Earth day musings: Can this pandemic change the idea of a city?

Post-pandemic, the new normal in our cities need to be more humane and inclusive and urban renewal must be designed on a human scale

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Wednesday 22 April 2020

The fear of contagion has made many weary of crowded cities. There is a growing anxiety that high population density will increase human contact and lead to more infection and deaths. Less crowded and sprawled suburbs and rural ambience are evoking images of the ‘great escape’. Even before this pandemic had set in, people were leaving polluted cities like Delhi to escape dirty air.  

But those who understand better are concerned that such fears may reinforce undesirable trends towards low-density, gated and ghetto development that will lock in more pollution, ill health, carbon and social inequity in the long run. 

This can detract attention from the possibility of maximising the city’s potential to secure greater economic and social wellbeing with better environmental and health protection. Amid this lockdown therefore, the Earth Day musings reconnects us with the idea of a city once again.

Very recently Todd Litman of Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Canada, alerted in his new report in the context of the pandemic, that many people may “assume, incorrectly, that infectious disease risks increase with density, making cities dangerous and rural areas safe”.

He says while city dwellers are more exposed to infectious diseases, rural residents are more likely to die if infected due to weaker healthcare systems. It is the city that allows us to optimise not only healthcare, but also a range of other community-level services that adds up to greater protection for a much larger number of people. 

The risk is actually associated with ‘crowding’ in terms of the number of people per unit of space and not ‘density’, the number of people per unit of land.

Litman argues that many dense and highly urbanised countries, such as Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have been more successful at reducing the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) transmission and deaths.

This shows that — more than density — an effective public health system, community responsiveness and healthcare quality are far more important in infectious disease risk management. 

“Most people are best off during a disaster, living in a walkable urban neighbourhood with convenient access to common services and activities, and good social connections,” says Litman.

A compact city can save 10-30 per cent of transport cost, reduce travel time, increase productivity, reduced traffic casualty rates, need less land for parking and allows energy savings and emissions reduction. 

What is at stake in India?

Yet, in India, the ideas of high density or redistribution of density provoke strong public reaction and protests. People fear that this will add to the crowd and traffic in over-crowded cities.

It is not clear to many how urban renewables, even while building density, can reduce crowding and traffic and provide decent housing to the masses. 

After this pandemic India cannot run away from this conversation any more. There has to be a deeper understanding of the value of high density, compact and connected cities that can be more resilient, safe, healthy and clean than sprawled, gated, ghetto urban expanse.

Most Indian cities are densely populated. They control density at one level but do not adopt adequate urban design and planning strategy to meet the requirements for all and to minimise impact of overcrowding. 

Our cities will continue to attract people for livelihood; we need to plan or this. The COVID-19 crisis has made invisible urban masses visible and exposed how crowded dwellings are a bigger threat to health.

But are we planning adequately for all? Close to 14 million households live in urban slums under unliveable conditions. According to the Census of 2011, India is adding around 4 million people to slums every year.

The Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage has estimated that around 80 per cent of the nation’s housing demand comes from congestion or overcrowding in houses. How do we design for them without compromising liveability and livelihood security? 

It is well known that density control and high land prices in our cities are edging out a large number of people from liveable neighbourhoods. Low- and middle-income groups and businesses are moving out to cheaper peripheries with a huge deficit in urban and mobility services.

This locks in congestion and pollution and social inequity at huge costs. In Mumbai and the National Capital Region, affordable housing projects are located as much as 65-75 kilometres away from the city centre.

A 2016 World Bank study estimated that an extensive, sprawled urban development model in India could cost $330 billion-$1.8 trillion more per year than a better-managed urban development model by 2050. That’s 1.2-6.3 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

It found that compact cities perform economically better than those that have sprawled. It cited the World Health Organization that has estimated health benefit from walking and cycling (avoiding crash damage costs and traffic safety, etc).

For example, aggregate savings in India from moving to smart growth (with more walking and cycling tracks) versus sprawled growth between now and 2050 could be in the region of $120 billion per annum.

Even households gain from compact growth. For example, indicatively, households in sprawled, automobile-dependent areas pay about Rs 50,000-120,000 annually for transport, compared with Rs 10,000-20,000 in a compact, multi-modal neighbourhood.

Whither India?

It is not that India has not wisened up to these principles of urban planning. Over the last decade new policies have come upholding these principles.

The national habitat standards have defined accessible compact urban form for new development. A transit-oriented development policy has asked to integrate land use and transport planning with walkable and liveable communities with high-density mixed land-use. It has sought more open green and public spaces and well-organised transit facilities within the influence zone of transit stations and corridors (500-800 m radius). 

The policy says that this walkable and liveable community should include all income groups — economically weaker sections and middle-income groups in the influence zone and in the total housing supply. 

It is encouraging that the Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation Ltd is developing a first-of-its-kind ‘Form-based codes’ for the development of railway land for designing and approval of layout plans and building plans for station areas. This is to ensure a compact, pedestrian-friendly, market responsive, transit-oriented sustainable development.

This urban form is based on compact grid of well-planned small block sizes, high street-density, mixed-use and mixed-income housing, etc. This is to counter the challenges of urban sprawl, deterioration of neighbourhoods, neglect of pedestrian safety, pollution and energy wastage and iniquitous impact on the urban poor in new urban development. 

Hits and misses

The challenge, however, is to ensure that key approaches of compact, accessible, equitous and liveable principles of these policies are not compromised and detached from densification strategies in new/re development.

This is not only about the role of urban planning. In fact, cities grow and take shape spontaneously and autonomously that often precedes any planning. Communities give shape to it through self-construction and their needs.

Therefore, improve design of affordable housing and provide support to self-constructed housing in terms of decentralised services and habitat planning for healthy living. 

At a city scale, new development and urban renewal need to ensure more efficient, equitable and affordable use of urban land for all. The poor will have to be part of this solution.

Revisit and modify land regulations that constrain well-planned densification, unnecessarily impose inappropriate set-back requirements and minimum-parking requirements, are uncertain on green and public spaces and divert resources to high-speed road infrastructure, among others.

These lead to inefficient and iniquitous use of space that compromise wellbeing and safety.  

Rebuild neighbourhoods based on walking, cycling and electric para-transit and well-served by convenient, reliable, safe and sanitised public transport services.

The Pandemic has led to massive lifestyle changes, telecommuting and digital workplaces to reduce travel demand. Build on this solution and add more. 

Post-pandemic, the new normal in our cities will have to ensure co-benefits of affordable decent living and mobility along with decentralised municipal services of water, waste and sanitation while ensuring environmental safeguards and economic well-being for everyone.

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