In this blog, our team in Bangladesh reflects on how they are utilising the collaborative design of our international urban research project to help train early career researchers and future urban planners with the skills they need to understand and support sustainable neighbourhoods.

As part of our research activities for the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC), we were tasked with understanding sustainability at the neighbourhood level in Dhaka and Khulna. During the theoretical and conceptual development for this research task, the Bangladesh team realised that conducting a sustainability audit of neighbourhoods is seldom practised in Bangladesh. When we spoke to expert academics we noticed that attempts to apply a holistic spatial approach for neighbourhood auditing have been limited.

So, we decided to work closely with future planners and early career academics to transfer skills for sustainability auditing at the neighbourhood level, co-understand the critical issues regarding sustainability in Bangladeshi neighbourhoods and create ‘neighbourhood sustainability champions’ for the promotion of neighbourhood sustainability thinking for future urban planning research and practice.

More than 40 undergraduate students and two faculty members of the Urban and Rural planning Discipline at Khulna University took part in our training activities. Participants were involved in our neighbourhood fieldwork and data entry and played a major role in conducting the Neighbourhood Sustainability Audit (NSA). Students now have new theortical knowledge of sustainable neighbourhoods and firsthand practical experience in applying innovative tools to conduct a neighbourhod sustainability audit.

Briefing session on neighbourhood sustainability at Khulna University. Credit: SHLC-BD
Briefing session on neighbourhood sustainability at Khulna University. Credit: SHLC-BD
Training in action: lets get to work

As a first step, students and teachers were introduced to the concept of a sustainable neighbourhood during lectures and practical studio work as part of their course on ‘Urban Development Planning’. After introductory lectures, students were then asked to develop their own conceptual framework to conduct a neighbourhood sustainability audit.

Students got the chance to compare their ideas with the wider SHLC tools and during a participatory workshop, they helped co-develop tools that can fit the local Bangladeshi context whilst also capturing international perspectives of neighbourhood sustainability.

Dr. Shilpi Roy and Professor Tanjil Sowgat brief Khulna University students on neighbourhood sustainability audit. Credit: SHLC-BD
Dr. Shilpi Roy and Professor Tanjil Sowgat brief Khulna University students on neighbourhood sustainability audit. Credit: SHLC-BD

Students then got the chance to apply the tools in the field. Over an intensive 23 days of fieldwork o they researched 14 neighbourhoods in Dhaka and Khulna using a variety of sustainability tools such as, neighbourhood history, housing,  land use pattern,  and location of key recreation facilities, analysis of roads, drains and footpaths. SHLC’s urban research team in Bangladesh supported and supervised the students to help share knowledge and solve problems.

Khulna University students interviewing an urban resident. Credit: SHLC-BD
Khulna University students interviewing an urban resident. Credit: SHLC-BD

Once the raw data were gathered, they learned how to prepare fresh data sheets to support the data entry process, which was used to underpin spatial data analysis using tools like SPSS, ArcGIS, R and Stata.

Students prepare data sheets from their field data sheets under the supervision of Nafisa Anjum, Research Associate. Credit: SHLC-BD
Students prepare data sheets from their field data sheets under the supervision of Nafisa Anjum, Research Associate. Credit: SHLC-BD
Putting lessons into practice

These training activities engaged 40 students as well as 800 people from 17 communities in Dhaka and Khulna. Professor Tanjil Sowgat, In-Country CO-Investigator for  the SHLC team in Bangladesh said:

 ‘‘Through active engagement and learning, this training has promoted new thinking around creating sustainable neighbourhoods and applying tools, like the neighbourhood sustainability audit,  among students studying our Urban and Rural Planning discipline.’’

Students engaged in the event said that they benefited profoundly from this practical training and the experience created an amazing learning opportunity for them. Rabeya Sultana Oishi, a student, added:

 ‘‘I have learnt a lot from this engagement. I am now more aware of the key issues around the sustainability of our neighbourhoods and intend to do further research in the coming days.’’

Three students already decided to conduct their final year thesis on neighbourhood sustainability and many more showed interest in focusing their future studies on ‘neighbourhood planning’. Paula, who just has started her dissertation, stated:

‘‘Diversity and isolation are two interesting players in neighbourhood sustainability. I realised these issues while conducting the interviews during SHLC fieldwork. I want to do my thesis on this and want to contribute to the future knowledge’’.

Students at Khulna University prepare data sheets for GIS analysis. Credit: SHLC-BD
Students at Khulna University prepare data sheets for GIS analysis. Credit: SHLC-BD

Field surveys helped students understand a new and innovative tool in understanding the neighbourhoods, and they intend to use this knowledge in future. Abdullah Haque Abir said:

‘‘It was a once in a lifetime experience for me. From this event, I learnt about different tools and their application for assessing the sustainability of a neighbourhood. This project also taught time management and how to co-produce work through joint efforts.”

Jobaer Ahmed added:

“SHLC has provided an opportunity to have professional experience before our graduation. It helped to develop communication skills, filed work management skills and teamwork”.  

Building skills for our urban leaders of the future

Practical training achieved two outcomes: ensuring efficient data collection for the wider SHLC urban research project whilst also building capacity of the students and faculty members through fieldwork experience and sharing of knowledge.

Dr. Shilpi Roy, Co-Investigator for the SHLC project in Bangladesh said:

‘‘We initially wanted to hire professional surveyors for the Neighbourhood Sustainability Audit, Then, we thought that we could instead transfer our knowledge and skill to our students and teachers by engaging them in our fieldwork.  They are now inspired, motivated and committed to the delivery of sustainable communities as the future planners’’.

Shilpi’s comment was echoed by many students. Samiul Islam said:

“Working with such intelligent and exemplary leaders, coordinators, and group mates in such an international project was a great experience. Thanks to Team-SHLC-Bangladesh for introducing us to the new tools and techniques for sustainability assessment.”

For more information, watch this photomontage of the event via Youtube.