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Post-pandemic urbanization: Sick cities battling the Corona virus pandemic

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The Covid-19 or Coronavirus epidemic that started in China in early 2020 turned into a global health pandemic within few weeks. As the basic interactive nature of the city is very conducive to the spread of the virus, the pandemic has also turned into an urban crisis. At the same time, as a requirement for social distancing norms, a new way of living with remote working, distant learning, eCommerce etc. is questioning the tenets of ‘the City’. Given the urban nature of the pandemic, there is a need to rethink ‘the City’. We are responding to the pandemic with emergency measures at present and not much can be done from the spatial design point of view immediately. However, if social distancing will be the norm in future, architects and urban planners must plan the buildings, spaces and cities differently to make them resilient to tackle such pandemics and disasters.

Eminent urban experts, Dr Alexander Jachnow and Ar Sulakshana Mahajan joined me to analyse the link between the spread of the Covid-19 or Coronavirus pandemic and Cities. Dr Alexander Jachnow is Head of Urban Strategies and Planning department at IHS (Institute for Housing Studies & Urban Development) of Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He is engaged globally in advisory and research on urban development and sustainability. He is also a consultant to the Kerala Government to prepare the disaster management framework for the state. Ar Sulakshana Mahajan is a senior urban planner and researcher based in Mumbai, India. She was a consultant Urban Planner at MTSU (Mumbai Transformation Support Unit). She has carried out research on Housing, Transport, Planning and Governance. She is a popular column writer and has authored several books on urban planning in Marathi. Though the topic is vast, the discussion was limited to the spatial dimensions of the Coronavirus pandemic. While Dr Jachnow discussed urbanization in principle, Ar Mahajan reflected on Mumbai (India) in the Corona crisis. The key questions discussed were: How does the structure of cities play a role in spreading the disease? How Covid-19 is impacting the cities and tenets of ‘the City’? What kind of recovery plan is required for the cities?  Here are the excerpts of the discussion.


The ongoing Covid-19 epidemic started in China in early 2020 and started spreading across the world, especially in urban areas. Within a few weeks i.e. around mid-March, the epidemic turned into an unprecedented global health pandemic. There is no vaccination or medication available at present and the only response to the highly infectious Coronavirus is ‘to not interact’ or social distancing. The pandemic has turned into an urban crisis as the very ‘interactive’ nature of the city is conducive to the spread of the virus. Today, urban areas are hotspots of the Corona-crisis with approximately 95% of the total cases. Urbanization, especially in developing nations is in distress because social distancing and hygiene are privileges in the overcrowded, highly dense cities with large informal settlements.

Epidemiologists predict that, like other contagions, the Covid19 will also be cyclic and we will have continued ‘social distancing’ till the vaccination for the Covid19 is available and widespread. Besides, humans are too much interacting lately with protected wildlife and there is a higher chance that there will be more viruses like the Coronavirus. There is a debate if social distancing is the best response because we cannot live in isolation for the rest of our lives and not interact anymore. We cannot lockdown the cities every time a new virus emerges, and if there is no vaccine. However, you cannot let the population interact and be exposed to the virus!

The subsequent lockdowns in many countries have severely affected economic activities, jobs, and livelihoods of many. It has also paralysed global supply chains of goods and services. The world has not taken sufficient care of economic resilience. Even the rich European nations have proved to be vulnerable to economic shocks because of their dependence on the global provision of goods, especially from China. This has in turn negatively impacted the global economy. The present need for social distancing has pushed the people to replace the physical interactions with information technology-based remote interactions. People have shifted to remote working, distant learning, e-commerce, home delivery of food etc. With the possibility of this to continue beyond the pandemic, basic tenets of the cities are being questioned.

Pandemic and the city

According to Dr Jachnow, Cities and big human settlements have always been attractive to humans because they want to interact, to have a social life, not necessarily for functionality or economic reasons. The City is not a mere necessity to be in, it is a choice to be in.

The dis-jointing of the space-activity is happening much before the pandemic. It has made the world more globalized, but it has not reduced the importance of cities. This phenomenon is known as sticky places in slippery space. Besides, the younger generation is always using technology for social, professional and all kinds of interactions regardless of the pandemic. However, if cities lose their agglomeration benefits in future, and everyone starts living and building everywhere, that resulting sprawl, that ‘flat human settlements’ will seriously affect our lives and sustainability. Because humans still need water, electricity, transport Systems, all kinds of services and amenities, and the city is the most sustainable form facilitating all these human needs. As a recovery plan, there is a need to make the cities resilient to tackle pandemics and disasters in future. We are responding to the pandemic with emergency measures and not much can be done from the spatial design point of view at present. However, if social distancing will be the norm in future, architects and urban planners must plan the cities and spaces differently.  

Dr Jachnow suggests that as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic, cities can adopt an approach like Sweden. Different groups of people have different vulnerabilities to the virus. Older people are much more vulnerable to Coronavirus than the young. Cities can be planned to segregate these two groups, their living spaces, movement corridors, transport, vehicles etc. However, when the interactivity is the strength and beauty of the city, this kind of exclusionary planning may have social and psychological impacts. Space planning can also be done in such a way that there are one and a half meters between people, that there are fewer interactions and less physical contact. Super-markets can be designed such that any two persons at the same time cannot walk together in the same aisle. Instead of an open office model, office spaces with cubicles, with more sheltered spaces can be planned. Planning for social distancing will also require scaling down the footfall in the congregation spaces like stadia, transport stations, vehicles, theatres, art galleries, public spaces etc.

