Jhenaidah is a picturesque 32-square kilometre municipality town in the southern region of Bangladesh. The Nabaganga river snakes through the 32-square kilometre municipality town.
When you enter Jhenaidah district town, it looks like any other town: ordinary and homogenous, with a few endemic quirks. But look closer and you can see that Jhenaidah is on the cusp of transformation.
The town is adorned with a slew of brand new initiatives, including a community-led design ghat and walkways hugging the bank of the Nabaganga river in the heart of the town. Breathing spaces have been installed in the heart of the city.
Elsewhere, some people from two communities in Mahishakundu and Vennatala have moved into brand new Tk1 lakh homes away from their previous dilapidated abodes.
But the transformation isn't only for beautification. Thought has gone into making civic amenities available for those who need it. The modifications are community-driven.
A shining example of this is Shatbariaghat. Once the locals found it difficult to bathe and wash their clothes, fearing that such activities on the river bank would lead to erosion. But the ghat made out of brick, boasting a seating space and a changing room, has changed that.
BRAC's Urban Development Programme footed most of the around Tk20 lakh needed for the Ghat, while the Pourashava fund bore 20% of the cost.
Mohammad Zakir, an official of BRAC currently stationed in Khulna, confirmed that Brac had provided the money after being approached by the municipality.
Architect couple Khondaker Hasibul Kabir and Suhailey Farzanaof Co.Creation.Architects, who reside in Jhenaidah, are the brains behind this project titled "Sobai Mile Jhenaidah Gori". The project, anchored by the couple, looks to transform the this south-western town into a model cityscape by engaging the community, the local government, and the best Bangladeshi and international architects.
Moving forward, Kabir has already drawn a design reimaging four kilometres of the shore of the Nabaganga river from Shatbaria to Chaklapara, the main city of the municipality.The design includes walkways, bordered by shops and benches, on both sides of the river.
He is also planning more ghats like Shatbariaghat. More ghats will encourage the return of small boats on the river, a sight city-dwellers have long reminisced about.
Now they are constructing another 1,000 feet long open space on the side of the Nanbaganga river.
The local government body as well as the local administration have provided both financial and administrative support. Two dozen members of the Platform of Community Action and Architecture (POCAA), a platform of Bangladeshi architects, volunteered to design the dream. Architects from many countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Thailand, India and Nepal also visited the different projects and exchanged knowledge with local architects and community people.
Moreover, students from Harvard University, as well as Brac University, came to learn about low-cost housing.
Funding is also coming from diverse sources. It was Kabir who brought together the fund for the Tk1 lakh homes by approaching the Community Architects Network (CAN), a regional network of community architects, planners, engineers, young professionals, lecturers and academic institutes in Asian countries, established in 2010.
To implement the two different housing projects – in Mahishakundu and Vennatala – Kabir and CAN together raised Tk40 lakh from the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.
The funds for the implementation of the other project came from different sources. The international architect community, the savings of the local community, the local government body, a non-government organisation as well as the local administration have financed to make the dreams a reality.
The most significant aspect of the transformation, however, remains in its core: that each shall reflect the dreams and desires of the community, who have had a say in the very initial designs.
Sobai Mile Jhenaidah Gori was an acid test for community-driven projects that were geared towards making cities more livable. The jury may still be out on how much they have worked and how feasible they are, but there are no doubts about the benefits they have brought to the city.
Fostering pride in the address
"I'm still scared to go to the second-storey. What if it collapses?" Chinta Moni, a resident of Vennatala village says, a smile plastered on her lips.
Chinta has only been staying at the two-storey house, made at a meagre cost of around Tk1 lakh, for a year now. Before that, she, her husband and her two sons lived in a small hut. The rainy seasons meant flooded floors and leaking roofs, winter meant bone-chilling cold and summer spells were unrelenting heat.
But all that has changed now. Her irrational fear stems from never having lived in a two-storey building, although she is glad that her sons have their own rooms now and the concrete structure protects her from the elements of the weather, be whatever they may be.
