What makes people prefer one place over another? Liveability is a popular topic, but smaller cities are still left unexplored. Istiakh Ahmed from the International Centre for Climate Change and Development wonders what residents in coastal Bangladesh consider a liveable, even loveable city.
“Living in Dhaka has become impossible; this city is not liveable at all”.
Living in Dhaka for the past eight years, I can safely say that the liveability of Bangladesh’s capital still remains one of the most debated topics amongst locals. This is not surprising: according to the Global Liveability Index 2019, Dhaka ranks as the third least liveable city in the world. For many, rapid urbanisation in Bangladesh, coupled with decades of insufficient urban planning, has played a major role in this. Today, many more cities are emerging, and with them a steadily increasing urban population.
Mongla and Noapara, located at Bangladesh’s coastal belt, are such newly emerging cities, with the potential to become major industrial hubs and receive many migrants. Is the liveability of a coastal city the same as for an in-land city, such as Dhaka? We wanted to explore this question in greater detail. Picture: Noapara, a regional coastal city in Bangladesh
What Makes a City Liveable?
The concept of liveability was introduced in the 1950s and since then it has become rather popular. In one sentence: liveability is complex. It combines one’s psychological needs with materialistic necessities. The diagram below provides a good overview, categorising liveability into three steps based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Firstly, we have the so-called viable city where residents’ basic needs are fulfilled, such as access to food, water, and shelter. A truly liveable city, however, can be found in step two, where residents can have a vibrant social life and have access to spaces that allow them to fulfil their need for community and belonging. Finally, the lovable/memorable city stands at the peak of the pyramid; a place of self-fulfilment, creativity, and cultural expression. A city that maximises the happiness of its residents.
Typology of Cities © Ahmed, El-Halafawy & Amin (2019)
Bangladesh’s Coastal Cities
Most urban research in Bangladesh has been done in major cities – but what about liveability in coastal areas? We wanted to explore the idea of liveability in Mongla and Noapara, two small coastal cities in South-West Bangladesh that are currently experiencing an influx of migrants and are emerging as potential industrial hubs. Both cities have ports: Mongla has a seaport and an export-processing zone (EPZ), and Noapara has a land port with India and several established industrial parks.
In order to understand to what extent residents consider their cities to be liveable, we made use of different interdisciplinary tools such as surveys, in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, street theatre workshops, photography, and videography. This allowed us to have a deeper understanding of residents’ perceptions beyond question and answer. Respondents got to express their issues and opportunities through art and storytelling. In theatre workshops, for instance, citizens could tell and perform their own stories in several public places.
This scene from the street theatre performance in Mongla shows residents queueing at a hand pump to collect drinking water © Jinia Nowrin
In our qualitative analysis, we also asked people what mattered the most to them: livelihood and food security, utilities and transport, health and natural environment, education, housing and neighbourhood, central and local government, safety, and lastly, social activities and leisure. The household surveys showed surprisingly that housing and utilities were the top two priorities for most of the respondents. This contrasts with findings in larger cities where livelihood is typically the most important factor. On closer inspection, however, this makes perfect sense as Mongla and Noapara are located in saline-prone areas, where the scarcity of safe drinking water has always been an issue. Housing was also identified as a major topic because of frequent cyclones and tidal surges. The safety and security of female city dwellers in Noapara, on the other hand, did not arise as an issue in the survey itself but was highlighted as a major problem during the theatre workshop by participants from specific areas.
Thus, what makes a city liveable or not, is highly contextual and location-specific. This questions the linear ranking system of cities and the “objective” indicator-based measurement system for liveability. Our research also shows that liveability means different things to different people: class, gender, income level, education, and other factors, influence people’s perception significantly. In an earlier field study, one of the respondents mentioned:
“I don’t want to have a better street or better services in this area; this will only benefit the house owners. They will increase the rent the moment we get a concrete road to our house. And having no further income, this will cause us more suffering than a more liveable environment.” Many urban dwellers can surely relate to this statement amidst global discussions on housing scarcity, gentrification, and rapid urbanisation – and what is a liveable environment for some people, may result in the inability of others to live in that same area.
Aerial view of Noapara city © Jinia Nowrin
The Need for Critical Liveability
Discussions on liveability thus need to look beyond mere indicators and understand how each indicator of liveability can have a different meaning to different groups. We need to understand the very concept holistically and look out for the finer nuances. “Any place where I have to live with a constant fear of getting evacuated will never become liveable with anything”- such participant statements force us to reassess the existing discourse and reinforce the need for a more critical understanding of liveability.
Liveability provides a lens to show how residents view their city today, and how they imagine their own future in these cities. A qualitative, interdisciplinary reading of liveability allows us to gain more insights into the opinions, values, and aspirations of the increasing number of people who intentionally reside in smaller cities. Smaller cities can thus no longer be left unexplored, especially as they are expected to have a higher growth ratio than larger cities.
A world of liveable cities can be created, developed, and maintained if residents, local governments, and our cities are given equal consideration.