Towards an Urbanized Bangladesh: Looking beyond 2050

Ours is now an urbanized world with more than half of the planet’s population living in officially defined urban areas. Urbanization, as it is very well known, is a manifestation of economic, technological, social and political forces. Urbanization is itself a process with its impacts on environmental, economic, social and political structures of a society. Even within the same political-economic system, there are very efficient and highly livable cities and also very inefficient and unlivable cities.

The Urbanization, Trend 1901-2011

Historically, the level of urbanization in Bangladesh has been low but it is urbanizing rapidly now. At the beginning of the last century, in 1901, only 2.43 percent (or about 0.7 million) of the total population of present Bangladesh areas of British India lived in urban areas. During the first half of the century urban population growth was almost static. In 1941, less than 4 percent of the population lived in urban centres, the total urban population was 1.54 million. Urbanization received impetus after 1947, when the Indian subcontinent became independent of the British rule and Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, earned a new political status as part of Pakistan. Since then a change has been observed in terms of the growth of urban population and also of urban centres.

The total urban population rose from 1.83 million in 1951 to about 2.64 million in 1961 (Table 1). The important factor responsible for this rapid growth was a large scale migration of Muslims from India after 1947, who mostly settled in urban areas. A phenomenal growth took place during the 1961 to 1974 period, the increase being as high as 137.6 percent. The growth rate was 6.7 percent per year during the period as against 3.7 percent per year in the previous decade. This rapid urban growth is largely due to migration of people from rural to urban areas. The rural push factors, caused by economic impoverishment following the liberation war and environmental disasters contributed significantly. Rate of Natural growth of population was also quite high.

Table 1; Growth of national and urban population in Bangladesh 1901-2001




Total national population (million)

Annual growth rate of national population (%)


Total urban




Urban population

as % of total population

(level of urbanization)

Decadal increase of urban population (%)

Annual (exponential

growth rate of urban population, %)













































































Source: Government of Bangladesh: Bangladesh Population Census. Census, 1991. BBS, 2003 1981; Report on Urban Areas, 1997; and Preliminary Report, Population.

In 1974, urban population increased to 8.9 percent from 5.2 percent in1961. In1981 this rose to 15.5 percent. The inter-censal change during this period (1974-81) was 110.7 percent with annual growth rate of about 10 percent. Like the previous decade both migration and natural growth partially contributed to this growth. But the most important contributory factor for the 1974-81 period was the redefinition of urban places. The extended definition of the urban area with the inclusion of all 460 Upazila Head Quarters as urban accounted for 30 percent of the total increase in urban population during this period. This indicates the role of political administrative decision in shaping the quantitative demographic status of urbanization rather than quality of urbanism. During the 1981-1991 period – a slower growth of urban population, 5.4 percent, has been observed compared with the previous decade. At about 20.0 percent level of urbanization the total urban population was 22.45 million in 1991 and that at 23.1 percent level, the total urban population rose to 28.6 million in 2001. Only the total population figure is available so far for the 2011 census, this (in the revised count) has been stated to be 150.4 million. With an estimated level of urbanization to be 28 percent, the total urban population would be approximately 42 million.

Bangladesh: An Urbanized Country by 2050 ?

The rate of growth of urban population is likely to fall to some extent in the future, but would still be quite high. The UN (2004) projection for urban population of Bangladesh for 2030 was 86.5 million. No projection for urban population in 2050 was, however, given. The proportion urban would possibly cross the 50 percent mark by 2040 and the 60 percent mark by the year 2050 when the total urban population would rise above 100 million.

All these population figures for the future seem nightmarish for a country of the size of Bangladesh. The urban population, at 42 million today, already poses a huge challenge, to think about double or triple of such size is very difficult. Indeed, the whole of Bangladesh is likely to transform itself into an urbanized country, a megalopolis of over 200 to 250 million people with a huge megacity in the centre and hundreds of other cities and towns spread all around (Fig. 1).

Fig 1: Bangladesh Urban Centers by Size Classification, 2011

The Urban System: Hierarchy of Urban Centres 

The urban system in a country is composed of a hierarchy of urban centers by population size, such as from the Mega/ Metro City to a small hamlet. Although urban geographers would prefer to classify urban centres in Bangladesh in 7 size classes (Islam & Hossain, 1976) the classification given by the Bangladesh Census Commission is a combination of population size and administrative or governance structure. The Commission has classified the urban centres into four categories; such as the Megacity, Statistical Metropolitan Areas (SMAs), Pourashavas and Other Urban Areas. It recognized some 522 urban centers in the country in 2001 (BBS, 2003).

