Transformation of functional mixes in Islampur Road, Old Dhaka (1998-2017)
Due to its informal, unplanned and adaptive nature, the urban form of mixed-function in Dhaka is complex and not alike. For instance, the pattern and building form of mixed-use development in old and new Dhaka show significant differences. Islampur, a business district in Old Dhaka, was historically mixed, which further expanded significantly across the site. Over time, the locational importance as a traditional business centre and market demand has influenced the growth of mixed functions here (Fig 1A, 1B, 1C). In contrast, like other planned residential areas, mixed-functions in Uttara emerged over time through informal processes of land-use changes (Fig 2A, 2B, 2C). Eventually, a few roads were declared ‘commercial’ through the amendments of building regulations to formalise the mixed functions that have already been developed there. The lack of community facilities during the early development and weak monitoring by the related authority are the possible causes of informal mixes in this area.
Fig 2: Transformation of functional mixes in Uttara Residential Model Town (1998-2017)
The current development of mixed functions (Fig 1C and 2C) in Islampur and Uttara shows that large-scale public functions like wholesale shops, super shops, shopping malls, go-downs/storages, banks, and diverse offices are more evident along the major roads, while the inner lanes mainly contain small-scale shops, workshops, and private offices attached with residences upstairs. In Islampur, the mixed-functions show a distinct characteristic in terms of the organisation of functions at the community level. Shops containing specialised products are usually clustered in different streets. Historically, in Old Dhaka, particular traders’ communities used to live in groups. A similar trend of grouping alike functions has been followed until now, which creates a particular street character and image to users. For example, Islampur Road, along with Shankhari Bazaar and Tanti Bazaar present the tradition of fine craftsmanship in cloth, gold and silver jewelry, ivory carving, etc. Some inner lanes also contain similar types of workshops and light industries grouped together. Overtime, hazardous functions like flammable chemical storages were mixed with residential and non-residential uses and eventually have exposed the users to serious fire hazard risk.
Conversely, in Uttara, diverse shops and offices are concentrated at different locations. Another difference in the functional mix between these two areas lies in its organisation in the building level. In Islampur, due to extensive functions, non-residential uses are organised vertically along with residences. A good number of buildings in this area are narrow and elongated, perpendicular to the street. In the organisation of shops, workshops, go-downs, and offices, generally, the building floors are divided into several units to accommodate multiple functions along internal corridors. Such arrangements are evident across the full depth of the buildings on multiple floors. Generally, a shared/mixed entrance for different uses is evident for such a building layout. However, mixed entries that have common or shared circulation spaces for visitors and residents are problematic, as they compromise the required privacy of residences. Single mixed entry is also hazardous during an emergency event. Conversely, in Uttara, non-residential uses are still organised horizontally along the street interface because of their lesser quantity. Separate entrances for residential and non-residential functions are also apparent here.
Therefore, it can be argued that the informal mix in Dhaka has two-sided impacts. It has both advantages and challenges. In fact, neither the functional mix nor its informality is always problematic, but informal building practices of mixed functions like mixing of incompatible uses, vertical growth and integration of non-residential functions with residences, inconsistent urban interface, mixed entry with incompatible uses, violation of building height and encroachment of setbacks is at stake. The extensive growth of informal mixes in residential areas sometimes is considered problematic for the social environment. But the informal mix is so integrated into the city’s social and physical fabric that it cannot be disregarded simply by considering its challenges in urban life. So, what is vital is to acknowledge the informal mix, adapt it and manage it so that its benefits can be achieved in urban life.
Endnote: All the maps are produced by overlaying the land-use data with base maps of Islampur and Uttara in different time periods. These land-use data were collected from various government sources, which are not readily available for public use. These maps were produced following the live/work/visit triangular model, which is more focused on the mix and flows between urban functions rather than functions in themselves. Live/work/visit triangular model has been suggested by Dovey and Pafka (2017) as a framework for mapping the city. This mapping index is represented as the LWV (Live, Work, Visit) triangular with three primary colours (Red, Blue, and Green) plus various forms of mix between them that fade towards white for the mix of all three functions. The three basic uses of functional mix also incorporate other uses. ‘Live’ incorporates housing, like residence and hotel. ‘Work’, denotes offices, factories, and educational institutions. ‘Visit’ denotes shops, restaurants, libraries, theatres, museums, parks, sports, hospitals and so on (Dovey and Pafka, 2017, p.255).
About the Author: Dr. Fatema Meher Khan is a researcher, academic and architect. She has completed her PhD from the University of Melbourne and is affiliated with InfUr (Informal Urbanism Research Hub). She is currently serving as an assistant professor at the Department of Architecture, BUET.