How has COVID-19 changed urban planning?
And it has. Absolutely.
Ever since it was declared a pandemic in early 2020, the spread of COVID-19 has been documented rigorously. Various dashboards and informatics, tables and charts, the information deluge has been never-ending.
It is an understatement to say that COVID-19 changed our lives. It has devastated many of us with personal losses. Jobs gone, salaries halved, no access to offices or universities, families affected - it has been downright traumatic.
In the professional sense, the pandemic has brought to light deep-seated issues of urban regions, and these have been well studied and documented as well. The same way that the medical world already knew about coronaviruses before COVID-19, so did planners know about urban issues plaguing our cities before the pandemic. It is just that now you can't pretend to be blind about it. It raises crucial questions such as:
How does the city live?
How does the city travel?
How does the city work?
We cannot do much without personal contact. A high percentage of jobs are not digital. Even architecture as a practice isn't - site visits, group discussions, vendor meetings, site supervision - all of these require manpower on the move.
So as planners scramble to review policies and architects rethink their wonderful concepts of co-living and sharing thanks to this communicable virus, we have to look deeper to understand that the pandemic has only highlighted and made worse what already existed.
Cramped living quarters
With high rates of migration, most metro cities have a considerable percentage of their population living in slums. Housing has always been a point of conversation in both architecture as well as spatial planning.
However, now it raises the question of safety within these cramped quarters. While the tagline has been Stay Home, Stay Safe, where will you stay when you share a room with five other people? How will you keep safe when your washroom is public?
As temperatures rise in summer months, how will you live in a tin metal box of a house, with other people, without a washroom? How will you combat a pandemic whose precaution is to wash hands, when you don't have running water in your house? The pandemic has raised multiple points and while it is not a new topic, we don't have any immediate implementable solutions either. Hopefully, now, more attention would be paid to bettering the quality of life in cities rather than just investing in roads and visible infrastructure.
No recreational public space
Western countries never banned their citizens from accessing public spaces like roads. They could always go for a short walk, walk their dogs and so on. So why didn't India do the same?
For starters, we have way too many people - population problems. If everyone decides to go for walks, there will be no social distancing, am I right?
Maybe, but that is also because we do not have enough recreational space to space everyone out. If you are predicting from personal experience that an area, without any special attraction will face crowding to the extent that no social distancing is possible, the maybe...maybe there is a lack of recreational spaces to start with.
Most architects and planners already know that many of our megacitites lag behind the international recreational space recommendations of 9 sqm per person by a lot.
Land is valuable. Does allocating large parcels of land for parks mean that you are taking away land from potential residential zones? But also ask - is living in super cramped zones with just apartment buildings and roads your idea of good living? Do we always have to sacrifice quality for quantity. Are parks and open spaces such a luxury that the richest cities in the country can't afford them?
Capacity of public transport
The Pandemic has made us re-evaluate the planners' stance towards public transport. While public transport and non-motorized modes of transport are still the best solution for our increasing mobility issues, one cannot ignore the fact that these are also the hotbeds of disease transmission, especially so of COVID-19.
Increasing the capacity, frequency and reliability of public transport is absolutely crucial at this stage, as petrol prices are also increasing and people are slowly left with no safe modes of transport.
Stark digital divide
And lastly, we cannot pretend that the solution to the pandemic's woes is working digitally. Someone still has to go out and execute our digital plans. The mental effect of being cooped up in a room for the last 1.3 years has been visible to all of us (Are you fed up yet of hearing 'Stay safe'?). Even as we grapple with a sense of desolation, it is important to take a step back and realize how the bigger picture itself has now changed.
If you happen to study and work on a laptop today, and have access to decent internet, you are privileged. A large percentage of students in India have practically lost a year of education. How do you plan to teach A, B, C on a laptop? How effective is online learning for children so small? What about the effect of prolonged screen use for them?
Online learning has been criticized and praised, and both sides have merit. But as we hear of crippling levels of unemployment, an unprecedented negative GDP and stories of students committing suicide due to helplessness regarding online education, one cannot help but wonder how digital really is India.
The latest issue about Digital India has been about vaccine allocation via the COWIN app where many people have rightly raised the issue of digital literacy and exclusion of the poor in urban cities when it comes to vaccination.
Planning for this digital divide at the earliest is now of prime importance to planners as well.
So what now?
And this leaves us with a bundle of questions. What can we do now? Are co-shared offices dead? Are we going to get jobs? Is this degree worth anything? Here are some things planners and architects should focus on now:
Focus on the robustness of core services
Urban density is essential for providing services. Poor water supply planning, housing supply and sanitation services has complicated lockdown measures.
Affordable housing and access to public open space
330 Million HH, or 1.2 billion city dwellers lack access to affordable and secure housing today. Meanwhile, this group of residents has severe under-representation in government aid.
Comprehensive city-region linkage
This lockdown and the resulting internal migration in India has clearly shown the serious dependence of the rural regions on urban India. Every place cannot have the same distribution of services and opportunities, but it calls for further research on how to ensure that opportunities reach the remotest corner of the country.
Address issues that have been amplified by sudden events
The early phase of the pandemic showed us the steep drop in pollution levels as people stayed indoors.
There have been multiple reports of ASHA workers not being paid. Now with the second wave, we have seen the formal healthcare network scrambling to find supplies in time. Logistic failures have led to unnecessary hardships for everyone involved.
Lastly, poor information dissemination and warning protocols have led to much confusion in an already fearful public.
The role of a planner is not simply plan spaces and allocate funding, but approach a plan from multiple angles. Understand migration, and not just the housing shortage. Understand why 9sqm per person open space is recommended - it is not simply a number. Public hygiene, basic services, sense of safety, user comfort in public transport and the urban realm - these form the backbone of sensitive planning. We plan for people - let our decisions reflect the same.
A/N - The views are from the author's personal experiences, as well as research into how COVID-19 was researched by statisticians and medical researchers.