COVID-19: Self-sufficient neighbourhoods are needed to make cities resilient

COVID-19: Self-sufficient neighbourhoods are needed to make cities resilient

The need is to recognise what a neighbourhood requires and ensure that the planning makes everyday needs available and accessible to them

Karan lives in Sundar Nagar, a posh locality in Delhi. But he has always had one complaint — every time he needs something, he has to go two kilometres away to the nearest market in Bhogal.

Unfortunately, two kilometres is too long a distance to be covered on foot. So he is forced to take out his car, as the public transport is slow and Delhi has half the number of buses it actually needs, which also makes them inconvenient and stuffy. 

On March 24, 2020, the government announced the first phase of lockdown to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. People were allowed to walk to the nearest shops only and taking out their personal vehicles was regulated.

This meant that a minor discomfort turned into a problem for Karan. Many parts of Delhi faced a similar situation. A place like Deoli village in South Delhi, on the other hand, faced a completely different problem — for an inhabitant of an urban village, the nearest place of leisure was miles away.

Leisure stroll remains a distant dream for many in such villages. After all, how will they shell out the money for the public transport that could take them to a park?

While Karan’s problems were short-lived — a few shopkeepers from the neighbouring areas soon opened up mobile convenience stores — it exposed how our ‘planned’ cities put many everyday activities out of reach of the common man.

We may be able to do without non-essential services for weeks, but we will still need food. If we intend to make cities and towns more resilient to the next pandemic, we need to make sure essentials are available in the vicinity of our homes so as to inhibit the spread of humans and virus alike.

The concept of a self-reliant neighbourhood is not new. Take a medieval city or a modern mixed-use development, where the neigbourhood’s ground floor which interacts with the public becomes a shopping, working or a leisure space. This way, a person can get more things of daily needs right from the street below.

A person whose shop is below the house would need to travel once in a while to get the supplies, but on a day-to-day scenario, the person would be able to work and live near his home.

Modern planning uses similar principles. But the planning has been inadequate as the needs of the public and neighbourhood characteristics have evolved.

The markets may be located more than 400-500 metres away from people’s houses, making it impractical for a person to walk. These issues came into forefront during the lockdown, when many gated residential communities had to shut their doors and the tiny shops were simply ill-equipped to deal with the demand.

A thriving neighbourhood market should cater to the multiplicity of user demands, fruits, vegetables, grains, convenience stores. Similarly, a pharmacy, an optician, an electronic shop, repair shops and a variety of eateries play a part in meeting demands of a neighbourhood.

In no way can the neighborhoods be completely self-sufficient as goods will, in all probability, be produced elsewhere. Their limited movement will make containing a pandemic easier.

The need is to recognise what a neighbourhood requires and ensure that the planning makes everyday needs available — and accessible — to them. As the interdependency of neighbourhood decreases, the movement of city dwellers will decrease as well.

A self-sufficient neighbourhood will usher in a new, better quality of living. 

Down To Earth