Living conditions created under a pandemic situation are also a reflection of the inadequacies of our cities
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed our lack of preparedness for a global health emergency.
The pandemic may not last forever, but our response to it will shape the future of our cities for the coming decades. Living conditions created under a pandemic situation are also a reflection of the inadequacies of our cities.
In such circumstances, should the focus be only on handing issues around COVID-19 or to be prepared for the future? How prepared are we for a post-pandemic scenario?
Urban planning reforms and public health: Any linkages?
In history, the aspect of public health evolved in high-density urban areas over a period of time. The link between public health and urban planning is not complex as the intention is common: To provide safe and healthy environments in which citizens can live, work and play (characteristics of an ideal, happy city).
This also includes the role of land use and built environment (public buildings, mixed land uses, pedestrian walkways open spaces and waterbodies) and its impacts on the health of population.
Timeline of iconic urban planning reforms
Source: Shivali Jainer and Shivani Yadav
Every pandemic in the past has taught us lessons over the importance of our responses and preparedness, the most important one being this will not be the last one.
It is important to think about our responses at the end of the pandemic, while at the same time being ready for urgent issues like community disintegration, social disconnection and inequality, human waste and sanitation issues and water shortage. With future tensed and present faded, what idea of healthy and resilient cities comes to our mind?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
A healthy city is one that continually creates and improves physical and social environments and expands community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life.
A new sourcebook, Integrating Health in Urban and Territorial Planning, launched by the WHO and UN-Habitat provides information on ensuring human health as a key consideration for city planning.
In this concrete urban sprawl, while most of us have locked ourselves and found alternatives to work from home through digital media, we have missed out on the ‘play’ aspect. Open spaces are never prioritised and often neglected in favour of other priorities.
Open spaces include recreational spaces, organised green and other common open spaces (such as floodplains, forest cover etc) in plain areas, according to the 2014 Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation guidelines.
Considering overall open spaces in an urban area, the guidelines suggest a norm of 10-12 square metres of open space per person. This means a 25-35 per cent allocation of a city’s area to be earmarked as recreational and open spaces, in addition to environmentally sensitive areas. Most of our Indian cities do not meet the standards of required land cover for recreational spaces.
Green open spaces in select Indian cities as per master plans
Source: Urban Green Guidelines, 2014, Town and Country Planning Organization, Government of India, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, India
This pandemic made us realise the value of reachable open spaces that allow movement within dense urban areas. Physical isolation with absence of adequate open spaces is one of the major causes of discomfort and poor living conditions.
While several stigmas are attached to the pandemic, the need for open spaces — crucial for physical and mental health — should not be one of them.
Mental health is a critical issue that needs to be fought through this pandemic: Not being able to get fresh air and light, no physical movement or exercise, isolation significantly adds to people’s stress.
It’s no new concept that urban spaces have an important role to play and are effective in improving public health in urban cities. If we look at history, there are several examples of how open green spaces and natural features were key elements of urban planning and design used during and after pandemics.
In 2017, Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs came up with two practitioner’s guides: Water sensitive urban design and planning and Green Infrastructure that highlighted appropriate methods and strategies to be adopted for multiple uses of open spaces in making water-sensitive areas at different scales of urban planning, that is, at city / zonal, neighbourhood / institutional and individual scales.
“There is a need of reintroduction of the natural water cycle in the urban environment through the use of public open spaces that can be an effective measure to manage pluvial (urban runoff or surface water) flooding in Indian cities,” said Suresh Kumar Rohilla, senior director at CSE.
The pandemic should bring attention on the deficiencies in blue-green spaces and contact with nature at the local neighbourhood level, missing in our dense Indian cities.
Illustration by Shivani Yadav
How can we move ahead?
Once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, more holistic approaches are needed. Cross-disciplinary collaboration of public policies, urban planning and design using open public spaces, parks, urban forests and integrated blue and green infrastructure are needed as tools to make cities healthy.
Turning zoning regulations into national flagship missions
Smart city and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) city missions are major steps for managing cities. Both missions emphasise on environment sustainability, governance, financial and service delivery reforms, self-reliant revenue mechanisms, etc.
Schemes under the missions have been moderately successful in maintaining existing parks and green spaces. Circumstantial planning, however, demands decentralisation of essential services, designs of open spaces in context with distance, proximity, size, quality and connectivity as a practical response to pandemics.
Promoting the use of blue-green spaces, physical activities on a neighbourhood or local and approachable level can help negate impacts of infectious diseases, chronic illnesses etc in ther future.
Step by step access to spaces
The stigma attached to the pandemic will prolong a period of distancing, but the craving for connection will be even more. We should gradually go back to crowded public places like restaurants, theatres, etc. In some countries, the government has allowed people to leave their homes for exercise and physical activity once a day. We can similarly limit these activities and access to spaces through time regulations.
A guideline should be prepared on using green spaces. To reduce crowding, we could regulate people inflows with time limits and over time periods. Thus, even in limited spaces, physical distance can be maintained.
With people getting used to work from home, work places may be divided as certain days of a week from office and rest from home, to reduce load on public transport and work places.
In dense areas, access to parks and spaces can be limited by dividing them through house numbers. Access to areas of school playgrounds, private golf clubs etc with time limits can also be open for public use. Capacity building with citizens is important for all, as this is a voluntary act.
Well-connected green spaces at local or neighbourhood level have become important more than ever. Some streets can be designated completely for walking and running while maintaining distance and reduce crowding on roads and streets.
For example, several cities in the world have stopped cars and pedestrianised streets as a social-distancing measure. In Toronto, temporary pedestrianisation of downtown Yonge street — the city’s most important north-south artery — has been proposed.
There are a few sidewalks in all of North America, where two people can cross paths while maintaining a comfortable six-foot distance.
More refined urban planning and design approach towards blue-green infrastructure:
Public open spaces such as parks, lakes / waterbodies are key elements of the natural and built environment within neighbourhoods for encouraging a number of activities.
These multipurpose public open spaces can be reformed to fight monsoon floods and be used for creating temporary shelters to accommodate migrants struggling during the lockdown.
It is essential to ensure the quantity, quality and accessibility of open spaces at a local level through urban planning and design. The mapping of underused and low-functioning sites and their reclamation can be another approach at local levels.
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