COVID-19 lessons: What city planners, governments and residents must think about


Representational image by Vidur Malhotra/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The first announcement of a nationwide lockdown in March brought in its wake anxiety, panic, confusion. Shutting down of offices and factories, public transport, day-care and other services hit the economy badly. Companies introduced ‘work from home’ options, cities struggled to provide basic services and amenities while maintaining safety regulations, public transport came to a stop, and the unpreparedness of our health care facilities to tackle the pandemic stood out stark and clear.

In all this, the one question that has dominated mindspace is: How long can we lock down the nation? We need to move-on but safely.

The world has witnessed many epidemics in the past, each one bringing a change in society in some way. Cities are dynamic but they also need to be flexible to adapt to the required change during such a pandemic.

Cities are densely populated, needless to say, they attract migrants from near and far for employment and better facilities. Historically, urban planners and policymakers have been striving hard to accommodate this increasing population by designing compact and high-rise, high-density settlements. But the current pandemic has put a question mark on these very strategies.

Given the current situation, we need to build strategies that can bring cities back to life safely.

Data and digital upgrade

We need to be ready with digitised and updated maps of land-use, population density, building density, road network, etc. This will help authorities identify the areas that could be more prone to the pandemic as well as the areas, spaces or buildings that could offer relief in any way during a public health crisis or even natural/accidental calamities (hospitals, quarantine wards, temporary labs for testing, shelters etc).

Urban density

The density of cities is a vital determinant in the ease of curbing any epidemic, most relevant in situations such as the present, where physical distancing is critical. High density areas, slum areas are the ones that have a high potential to spread any epidemic.

Reasons include unhygienic conditions, less scope of physical distancing, lower levels of awareness, common amenities (water and sanitation), unavoidable public gatherings, etc.

Yet, density of population is inevitable in cities. High rise built forms can accommodate high density while ensuring physical distancing. We also need to think of mixed-use development to ensure basic facilities and amenities. This may restrict people from leaving the community for daily chores.

Existing spaces such as play-grounds, could be used to provide extra temporary toilets to avoid crowding, temporary quarantine wards, etc.

Dynamic urban forms

Is increasing built space to accommodate more people with required physical distancing indeed a solution? Can we really afford that economically or spatially?

Our cities have to be dynamic and learn to plan a collaborative, interdisciplinary way to fight such unprecedented issues.
We have to think afresh about reducing density at market places, work-places and public venues.

Work from home for say 30% of the workforce every day would limit work-place density. Home delivery of essentials (as it has already boosted) and online shopping can further ensure physical distancing in the society and reduce market population density.

We may also have to think about reducing built spaces in the city and increase unbuilt spaces which can be used as required in any contingency, such as the present pandemic (think, quarantine wards in today’s scenario). Temporary fast build structures can help create the required spaces.

Traffic and transportation

Till recently, there was a push for public transport and mass transit which may now shift towards private modes, further increasing traffic. Reducing the need for physical presence at the workplace and in markets may help to curb the traffic situation a bit.

As public transport opens up, providers have to ensure safety norms to be followed by the passenger: sanitizing of hands before entering the vehicle, maintaining social distance while entering, in transit as well as during exit from the vehicle, contactless ticketing. Authorities may explore ways of non-fare box revenue generation.

Safety regulations notwithstanding, ridership of public transport is sure to come down at least for a certain period of time. This may force the operators to increase service charges and may further reduce ridership. How can the utilities be made sustainable till ridership picks up?

Such circumstances call for fresh thinking too; for example, can the huge depots that they have be leased out temporarily to build quarantine wards or health care and testing centres? Can this space be utilised to provide basic amenities to nearby areas?

Contactless essential services

With online shopping, home delivered groceries and medicines, we also need a contactless garbage collection system. Though a few gated communities have this system in place, independent housing societies lack this kind of infrastructure.

Drinking water is also an issue in many areas. In areas without piped water supply, people prefer buying packaged drinking water and there is no contactless delivery option available for this service. Having municipal water connections in all residential areas could have avoided this.

This pandemic has definitely made citizens more aware of the importance of hygiene, distancing and overall wellness practices. Even as we plan and design our cities and buildings to tackle this pandemic and respond better to future contingencies, implementation and behavioural change across society will be the key to success of such planning measures.

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About Trupti Deshpande 2 Articles
Trupti Deshpande is an architect and town planner working with a research organisation on urban transport in Bengaluru.

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