A language for riverbanks

A language for riverbanks

The relationship between rivers and settlements is an ancient one. In fact, major cities of the world have originated on the banks of rivers, with the river as sustenance for water, as well as transportation, irrigation, climatic and ecological benefits. For some cities, the relationship was sacred and spiritual. A more urgent aspect of rivers, as far as they flow through or along contemporary cities, is the value of the riverbanks. A linear zone of reciprocity, riverbanks define the edge between land and water. In the modern experience of the city, riverbanks also define a natural space for staging the public realm and for creating public spaces.


Italo Calvino, in one of his stories in Invisible Cities, described how when one arrives at a city, by land or by water, one will experience a different city. Arriving by water, the edge of the river (the riverbank) or the sea (the coast) become the critical portal of that arrival. The riverbank also evokes the elusive kul and kinar, which the boatmen (majhi) of Bengal are in a perpetual pursuit of in their mystical songs and poems. In talking about rivers, we cannot overlook riverbanks, the kinar, that extended portal between land and water.

Sadarghat Chattar

In Dhaka, and other cities in Bangladesh, the urban riverbank displays a dire condition in which it has become the prime victim of a “wild urbanisation”. The edge, the banks of the river, becomes an occasion for the defilement of the river, of encroachment and occupation, and a reversal of the celebrated status of the river. Most rivers have become drainage channels, and riverbanks are a sorry environmental predicament. Conventional urban planning policies and practices aggravate this condition by propounding a “dry ideology” in which, as Kazi Khaleed Ashraf writes for us, a constructed difference between the dry and the wet justifies the defilement. The wet, represented by the river, is pushed back by the technologies of the dry regime: the dyke, the embankment, and the landfill. This is certainly astonishing considering how the land in this region is still beheld as a gift of the rivers, and how in rural and non-urban areas, rivers and riverbanks continue the ancient relationship of a symbiosis.
The deltaic region in which a city like Dhaka is situated is a symbiosis of land and water. In his writings, Ashraf has alerted us how in the Bengal Delta, land is borrowed from water. What is also important to realise is that the symbiosis is one of continuous flux, in which the presence of land and water is constantly shifting, due to, most importantly, the kinetics of the deltaic water flow and the sediment in it. This is the nature of what some call the liquid landscape.
In a liquid landscape, the natural recourse is planning around land and water. The presence and the flux of water determine the riverbank and this is also where the embankments and landfill are at play. Responding to this hydro-geographic system, urban growth, and an appetite for urban land, requires an urban and architectural language that should be a model that provides a new paradigm for the city, landscape, and the community.
A contemporary vision for the city, as Ashraf argues, should start from the edge, the riverbank where the landscape meets the wet domain. That edge is where “the ‘built’ meets its antithesis, where the ‘infrastructure’ meets with the ‘non-structure’, the developed meets the ‘primitive’ and the ‘dry’ with the ‘wet’.”
Along with policy framing, three dimensional visualisation has to be incorporated for recognition of the terrain of the edge, the riverbank. An architectural and urban language is a necessity for inhabiting the edge.
The riverbank is a public realm, to be accessed, occupied and experienced by all citizens. An uninterrupted access for and belonging to the public should be the motto of a riverbank policy. A tree lined public space on the riverbanks is the simplest and most common step in terms of treating the edge. A definitive order of the riverbank could be achieved if there is a clear urban and architectural language involving walkways and promenades dedicated for public use along with some other public and civic amenities. Based on edge typologies, that include the fluctuating nature of the landscape, different human based activities can take place that accentuate the ethos of the riverbank. Broader and specific studies can reveal kinds the of buildings, public spaces, events that should take place along the riverbanks and canal fronts.

Buriganga, Ahsan Manzil side

An extended system for environmental remediation on the riverbank could also be a holistic approach. Riverbanks could be constructed as an integral landscape with boulevards, terraces, natural drainage systems, with an alignment with water-bodies to address the fluctuation of water.
Since its inception, Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements has been dedicated to advancing the ethos of riverbanks and developing an urban language for that contested spine. The Institute also had the opportunity to work in a number of towns in Bangladesh where the river was a principal protagonist in the urban imaginary. We share here some projects that demonstrate the possibility of a new language of riverbanks.


Buriganga Riverbank, Dhaka
Water in the form of rivers, canals, ponds, and floodplains composed the geography of Dhaka city that provided ecological, communication, drainage and economic values, and lifestyle for the people. The Buriganga River represented that water dynamic for Dhaka until its deterioration in recent times. For an ecological, economic, transport and cultural reinvigoration of Dhaka, a radical reclamation of Buriganga river and its banks on both sides is crucial. The riverfront and its edge could be organised by providing renewed recreational, civic, economic and transportation facilities for the whole city. Invited by the World Bank and the Dhaka South City Corporation in 2016, a conceptual plan was prepared for a new public realm on the Buriganga riverbank.

South gateway

Surma Riverbank, Sylhet City
Surma River glides softly through Sylhet creating a blue and green ribbon to the city. However, the banks of the river are in most cases desolate and barren of public spaces. The proposal provides a new ribbon of continuous public space on both banks, continuing across the Keane Bridge. Plazas, gardens, and pavilion-like buildings are proposed at strategic points. In certain areas, where shops have encroached on the banks, a new arrangement is suggested in which opening to the river is between structures that are positioned at two levels of the banks.

Kainmari Canal, Mongla
Mongla Town is located at the periphery of the great Sundarban Forest. Kainmari Canal flows gently along the eastern edge of Mongla, defining a quasi urban condition on one side of the canal and a rural environment on the other side. The edge remains undefined and raw. The new plan will not only make the edge of the canal usable with walkways and landscapes appropriate to the place, but will also create a bridge between the two domains.`

Padma Riverbank, Rajshahi
Rajshahi is the only major city that thrives on the banks of the mighty and tempestuous Padma River, considered the final leg of the River Ganges. Engineering installations of various types, from bankside embankments to projections, have managed to keep the mighty river at bay. This has also allowed a riverbank promenade with sedimented areas as potential sites for new developments. The project, developed at the invitation of Rajshahi City Corporation, heightens the riverbank experience with new promenades, parks, gardens, islands, and selected developments by taking the city to the edge of the river in a celebrated way..

Tribeni Canal, Narayanganj
Tribeni Canal is a water channel that links the Sitalakhya River in Narayanganj City with the Meghna. But now clogged and overfilled, Tribeni Canal requires a major restoration of its water system and the canalbanks. Our project involved creating a scheme for the public regeneration of the canal by creating walkways and bridges. The overall canal bank was conceived of as a linear landscape. With the canal being narrow, and in many places devoid of actual bank spaces, the project envisaged continuous walkways that also included zig-zag bridge-like walkways.

Nusrat Sumaiya’s major focus of work is to envision large scale developments and transcending the silos for smart cities along with their public domains.
Rida Haque works under Sumaiya’s supervision as a Junior Research and Design Associate at Bengal institute.

The relationship between rivers and settlements is an ancient one. In fact, major cities of the world have originated on the banks of rivers, with the river as sustenance for water, as well as transportation, irrigation, climatic and ecological benefits. For some cities, the relationship was sacred and spiritual. A more urgent aspect of rivers,…

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