Chinta is one of the 19 beneficiaries of one of the projects initiated by Co.Creation.Architects in 2014. Back then, Kabir, a Buet and UK-trained architect, had decided to make Jhenaidah his home, and began looking for communities that needed help. He then came across the two villages, Mahishakundu and Vennatala, and collected the Tk20 lakh fund, which he disbursed through a local NGO.
The initial fund from CAN was used in a pilot project for around 28 homes in Vennatala. The idea was to disburse the fund to the community themselves and then see how they could use it.
"The idea was for the money to keep rolling. Take a loan to build your house and then pay the loan back. We trusted the beneficiary communities to maintain a samity for the fund and collect the payments," said Kabir.
"The areas were almost a slum before. People would cover their noses if they ever even dared to go there. They would tell their kids not to mix with the children of this neighbourhood," Sharifa Akhtar, a resident of Vennatala, and also a beneficiary of the initiative, recalled.
Pointing to her concrete two-storeyed structure, and then showing the many similar houses beyond it, Sharifa said things had now changed.
"Now the children are proud to tell people their address," she said.
For the people, by the people
Co.Creation.Architects and its team of livability-savvy experts have been working one small step at a time. From reimagining villages to entire cities, the firm is fixated on the idea of taking people's opinions while shaping development goals.
Apart from the river ghat, another example of this people-oriented development is the City-Centre riverside, sporting the 200-year-old Debudaru trees, also known as the Pagoda tree. Once a mess of dirty embankments, grass and weeds, Co.Creation.Architects, with the help of the city mayor, have turned it into a popular park.
At a cost of around Tk1 crore, money for which came from the Pourashava development fund, the now brick-layered steps, seating arrangements and a clean, sleek layout of the park attracts people from all walks of life.
The 600 feet long and 16 feet wide park, however, was not conceived in a vacuum. The mayor arranged regular consultations with the constituents, who all expressed what they wanted. Women wanted a safe space, the elderly wanted walkways, some wanted the riverside boats to be revived, while children wanted a playground, among other things.
The final blueprint for the centre took into consideration all of these desires before constructing the final structure.
Every morning, 50-year-old Nayeb Ali comes to jog in the open space on the shore of the Nabaganga river. He said that the place was enclosed in the past and no one could walk in the area asit was the backside of some abandoned government offices.
"In the past, we could not come here, the area has completely changed and many people come in the afternoon for recreation," said Nayeb Ali.
Even the local member of the parliament comes to walk in the area in the morning whenever he comes to his Jhenaidah. He said that he is happy with the area.
But this is just one small example.
Co.Creation.Architects have much more in the pipeline. Again, following consultation with the people, they have dreamed up a river-side city that "gives pleasure to the eyes."
They have already proposed roads with ample footpaths, cycle lanes and green wide roads with places for people to sit in, converting heritage sites like the old prison into a tourist destination, having small open spaces scattered across the city – something they have already achieved in a small part – covering roads with vegetation to avoid dust and cleaner rivers.
The idea of taking people's opinions into account, however, isn't something extraordinary. According to the local government laws, such opinions are supposed to be heard before budgeting and planning new projects.
Eyes on the prize
The entry to Khondaker Hasibul Kabir's house is unique. For one, you must first cross a field, at the end of which is a well-manicured dirty road. The dirt road is fenced on both sides, the interior of the fences sporting maintained ponds and gardens. And then Kabir's home comes into view. Just by the design alone, you can be sure that you are near the architect's house.
The abode is a song of bamboo fences and a structure hinting at the perfect harmony between wood and concrete.
The bespectacled architect Kabir greets us under a makeshift bamboo archway. Dressed in jacket, a muffler and cargo pants, complemented by a salt-and-pepper beard, his look speaks to his other avatar as well: that of not only being an architect but also an assistant professor at the architecture department in Brac University.
"We call ourselves the doctor for homes," Kabir says with a smile. "People wonder if architects are engineers. We aren't. We diagnose homes. We see if they have proper lighting, ventilation, etc," he says in between conversations.
