Pandemics have always shaped cities. When a few centuries ago, it was believed that plague or disease was being caused by toxic vapours coming from the soil (the Dodgy Miasma theory), millions of square kilometers of pavements were lined and cemented with flagstones in cities.
The tracing of the Bubonic plague to the rat changed the thresholds of homes and their foundations. Cholera brought the birth of sewage systems and zoning laws (mandating changes in locational preferences), and wipe-clean aesthetics of modernism were largely inspired from the tuberculosis era.
Today, yet again, the Covid-19 outbreak has brought our cities at the centre of the pandemic. Even though the Indian government imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, the combination of density, poverty and poor sanitation has led to the spread of the virus.
“For cities to be sustainable, several changes were necessary, even before this pandemic. UN sustainable goal # 11 sets these requirements explicitly. And, while these goals were for 2030, Covid-19 has shown us the urgency to achieve them sooner,” told Anand Tamboli, Entrepreneur, Award-Winning Author, Global Speaker, Futurist to The Blue Circle.
Lessons from the past
It was in the mid-19th century that London introduced its pioneering sewer system to prevent the spread of cholera, a disease that constantly harrowed the city.
Several cities also recognised the need to de-congest residential areas and create green spaces, and thus parks became an integral part of urban design. One of the biggest examples is New York’s Central Park.
Epidemics resulted in changes in India cities as well. In 1898, two years after the Bubonic plague, the Bombay City Improvement Trust was established to de-congest Bombay’s overcrowded old town, through slum-clearance drives, and to provide housing to the under-privileged communities.
In Bengaluru, conservancy lanes (which separates two rows of houses) and the grid iron layout was introduced because of the Bubonic plague.
To flatten the curve, the importance of “social distancing” cannot be overstated, but the Indian urban cities are a complete antithesis. In Mumbai, the city with maximum covid 19 cases in India, the density is 31,700 persons per square kilometres, one of the highest in the world.
Space in urban centres is available at a premium, which is why compact city-planning models have been preferred. Such cities are generally more productive and manageable, but at the same time, are more vulnerable to disease and more strongly exhibit socio-economic disparities.
Urban sprawls on the other hand have better liveability and wellbeing during such a crisis.
Covid-19 will at least nudge planners to factor in mitigation strategies such as social distancing when conceptualising norms for all future planning.
Taking care of the vulnerable
The ‘Master Plan’ – a statutory document used to plan urban infrastructure and land use must be revisited and needs fundamental reforms, way beyond the archaic Town and Country Planning Acts.
These plans do not address the requirements of low-income households and the informal sector in an adequate manner.
The pandemic has highlighted again the need for building spaces that include non-segregated mixed-class, mixed-use neighbourhoods that allow people to support each other. This practice would ensure that vulnerable populations have access to the city centre and its resources, and they’re not neglected during a crisis.
There are some other simple measures such as widening of pavements that could happen after the pandemic. With a wider pavement, pedestrians can maintain more distance between each other and practice social distancing.
Bengaluru has been pioneering a different approach in the country, with their TenderSURE framework for the construction of urban roads. A major objective of the TenderSURE guidelines is to prioritise pedestrians by designing wider footpaths and walkable roads.
Parks and promenades
Outdoor spaces like parks and promenades, considered the “lungs for cities” have been shut to the public during the lockdown. This also brings us to the next important point, and that is we need more private outdoor space in dense cities.
In 2018, the Development Control Rules in Mumbai were amended, wherein balconies are included in the building’s floor space. Since this space is limited and comes at a premium, developers are increasingly leaving balconies out. This must change.
In order to ensure liveability and comfort in homes across income classes, projects will have to consider several factors: building typology, resource efficiency, common services related to water, energy, and waste, locational aspects, connectivity, and urban greenery.
There is also a need to introduce guidelines on material and architectural design to reduce air-conditioned hours for energy savings, and to optimise access to daylight. Designs must also integrate adequate green spaces that allow mutual shading of buildings and reduce heat load in the immediate neighbourhood.
Locations should be earmarked in master plans to improve area advantages, transport connectivity of affordable housing and self-constructed settlements. This will reduce economic and social costs of living.
Besides, since low-income groups construct their own homes, they must be provided with technical knowledge and professional help.
Professional architects and planners have come together to provide design support and training to the self-constructed settlements of Dharavi and Shivaji Nagar in Mumbai, and Mangolpuri in New Delhi. This initiative must be taken forward in other cities.
According to statistics, India’s top six metropolitan cities witness 40 million trips made on public transport systems, including trains and buses. This also leads to a high density of touch points.
While cities may mandate 30-50% occupancy in buses and trains to reduce infection risks, improvement in capacity is equally critical. Public transport systems such as the Mumbai local train and Delhi Metro have raised significant fears in spreading the contagion.
In other parts of the world, where long commutes are a norm, “15 minute cities” are being planned in Melbourne, Ottawa, Detroit and Paris.
In India, the average city dweller spends nearly 7 percent of his day commuting. In 15-minute cities, the city is broken into self-sufficient neighborhoods with work, study, and recreation all in the same region. This is not only environmentally sustainable, but will also help prevent the spread of disease.
“Pandemic has proven that not everyone needs to travel to their office for work, not all the consumption is essential, and the struggle for the basic needs is still a reality for the significant population in cities. If we pay attention to these indications, we must drive the transformation along these lines,” said Anand, adding that transformed cities will make sure that people do not travel unless it is necessary, and will promote responsible consumption and conservation.
In Covid-era when travelling, trains, buses and metro trains which are less full are required. This can be achieved by increasing their frequency. Cities would benefit from diversifying their means of public transport so that commuters have more options. This often works out cheaper than building more roads.
Since 2014, Chennai and Pune have created over 100 km of pedestrian-friendly streets. Chennai is accelerating this effort through the Mega Streets programme, and expanding the programme to 10 more cities.
Use the opportunity
We have built our cities to maximize economic activity that completely ignores sustainability aspects. Due to lockdown, all this infrastructure was underutilized. It was the first time in our generation people saw how pollution-free cities could look and feel. It was the first time when people realized what is must-have and what is good-to-have.
“The pandemic has allowed us to take a fresh and hard look at our city and systems and then transform them. It will be a sheer waste of such an opportunity if we don’t act on it,” said Anand.