Sylhet is no longer a small town. Sylhet is not like Dhaka either. Sylhet has its own distinctive architectural and urban characteristics. In producing an urban vision for Sylhet for the immediate future, Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements proposed the motto: “Let Sylhet be Sylhet. Let Sylhet be more Sylhet.”
Located at the foothills of Khasia and Jayantia hills and Surma River, Sylhet city and its regions are highly distinctive. An exuberant natural environment of haor–baor (wetlands), waterfall-chhora, hills and hillocks, and tea gardens adds to the richness. Natural places, shrines of saints, close-ties with England, altogether also make Sylhet an attractive destination for tourists and travelers.
Sylhet city however requires a new civic vision to preserve its uniqueness, and make it even more flourishing and organized. With its present 26.5 square kilometers area and population of 5,00,000, Sylhet city has gone through major administrative transformations but without proper urban planning. Moreover the “Sylheti” ambience is being lost in the process of a small town heading towards becoming a big city.
At the broadest scale of the city, Bengal Institute focused on a number of existing primary roads in which two new ring roads were proposed on existing ones. By circling around the city center and connecting across the Surma River, the ring roads may provide a renewed and attractive identity to the city center. The rings roads will also connect major urban nodes and places, but most importantly organize vehicular and pedestrian in a more efficient and civic manner.
A principal idea of “Sylhet Next” is to restructure the conditions of the old and existing city center for more efficient and enjoyable urban experiences. The possibilities of renovating Surma riverbank areas adjacent to Keane Bridge and Kazir Bazar Bridge, and selected city intersections or nodes were studied.
At the north-western side of Keane Bridge, new lively plaza can be created including Ali Amzad’s Clock, existing theatre facilities, and surrounding houses; the area can be renamed as Uttar Chottor. Devoted to pedestrians, the plaza along with adjoining areas can become more attractive with nicely paved walkway along the riverbank, sitting arrangements for pedestrians, and facilities around a new theatre complex.
Currently, there are rows of shops beside the existing road along north riverbank towards Kazir Bazar Bridge. Made of old timber columns and doors, these shop structures give the city an image and ambience from another time. Since all the shops are placed along the riverbank, they however create a visual obstruction and separate the city from river. Adapting a building typology from Sylhet, new shop clusters can be arranged but with a better relationship with the river. With open areas between shop clusters, Surma River will have exposure from street. These two-storied buildings will rehabilitate existing shops with new ones at the ground floor. Upper floor may have small offices and café-restaurants.
Keane Bridge establishes connection between north and south banks of Surma River. Yet the south side of the river lacks attractive public destinations. Using a typology of two-storied tropical bungalows found in Sylhet, buildings with shops, cafés and restaurants, and other facilities, can be organized at strategic locations on the south side especially at the foot of Keane Bridge. The whole stretch of the southern riverbank can be an urban forest with occasional public spaces and activities along organized walkways.
With Sylhet’s dynamic growth, it is expected there will be need for modern building types providing a new urban environment. A convention center may be a necessity for the city that can also act as key catalyst in the city’s development. The center can host big events, including gatherings of various capacities, exhibitions and venue for different programs. The large undulating roof sheltering the public lobby of the center can be covered by grass allowing people to gather on the roof. With the big volumes for assembly spaces and the undulating roof, the whole center will resemble the hilly terrain of Sylhet.
There are very few proper parks or destinations for children in the city. An innovative new park can be built for children utilizing the underused spaces of old railway’s warehouse, station and rail lines. With the park on one side, and the river on the other, a big pavilion structure on the riverbank may be used for multi-purpose family gatherings.
Chhoras (canals) that flow down from the hills, and their banks, need to be preserved. They are a distinctive feature of the city, but almost all chhoras flowing in the city are neglected. As these canals drain hilly flashfloods towards the river, it is necessary to maintain continuous flow in order to keep the city safe from disaster. An innovative recreational opportunity can be created by making special walkways along these chhoras. By planting special local plants, building bamboo bridges and walkways, and providing resting spots, a pleasant walkable environment may be created.
The old jail complex has great potentiality. After the scheduled relocation of the present jail, the whole area with its buildings and spaces can become a lively public place with parks, ponds, gardens, cultural facilities, and perhaps new theatre complex. Old buildings can be preserved to make for museum, galleries, art and music school, and other facilities.
A number of important road intersections define Sylhet city, but due to lack of proper planning almost every intersection has insufficient walkways, parking facility and chaotic traffic situation. Bengal Institute presented ideas for thoughtful transformation of these intersections that can change the quality of life of the whole city.
February 8, 2023
BI / BAU Works: Phultola Community Center, Khulna, 2018