Chattogram, formerly known as Chittagong, is Bangladesh’s second city. Its privileged geographical location facing the Bay of Bengal established the city as an important trading centre by the 15th century, a characteristic that remains into the 21st century. As the busiest seaport city in the country, Chattogram is a national economic hub of hundreds of the oldest and largest industries in Bangladesh as well as one of the country’s eight Export Processing Zones.

The city has grown by 3.6 percent per year across the 1990-2011 period, principally through internal migration, reflecting national patterns of urban growth since independence in 1971. Chattogram remains a popular destination for migrants from all over Bangladesh. The increasing pressure on infrastructure and frontline services, combined with the growing instability of rural livelihoods, provokes concern about the potential acceleration of this movement in the future due to climate change. Such hastened and poorly planned urbanisation has brought about high levels of impoverishment, exclusion and insecurity.  Residents working in informal sectors of the economy are pushed to inadequate and poorly-serviced settlements, located near and encircling Karnafully bridge and Chaktai canal low-lying areas. Central parts of the city as well as its slums are affected by flooding during high tide and the monsoon season. This also affects thousands of low-income migrant workers involved in garment scrape sorting, who live in the poor-quality houses of Charpara, Kathghar, and Potenga areas. Large communities grow around the railway lines criss-crossing different parts of Chattogram, bringing livelihood opportunities that are not without risk to life.

Urban dwellers occupying established slums in areas including Charpara, Kathghar, and Potenga are most concerned about flooding, and the timely availability and quality of civic services such as safe drinking water, cooking gas and sanitation facilities. Personal safety is especially of concern for female residents, who complain about lack of privacy and dignity, and incidences of sexual harassment due to the inadequate provision of streetlights and toilet facilities across the city. The fragility of livelihoods and incomes is an overarching thread, which defines the experiences of a great number of Chattogram residents, whether male or female. For example, migrants working as street hawkers talk about the multiple challenges they face each day struggling to make a living, from police fines, through bribes, to losses incurred due to perishable goods. All the while these hawkers’ very presence on busy commuting routes is flagged as a problem by policymakers, who talk about safety hazards and hindrance to the flow of traffic on the city’s busy roads.

When we asked residents about their everyday experiences of wellbeing and security in Chattogram, their photographs revealed a divergent trajectory between positive and negative dimensions of self-reported wellbeing. In follow-up discussions they reported high levels of happiness alongside frequent feelings of anxiety, worry, and hopelessness/depression, and talked about their concerns and insecurity relating to food, housing, income, and poor health. When they delve deeper into the reasons behind frequent sentiments of worry and anxiety, it becomes apparent that urban residents are indeed exposed to a variety of social, economic and environmental risks, both visible and invisible, in Chattogram. Their lived experiences of these are not homogenous, and their prioritisation of the challenges they face depends on their gender, ethnic identity and where they live.

The photographs taken by Chattogram’s residents suggest that wellbeing of urban populations is therefore central to building safe and sustainable cities, and to avoiding poverty traps for individuals and communities. Evidence from developing countries worldwide indicate that low-income populations and discrete ethnic minority groups moving to urban centres often cluster in areas where they are exposed to environmental hazards such as poor sanitation and water quality, flooding or landslides, and also face differential access to services and labour markets. Hence, a major challenge for rapidly expanding urban centres is to create safe and sustainable urbanisation transitions. Chattogram’s residents argue that a potential pathway to pursue a trajectory towards sustainability is to strengthen legitimate and inclusive governance by integrating the needs of urban populations, with the work of urban planning offices focused on addressing the challenges associated with rapid urbanisation. Recognition of inequality is therefore necessary to ensure that the future of cities “leaves no one behind”.