Dhaka Megacity : A metropolitan city with population of more than 5 million was termed as Megacity in the census of 2001. There is only one Megacity in the country, Dhaka, with an estimated current population of about 14 million. Even in 2001, Dhaka Megacity was not a single city, but an agglomeration of several, including Dhaka City Corporation (North and South) area, six Pourashavas and numerous Union Parishads or villages (Fig. 2). In 2011, two new City Corporations (Narayangonj and Comilla) have emerged, through merger and up-gradation of Pourashavas. Such administrative changes require new urban governance system. Dhaka Megacity or Dhaka Mega-urban Region) in future will demand a very different governance structure. Governing the megacity region is complex and difficult because of multiplicity of agencies involved in planning and implementation of different services to the people of the megacity region.

Fig. 2 : Dhaka Mega-urban (Greater Dhaka District) Region, 2008

Statistical Metropolitan Areas are the City Corporations and their adjoining areas with urban characteristics. On the basis of this definition BBS (2003) identified three Metropolitan areas in the country in 2001, namely Chittagong (3.38 m), Khulna (1.34 m) and Rajshahi (0.7 m), besides Dhaka, which is a Megacity. These three cities had total urban population of 5.42 million, or about 19 percent of the national urban population in 2001. The Megacity Dhaka and the three Metropolitan Cities together absorbed about 56.44 percent of the total urban population of the country. Metropolitan Cities are given the status of City Corporations. The next category of towns is the Pourashava. The areas declared by the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives as Municipal Towns or Pourashavas have the formal urban status with local governments. During the Census of 2001, there were 223 Pourashavas in the country. In the same census, 11 Pourashavas were parts of the four largest cities – Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi. The remaining pourashavas, 212, had a total population of about 9 million, or 31 percent of the national urban population. Currently the number of Pourashavas is about 315.

Other Urban Areas are upazila headquarters or big market places in the rural areas which have not yet been declared as Pourashava during the census operation. The areas which conform with urban characteristics were considered as Other Urban Areas (OUAs). OUAs nearly, about 200, absorbed less than 4 percent of the national urban population.

The Future Urban System

Although Bangladesh shows low level of urbanization even in the second decade of the 21st country, the urban system, i.e, distribution of urban centres by size, offer potential of developing the system into a geographically balanced pattern. Such a system will be composed (i) of the Capital (Premier) City Dhaka, the mega city, incidentally located almost centrally in the country, and the cluster of cities and towns around Dhaka, (ii) a second large metropolitan city an emerging megacity, Chittagong, (iii)  regional metropolitan cities in each of the other divisional headquarters, (iv) the district headquarters as secondary or medium size cities, (v) the upazila headquarters as small towns and (vi) other smaller urban centres as compact towns or rural towns. In the longer term, the present nearly 5000 Union-Parishad centres will emerge as (vii) rural service centres or growth points. It is not unrealistic to vision Bangladesh as a predominantly urbanized country with more than half of its population living in urban places, ranging from rural towns to the meta city, Dhaka with population over 30 million, in a matter of just another 40 years.

The urban pattern or system in Bangladesh has already assumed a concentrated or agglomerated character. The Asian Development Bank has recently labeled it as Cluster-based urban development around one or more megacity/cities, as is demonstrated by Dhaka, a mega-urban agglomeration (Choe and Roberts, 2011). An urban planner has suggested a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) for Dhaka Mega City Region. There has also been suggestions for urban development along major corridors, such as the Dhaka-Chittagong highway corridor or Dhaka-Sylhet, Dhaka-Mymensing and Dhaka-Rajshahi, or Dhaka-Khulna corridor, etc.

However, the future of Bangladesh needs to be visioned as a sound mix of urbanized areas and rural-agricultural spaces. This will require zoning of agricultural lands and very strictly maintaining its status as such. At the same time, forests, hills and water bodies and wetlands must be conserved faithfully. Since Bangladesh will have a much larger population in the future, the need for planning for high-density settlements, obviously urban type, but environment respecting will be paramount.

Because of density and high proximity to any one of the existing urban centres, some 315 of which are already municipal towns or cities, almost all rural habitats in Bangladesh will ultimately assume an urban character, service wish specially and possibly even culturally conversely urban society in Bangladesh will have many of the rural social traits. The future urban reality in Bangladesh will possibly be something quite different from that anywhere also with world.



BBS. 2003. Bangladesh Population Census 2001. National Report (Provisional) Vol.1. Dhaka: Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Government of Bangladesh.

Choe, K. and B. Roberts. 2011. Competitive Cities: Cluster-Based Local Economic Development Mandaluyan City: Philippines, sian Development Bank

Islam, N.  and H. Hossain, 1976. ‘Relationship of Urban Centres with their Rural Hinterlands, in National Report on Human Settlements, Dhaka: Government of Bangladsh.

