COVID19 has come in our lives as a blizzard unaware. In the last six months of the year 2020, we have seen a disruption in urban living, businesses and technology.
The pandemic in India primarily started in the urban areas and then moving into hinterlands and then the rural districts. Urban zones bore the brunt more with all activities coming to a still with stringent lockdowns compared to rural belts where farming and allied activities continued in local pockets.
Peeking back into the history 100 years ago, India was hit by the Spanish Flu in 1918-1920 killing nearly 2 crore people. One such affected state was Hyderabad the erstwhile capital of the Nizam kingdom which was better equipped to handle the flu. Ten years back in 1911 the city was hit by the bubonic plague and half of the city’s population was forced to live in camps for six months. Post this the then Nizam transformed several areas of the city with decongesting crowded settlements, launching planned residential colonies, adding open spaces and improving health infrastructure. Hyderabad’s transformation helped it in controlling the mortality due to the plague.
When we look at most of our cities today which have grown in population manifold, dealing with a pandemic is a tough challenge. With stringent lockdown events leading to reverse migration and economic crisis, the Covid-19 induced crisis is a wakeup call to make ‘Secure Health-proof cities’.
Revisiting the way communities live and people work, travel and shop becomes imperative. As per UNICEF, only 3 out of 5 people worldwide have basic handwashing facilities. Weather ‘Social Distancing’ the buzzword is affordable requires interrogation. Here I dwell upon strategies for planning and design of our urban centres to make them better equipped to face health emergencies.
Spatial planning matters in COVID19
Covid-19 has led to a deeper realization of the gaps and shortcomings of planning in our cities. A shift is needed for resilient planning and moving focus to mid-size and smaller cities. High-density development has come in the scanner but it has been observed that incidents of COVID spread vary in cities with similar densities. Pune with highest cases has a much lower density compared to Mumbai or Delhi. Kolkata with second highest population density per sqm after Mumbai has reported one-fourth COVID19 positive numbers of Mumbai.
The infection 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. In very crowded settlements residents are unable to follow isolation rules and social distancing. The balance is in achieving livable density –where benefits of agglomeration are significantly higher than the cost of congestion. A use acknowledged Micro zoning based on walkability is the need of the hour.
With more home working it makes more sense to have mixed-use compact neighborhoods encouraging activities in local communities dotted with buildings with adequate space and standards. With the staggered unlocks happenings it has been the open spaces and natural recreation zones that have provided people a relief from staying indoors.
Urban design needs rethinking
Urban Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (UDPFI) guidelines suggest a norm of 10-12 sqm of open space/ person which most of the Indian cities fall below. This translates to 25-35% allocation of a city’s area to be earmarked as recreational and open spaces. Improving open space per capita as well as the quality of these spaces is needed not only for environmental reasons but for the holistic well-being of residents.
Our streets which have been merely labelled as roads need a paradigm shift with wider footpaths, walkable surfaces, and cycle infrastructure to avoid crowding. Sanitation facilities and safety information at bus and metro stops, rail stations, inside buses and trains, in public toilets and other public spaces, should be a norm in the long run.
Healthcare and Isolation facilities in all urban settings weather indoor and outdoor are needed and the flexibility of converting public facilities at times of need. At the neighborhood street level granular investment in small-scale tactical interventions pay off good results.
In Milan, the Strade Aperte plan or “Open streets” plan will repurpose 35km of roads, over the summer, transforming them into people-friendly streets. While Ottawa, Detroit and Paris are moving towards an urban planning concept called “15-minute city” where idea is to move back to shorter commutes where daily urban necessities are within a 15-min reach on foot or by bike.
“Milan’s Strade Aperte Plan includes “low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, reduced speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets” as a strategy that many different cities are considering and implementing.
“It will increase space for pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized means of transportation, while also reducing traffic congestions and positively impacting air pollution. Typically this involves redesigning the space available re-assigning roads and re-organizing how lanes are assigned. While allowing for social distancing, the re-organization also contributes to a reduction of air pollution.”
Housing & Infrastructure worst hit by COVID19
Poorly designed and overcrowded units with 14 mn households living in urban slums with limited possibility of social distancing is a big concern. Dependence on public toilets and other shared utilities makes it a high risk for communicable infections. This means innovative housing standards are required to make people safer and healthier. Outdoor access for Sunlight, Fresh air and exercise are essential while upgrading infrastructure in informal settlements and elimination of tightly packed slum clusters or poorly designed neighbourhoods.
As per JLL, homebuyers deferred purchase decisions while sales dipped by nearly 30% in Q1 2020. Developers have locked in capital of an estimated INR 3.7 trillion with new launches mostly in affordable and mid segments. The situation demands changes in housing policies and interventions focussed on affordable and Rental housing.
Building design to be “Health-Caring”
The biggest takeaway is that design has to become “Health-Caring”. Space-allocation standards that allow for social distancing for e.g. office planning will standardize 6ft minimum between people needs to be integrated. Though our standards like NBC (National Building Code) stress on light, ventilation and orientation. There have been lacunae in implementing these on the ground.
The realisation that building typology should be based on the climatic response, sustainability, the economy of construction and buildability necessities to be adapted. Design for safety and universal accessibility and maintainability, in the long run, cannot be ignored any longer.
With the world moving towards more remote working even post-pandemic, indoor livability to be enhanced for ‘stay home and stay safe’ especially in summers. Reduce air-conditioned hours for energy savings and optimizing access to daylight, ventilation and nature views.
Designs must integrate adequate green spaces that allow mutual shading of buildings and reduce heat island effect. ISHRAE recommends maintaining reasonable levels of humidity, rates of air changes and indoor temperature. In closed office spaces and malls, the air filtration system will need up-gradation with using high-quality filters.
More widely available public amenities to support hygiene—public hand-wash stations, community showers, higher standards for restroom design and maintenance. Blurred lines between sectors, so that facilities such as hotels, convention centers, and community spaces are designed up front to be easily transformed into emergency medical facilities on demand.
A big market is emerging for smart and touchless operations in buildings—touch-free light switches and temperature controls, automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, mobile-controlled hotel room entry, programmed luggage bag tags etc. which will be the future.
Retrofitting existing structures
We are already seeing existing structures being remodeled in response to the spread of the virus. In public and commercial buildings real-time retrofitting by analyzing people-movement inside a workplace; smart technology can be used to flag high-contact areas or produce recommendations for how to reconfigure floor plans for safer office foot traffic.
Repurposing buildings with reduced demand for office space amid the home-working revolution, structures could be adapted for residential/other needs.
These exceptional times will require even exceptional solutions which are localised and generating opportunities for the inhabitants in preserving, upgrading and enriching the built and the natural surroundings. In the words of Frank Lloyd Wright ‘Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you’.