In a short time, Kabir has already transformed two villages and the city of Jhenaidah bears his hallmarks. Open spaces for the public and better homes for the people are only two of these signs of his accomplishment.
As for future plans, Kabir says that he does not think ahead, but prefers living in the moment.
"People want to help and they can do so. But now, the courage is lacking. Changing mayors and district commissioners can also pose a problem. But work can be done," Kabir said.
Kabir envisages a future where designs by public agencies take into consideration the users of the services and go into making their lives easier.
He points to his latest work as an example of his belief.
Five kilometres of the crisscrossing Nabaganga river falls in Jhenaidah municipality.Kabir has made designs for four kilometres, but he is now drawing up a design encompassing both sides of the river, or around 10 kilometres.
Apart from tree lined walkways, he has also envisioned public toilets and seating arrangements.The walkways will further encourage local traders to set up shops like tea stalls and handicrafts outlets.The park and the visitors it draws will also lend security to the area.
"We have made a ghat in the Shatbaria area, and some more ghats will be set up in the river so that people can bathe in the river. When there will be many ghats, the locals will feel encouraged to use small boats for communication. People can make pleasure trips in the river. Many are ready to do business using boats already."
The architect also has a plan to make use of the abandoned properties, such as an old prison in the city centre.
"We have drawn a design for Jhenaidah's old prison, where people get a space to visit and relax. We have already asked that the space be opened up so everyone can visit the historic place. The Shilpakala Academy auditorium is right there. People can hold programmes. They have been designing an amphitheatre next to the Castle Bridge in the heart of the city. We have been making another culture hub there."
The Nabagangariver has been getting damaged because the drainage system in the municipality area wasn't developed quickly enough. As a result, wastewater is going straight into the river.
Keeping this in mind, Kabir and his team are designing 'river gardens'. The sewage water will gather in the water garden first, depositing the dump and allowing clean water to slowly flow into the river. The gardens have been conceived to work as biological treatment plants.
Kabir said the design will also be implemented by the municipality, but it will be approved by the people. For this, Kabir has collected information on the housing, economic conditions of 63 communities in the area.
"What does a maths teacher do? First he does the maths and then asks students to do it. I am doing the same," said Kabir. "I am encouraging them to solve their problem by themselves."
A team effort
Kabir isn't the only one working on the numerous projects.
MahmudaAlam has been practising architecture for 10 years after graduating from Brac University.
In 2013, together with Kabir, she became a founding member of the Platform of Community Action and Architecture (POCAA). Its members have provided technical support to the project since its inception.
She also directly worked on the housing projects for three months, after gathering information on designing model towns. As the projects were not commercial, she had to volunteer her services for free.
During a conversation, she addressed the challenge of designing rural homes, pointing out that mainstream architects were not usually hired by low income groups.Asked how much money an architect can make designing homes, she said it is usually 2-10% of the total cost.
"It's not easy to build low income houses because you have to design not just based on the needs of the client, but also keep the financial limitations of the client in mind," she said.
Like Mahmuda, architect TowhidulAlam, another member of POCAA, also volunteered in different projects in Jhenaidah.When he was an architecture student at Brac University he heard his professor,Kabir, was working in Jhenaidah to build a better town and low-income group community.
After graduation in 2016, Towhidul Alam decided to volunteer with Kabir.
"Working with the local community was a transformative experience. While building the ghat they pointed out they needed a seating area and a space for women to change clothes. These would not have been included in the design without their participation," said Towhid.
Saidul Karim Mintu, until recently the mayor of Jhenaidah Municipality, told The Business Standard that the design for the park has helped make it a success.
"If we hired a professional architect, we would have to spend Tk20 lakh on the design alone," said Saidul Karim Mintu.The former mayor collected Tk1 crore from another project to make the park, considering the demand of the community.
"I believe that if a mayor wants to do something good for its community, there is a lot of scope to do that," said Mintu, adding,"But you need an architect like Kabir to do the job."