Cities in the time of COVID-19

The current scenario underscores the need to make cities adapt and respond to threats through effective planning

By Rajneesh Sareen, Mitashi Singh
Published: Monday 13 April 2020

Our cities are living beings. They constantly change to reflect what was needed, similar to when there was a need for protection from enemy invasion during medieval times.

A walled city encircled by a moat, narrow lanes with sharp turns, sudden dead ends, houses overlooking the streets: Every nuance had a function and was well researched.

Cities — lined and mined with strategic speed-breakers and traps — were planned in a way to buy ample time for defence to respond and delay the enemy. They were also capable of functioning independently in a lockdown scenario.

This enemy, today, is the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). It could be any other lethal disease in the future. This was not surprising anymore as humanity finds itself facing a new disease every year.

But how are cities planned today? Do they allow slowing down the enemy invasion and buy time for governments to respond? Is it even possible to keep the unseen enemy at bay in the kind of cities or neighbourhoods we live in?

Are our cities — powered by Internet of Things (IoT) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) — smart enough to propel us one step ahead of the viruses to contain them? Let us give these questions a thought, one by one.

Wuhan and its massive response

Wuhan — the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic — responded to the emergency by locking itself down and its 11 million residents. The primary step was to eliminate intercity and intracity mobility to enable this.

Public transportation, including buses, metro rails and ferries and the high-speed rail network to Shanghai and Guangzhou, was halted. Roadblocks were installed in different areas to prevent cars from leaving neighbourhoods. Cities around the world did the same. India halted its railway network, buses, metro rails and closed highways.

This was ironic because Indian cities were planned keeping the need for movement in mind. Daily commutes, long distance travels, suburban commute and dependence on vehicles is the character of Indian cities today.

Neighbourhoods and self-sufficiency

Self-sufficiency becomes critical at the neighbourhood level. Neighbourhoods should be able to sustain people for a long time functionally and environmentally, without the need to make long trips.

Contemporary planning — or the lack of it — in India, does not ensure that. Countries like Australia, United States and Singapore faced issues of unnecessary hoarding and stock outage because of longer supply chains and relatively difficult access to supermarkets.

Neighbourhoods in India with plotted housing typology and local markets were able to perform better in terms of access to essential commodities.

Gated communities, however, faced problems.

Societies in Gurugram were forced to take help from third parties to buy essential goods on their behalf and transport it to them collectively.

This happened in the absence of basic supplies available in the immediate vicinity.

Local nodes take on importance in this sense. A node is an activity centre where exchange of goods takes place. It is a local destination — ideally within 200 metres of a household — where one can get supplies including groceries, dairy, medicines and other essential goods and services.

The catchment catered to by a node usually has identifiable boundaries that become neighbourhoods. Urban and regional development plan formulation and implementation guidelines contain thumb rules.

The distance to a primary school, for example, should not be more than 400 metres from a neighbourhood.

New developments, unfortunately, do not take this into consideration. The concept of the neighbourhood has changed drastically. Neighbourhoods pay more emphasis to gates, swimming pools, gyms and tennis courts.

Swiftness in emergency response

The focus with regard to cities has expanded in many dimensions. One of the dimensions is the concept of smart cities. The power of data through IoT and ICT is harnessed to make habitats liveable. Can this layer of infrastructure, however, help during such a time? 

COVID-19 spreads into the community from person to person. It is a gruesome task to track the spread of the disease, but it is vital to curb the spread of the pandemic.

State governments — especially Maharashtra — use smartphones to trace people who might have come in contact with those who were infected. They use mobile data to identify such people.

This is similar to what Google LLC is doing with its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports webtool. The tool aggregates anonymised location tracking data from smartphones to identify large-scale behaviour trends.

It can tell if there was a decline in visits to a particular location like a supermarket or a religious place, for example.

This information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that shape recommendations on home delivery services, public relief packages or business hours, according to Google.

The Singapore Government is using a smartphone app for community-powered tracing. The TraceTogether app — that already has over a million users — requires them to install and switch on the Bluetooth functionality on their phones, when coming in close proximity to others.

This establishes a link with other app users. The data collected in this manner, thus, becomes very important for the government to take quick emergency steps, should the person become infected.

India is doing this manually using three steps:

  • Contact identification
  • Contact listing
  • Contact follow up

Approximately 200-300 people were traced from one infected person, according to a Tamil Nadu health official. The entire process can take up to eight days, putting India behind the speed at which the disease expands.

Data science and spatial visualisations

The Singapore model harnesses community awareness, ICT and access to smartphones to effectively reduce tracing time, provided more people use it.

The reality of the concept of smart cities was similar. Data science, analytics and spatial visualisations are important tools for Indian cities, provided they are used effectively.

A researcher mapped the spread of cholera cases in London in 1854, by merging physical infrastructure maps, infographics and layers like water sources.

This led to the discovery that cholera had spread through water sources and not air, as previously assumed.

Such tools allow us to speed up the process of understanding our cities, bringing us a great opportunity to plan ahead and match the pace of issues.

It is difficult to say if our cities will soon be planned for such pandemics.

The current scenario, however, underscores the need to make cities adapt and respond to threats through effective planning.

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