Mahmud A., 2012, “Rajuk’s Capacity in Plan Implementation and Development Control of Dhaka City,” (New Age, Special Supplement on For a Livable Dhaka, April 23, 2012).

United Nations. 2004. World Urbanization Prospects, 2003. New York: Population Division of United Nations.

Facing the Challenge of Earthquakes in Bangladesh

With the experience of Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, North and South Region of America recently rescued operational methodology for earthquake, landslide, tsunami, floods and tidal force may be lesson learnt for disaster prone countries like Bangladesh.

In Japan, the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake that took place on March 11, 2011, resulted from thrust faulting on or near the subduction zone plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates, which resulted in at least 15700 people killed, 4600 missing, 5300 injured, around 13900 dwellings were displaced and 332,400 buildings, 2100 roads, 56 bridges and 26 railways damaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami along the entire east coast of the Japan peninsula. In Indonesia by tsunami with a wave height of two meters thousands of helpless people were flashed away in the catastrophe.

Every year we face several natural disasters like cyclones, tornadoes, tidal waves and floods in Bangladesh. But in recent times we have to think of another disaster which could be a very fatal for us. It is earthquake. A review of the earthquake chapter is needed to face any possible disaster in Dhaka and the country.

The extent to which buildings are damaged by an earthquake generally depends on the structural characteristics, severity of ground shaking and collateral hazards. The performance of the engineered building in an earthquake is usually linked to the building code. The engineered buildings typically performed much better than non-engineered ones when exposed to the same earthquake ground shaking hazard, all other factors such as age and quality of construction being equal.

The building code integrates the amplitude, frequency composition and duration of the ground motion input at the site, the building materials and the quality of construction. Because the life safety is the fundamental assertion on which all building codes are based, building construction in accordance with modern building code are expected not to collapse in a major earthquake, to suffer only repairable damage in moderate to large magnitude earthquakes, and to suffer only minor damage in low to moderate magnitude earthquakes.

Observation of the nature and spatial distribution of damage in past earthquakes have provided the best lessons and insights on building performance. Post earthquake studies have shown what to expect about the performance of specific building types, which can be used as a guide for improving risk assessment and risk management. Further such knowledge enabled us to reduce the loss from ground shaking, ground failure, surface fault rupture, regional tectonic deformation, tsunami wave run-up, and aftershocks.

Within minutes of shaking, the earthquake reveals the vulnerabilities of buildings, households and communities of a country. The consequences expose flaws in governance, planning, siting of physical structure, design, construction, and use of the built environment in a country with seismic hazard. The scale of physical damage and social disruption inflicted upon a community or nation by an earthquake event is the measure of how vulnerable the community or the nation is. Vulnerability is a set of prevailing or consequential conditions, which adversely affect an individual, a household or a community. Vulnerability can also be defined as the degree of loss to a given element at risk, or set of such elements, resulting from an earthquake of a given magnitude for intensity, which is usually expressed on a scale from 0 (no damage) to 10 (total loss). A range of factors, including the following, determines vulnerability:

  1.  The population density
  2. Level and nature of physical assets
  3. The location of these assets with respects to hazardous areas
  4. Economic activities located in the earthquake risk zones.
  5. Human action and hazards continually interact to alter vulnerability, both at the household and macroeconomic level.
  6. Poor design and construction practice. Seismic design provisions were not mandatory in the building permit process. Lateral seismic load was not considered in the design.
  7. Presence of soft stories for commercial and parking purposes
  8. Lack of proper seismic detailing, inadequate spacing and improper bending of transverse reinforcement steel in the columns, inadequate splice and embodiment length for the longitudinal bars in the columns.
  9. Pounding effect due to the lack of appropriate space between buildings.
  10. Poor quality of materials and poor quality control.
  11. Addition of load without any consideration of the design (e.g., huge water tanks and in one case, even a swimming pool was added to the rooftop when the buildings were already in use).

Earthquakes affect the full range of social classes-from royalties to the homeless. Apparently, earthquake treats everyone equally. However, some are more equal than others! Actually, the poor and socially disadvantaged groups of the society are the most vulnerable to, and affected by, earthquakes and other natural hazards, reflecting their social, cultural, economic and political environment. Usually, communities in seismic countries are subject to a multitude of natural hazards and environmental problems. The natural hazards themselves are the source of transient hardship and distress, and a factor contributing to persistent poverty. Disasters exacerbate poverty by inflicting physical damage, loss of income-generating opportunities and resulting indebtedness. Thus at the household level, poverty is the single most important factor determining vulnerability to natural hazards including earthquake. The vulnerability is reflective of:

  1. The location of housing (poor and marginal lands).
  2. Poor quality building (non-engineered, using poor quality materials).
  3. Primary types of occupation, level of access to capital (low).
  4. Degree (low) of concentration of assets.

