It’s no doubt that the coronavirus has come with a new set of learnings. Apart from raising environmental awareness, the pandemic has raised several questions about the shape of our cities, the spatial planning of our homes, and the layout of our neighbourhoods.
With social distancing likely to be the norm over the near future, we need to analyse how a city’s design impacts health, social mobility and disease control, among other things. And how, in the coming months, India’s dense cities need to adapt. And quickly.
We speak to urban design experts and an anthropologist for their recommendations.
Siddhartha Benninger, Project Planner Centre for Development Studies and Activities, Pune
Good urban design has always been a necessity, but it needs data and feedback loops. For most cities, the data is not really structured for planning and research. Our Quantified Cities Movement (QCM) was created to ask relevant planning questions and facilitate data collection. Powered by a mobile application called iNagrik (the Android version will be out in a month), a real-time online mapping system, and a dashboard that is linked to the app’s uploads, QCM encourages citizens to report various situations linked to quality-of-life indicators (walkability, bus stop surveys, feedback on roads, etc) through the app.
Once the lockdown ends, we aim to continue enabling young citizens to collect data on various such indicators including, but not limited to, the incidence of diseases at Pune’s hospitals and clinics. This is to assist the city in carrying out ‘passive disease surveillance’. The data is crucial for identifying better urban management protocols and evolving a better built environment.
The changes I’d like to see:
1. City densities ranging between 400 and 600 persons per hectare (this number can increase based on facilities and services available, but I would advise against it)
2. Sanitation facilities and safety information at bus and metro stops, rail stations, inside buses and trains, in public toilets, other public spaces
3. Wider footpaths and walkable streets so that people don’t crowd together on narrow footpaths.
4. An upgrade to health facilities
Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The emergency has reinforced the fact that housing policies and interventions will have to change in the post-pandemic period. 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, urban greenery, etc.
We now need comprehensive guidelines and mandates on material and architectural design to reduce air-conditioned hours for energy savings, optimise access to daylight, and maintain humidity, wind and temperature standards inside structures. Designs must integrate adequate green spaces that allow mutual shading of buildings and reduce heat load and heat island effect 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.
It’s also important to understand that low-income groups construct their own homes; providing them with technical knowledge and professional help is needed. This will enable them to build airy and bright spaces. 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.
Aswathy Dilip, Senior Programme Manager, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Chennai
In all Indian cities, formal and informal public transport — including rail, bus and auto-rickshaws — are the backbone of mobility. In Mumbai, a whopping 12 million+ trips are made daily on buses and sub-urban rail — 65% of the city’s motorised trips. So, as we resume activities, these modes will need strategic planning to be efficient as before. They can become hotspots for transmission if they get too crowded.
Under these challenging conditions, cities across the world are radically re-imagining the allocation of street space to promote sustainable mobility that is resilient to future shocks and equitable. Earlier this month, in Bogota, South America, 76 km of temporary cycle lanes were added (to its 550 km cycling network) along the Transmilenio, the city’s BRT routes. Berlin is using tapes and mobile markers to create quick ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes and has listed cycle service shops as an essential service. Milan plans to encourage walking and cycling with low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new widened sidewalks, reducing speed limits to 30 kph, etc. To ensure physical distancing in shopping districts, London and Dublin are widening sidewalks with temporary cones.
Due to the severe heat and the absence of safe infrastructure, cycling has not been popular in Indian cities. However, with a surge in cycling groups, this could be the golden opportunity for cities to embrace cycling. Cities like Chennai and Pune have created over 100 km of pedestrian-friendly streets since 2014. Further, Chennai is quadrupling its efforts this year through the Mega Streets programme, inspired by which the State has expanded the programme to 10 more cities.
As cities take proactive actions to encourage walking and cycling, they are also taking strong measures to reduce virus transmission on public transportation. Bogota, Auckland, and Singapore are marking seating and standing positions to ensure physical distance on public transport, and transit apps help track occupancy within buses. Masks are compulsory for staff and commuters. China’s Shenzhen bus group has established the Emergency Health and Safety Working group, and vehicles, terminals, and offices are regularly cleaned and sanitised.
These solutions must be contextualised for India. In addition to sanitation measures, we need to find innovative ways to avoid crowding. The current crisis is an opportunity to reimagine a future where we create self-sufficient neighbourhoods with safe walking and cycling infrastructure. As well as build safe and accessible public transport for all sections of society.
Karen Coelho, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai
As in every disaster or crisis — whether floods, cyclones or this pandemic — areas with dense concentrations of the urban poor are impacted far more than the rest of the city. These are places where infrastructure and amenities are poor even in normal times.
Erratic water supply, broken drains, patchy electricity, absent streetlights, inadequate classrooms and childcare centres, in addition to precarious livelihoods and few opportunities results in a high incidence of social pathologies like alcoholism, drug abuse, and youth crime. The large resettlement colonies in Chennai have all these problems, exacerbated by their distance from the city centre.
The pandemic has highlighted again the need for building spaces that are not ghettos, but non-segregated mixed-class, mixed-use neighbourhoods that allow people to support each other. Such mixing would ensure that neglect and poverty is not locked into pockets, that vulnerable populations have access to the city centre and its resources, and they’re not neglected during a crisis.