The type of housing construction is a major risk factor for injuries due to earthquakes. Statistics for 1950-1990 show that the greatest proportion of victims die in the collapse of masonry buildings (e.g., adobe, rubble, stone, rammed earth, or un-reinforced fire-brick and concrete block masonry buildings). Such buildings are known to have collapsed even at low intensities of ground shaking. Generally these buildings have heavy roofs and walls. During collapse, they kill many of the people inside. The wood frame houses and concrete-frame houses, if constructed with adequate engineering, are generally safer i.e. they are less likely to collapse. Non-engineered concrete-frame buildings are vulnerable and, when they collapse, they are considerably more lethal and kill higher percentage of people than masonry structures.

While the building code is mandatory in China and Japan, and they have developed the required institutional capacity and the municipal levels in many countries, the seismic building code is not yet a recommended practice in Bangladesh, and the municipal organisations do not have the institutional capacity for the strict implementation of the seismic code for building construction.

A nation or its government in a seismic country is vulnerable to earthquake and disaster risks unless it actively realises the inevitability of earthquakes and the threat they represent to the nation. Nations declare policies to protect people, property, and community resources and provide the legal mandate for implementing mitigation, preparedness, emergency response, and recovery and reconstruction and regulation. Countries without such policies in line with their developmental policies are vulnerable to disasters, including earthquake disaster.

Earthquakes affect everyone and everything in a community. It is not only that buildings are damaged or destroyed and infrastructure is rendered non-operational. Like every other natural hazard, earthquakes can destroy centres of economic, cultural and social activities. In such case, a devastating earthquake disturbs the economic, cultural and social aspects of communities.

The susceptibility of any community or nation to be affected by an earthquake in terms of the disruption to political, economic and cultural relationships or interdependency among the different social constituencies, and the inability to restore these interdependencies to the pre –earthquake levels can be termed the social vulnerability to earthquakes. We usually hear that the development process of a country has stopped due to the impact of one or more disasters. This is due to the vulnerability of the country to natural hazards. Years after the earthquake events, countries like Nicaragua, Turkey, and India are grappling to undo the effects of earthquake on development.

In Bangladesh, Mymensingh, Sylhet and Rangpur are located in the earthquake prone zone. Seven major earthquakes in this region were reported in the last 150 years. The epicentres of two of these were within the territory of the country. More than 90 per cent of structures in the country are non-engineered buildings which are most vulnerable to earthquakes. So, some of these vulnerable buildings need to be demolished to avert major causalities in case of an earthquake. In the old part of the city, rescuers with heavy equipment will not have access to many areas. We will be able to carry only some light equipment and conduct rescue operations if any disaster occurs.

Fire service stations, hospitals and educational institutions should immediately be made resistant to earthquakes to facilitate rescue work directly after disaster. The authorities should also ensure the implementation of the National Building Code 1993, which now awaits a parliamentary nod. A moderate tremor could severely damage many important installations, including most fire service stations and hospitals, therefore, these structures should be rejuvenated so that earthquake disaster management is not hampered. A massive public awareness campaign about post earthquake scenarios should also be launched, because most people are in the dark about how they will manage the post earthquake scenario.

In case of an earthquake, half of the causalities would occur due to building collapse and the rest because of fire and smoke. To minimize the causalities, all multistoried buildings must have prominently defined exit ways. Buildings having parking facilities on the first floors with exposed pillars are most vulnerable to earthquake. We should take measures to strengthen those pillars by constructing concrete walls taking into consideration the use of the area as a car park. RAJUK must step up monitoring and supervision of constructions.

Earthquake loads are similar to that of wind load but are much shorter and sharper. A wooden or R.C.C structure designed to stand in its inciter of relative rest under a wind load of 15-20 Ib/sq.ft is thought to have the capability of withstanding most earthquakes. But masonry does not have such resilience and under sudden shape loading entire masonry may collapse during severe shocks.

Once constructed, the buildings are to withstand great many different and sometimes many hostile stresses during their lifetime. Some of them are imposed by the nature such as the load of wind, rainfall, tidal waves, earthquakes etc. Geo-physical data are much more useful and informative from an architect’s point of view. One must also be aware of the extremes of weather in the region. Further, these extremes are useful only if they occur at regular and frequent intervals. Therefore, a logical approach to the design and construction of structures should take into account these hostile forces for creating a safe and lasting architecture.

Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) must be followed to avoid much destruction, damage and loss.