According to Dr Jachnow, it will be difficult to implement a one and a half meters’ distance in the multi-million cities of the world. In such cities viz. New York or Mumbai, even the public transports have daily ridership in millions (5M in case of Mumbai). These cities work very efficiently because they allow large population and economic activities in comparatively small spaces. Hence, limiting the population in these cities may not be an option. But, more people in limited space also bring risks along. Dr Jachnow warns that planning for social distancing will have social and economic consequences. Spaces will be revalued, and it will have an impact on the whole economy of space.  Social distancing may result in more privatized and exclusionary planning barring accesses to many disadvantaged groups. The privileged people with money, influence or the resources will benefit the most from reduced access to space. The major issue of urban poverty is not food or income but the deprivation from access. Unequal cities limit the poor from accessing services, education, hospitals etc. Peripheral informal settlements do not have access to many urban services just because of mere distances. Thus, there cannot be an obvious or ubiquitous solution to the urban problem of the pandemic.

Mumbai and urban factors

Ar Mahajan says that this pandemic will have a quite different impact on India. Having a social distancing norm is almost impossible in extremely crowded and high-density cities like Mumbai. Mumbai has a high population density as well as crowding. It is always being argued that densities do not matter if the development is high-rises with more built-up spaces per person. However, people staying in such high-rise come down via lifts, go shopping and use semi-public and public spaces. So, even if they have more private space in the house, public and semi-public spaces will be still crowded. Besides, the poor can’t even afford private space in Mumbai.

Mumbai is the linear city, historically concentrated in a small island. It is a port city, a state capital, and a commercial hub, and it is getting more and more economic activities. Policymakers tried to stop migration to Mumbai but never succeeded. At present, Mumbai densities are very high, nearly 12 million people live in a geographical area of 437 sq. km. and a habitable area of 120 sq. km. Besides, Mumbai has very less open space per person, less than 12 square meters. People hardly have open spaces around the buildings, and comparatively, there are very few playgrounds. Housing densities are extremely high in some areas of Mumbai, sometimes as high as 900 houses per hectare which are more than even Hong Kong. Ten people are living in 100-200 square feet houses with hardly any space or ventilation. There are a huge number of TB cases in such settlements and these are not informal buildings, these are formal settlements, multi-storeyed buildings constructed as public housing. There are many health issues in Mumbai. The Intriguing part is that people have more trust in modern medicine and medical services, but planning and architectural issues which are solutions to avoid crowding in houses etc have been neglected so far.

This pandemic proves that too much density is not good for anyone, not even for rich people. Pandemic like this does not discriminate, nothing can protect even rich people from getting affected. Ar Mahajan hopes that at least now, authorities managing the city of Mumbai will acknowledge that densities do matter! They will change their attitude, their understanding of density, and attitude towards poor people and their housing needs.

According to Dr Jachnow, too many densities are not good from the present health perspective, but too little densities, the sprawl is unsustainable environmentally and does not have agglomeration benefits. However, it is not up to planners to define ‘good’ density, the decisions about densities don’t happen on drawing boards, densities are defined by the land value, culture, and many other things.

Transforming public transport to social distancing norms is a big concern, especially in the cities like Mumbai where nearly 5 Million people travel daily in overcrowded local railways. Ar Mahajan reiterates that for sustainable planning, public transport is a must even during the pandemic. You need to transform public transport for less density, more efficiency and speed. Planners need to think of innovative ways of design of public transport. Mumbai per se and many cities in India have limited space for private transport, many people cannot afford cars, and even if they can afford, there is no space for cars. In Mumbai, many people travel around 40-50-kilometre and spend two hours each way, every day. Planners need to think about spatial planning and travelling distances from house to many other services should be managed within short distances.

Ar Mahajan argues that a lack of understanding of architects, planners and policymakers about urban processes is the major cause of the present pathetic state of Indian cities. Urban planning and architecture are two different kinds of professions and architects do not necessarily understand the scale and complexities of cities. Policymakers and architects are concerned only for per capita built-up space. They are not convinced that urban planning and urban density norms are important. Instead of evidence-based planning, architects & planners sometimes resort to ad hoc decisions. For example, planners in India try to copy from Western Countries like Skywalks etc without realizing its practicality. The result is that people cannot climb on the skywalks and many skywalks are empty. Wrong decisions making and prioritization under political pressures of different groups and different at different times is one of the main lacunas of the urban planning profession.

Dr Jachnow warns that a large population is also a liability in managing such pandemics. In the past, having more children was a necessity due to socio-economic reasons and short life expectancies. However, with medical advancements and better life expectancies, similar population growth is not required anymore. Yet the world population is growing exponentially and today there are seven billion humans on the planet. It’s a big disadvantage to have unmanageable population growth. It is a big disadvantage economically, socially, in terms of densities, use of space, land values, access to land, access to housing etc. Policymakers need to rethink their population story at least from now onwards.

Global urban thinkers

Researchers across the globe are exploring various dimensions of the pandemic including the spatial dimension. Urban experts are looking at the pandemic as an opportunity to remake the ‘city’, to fix some chronic problems of urbanization. Numerous organizations and urbanists researching into impacts of Covid-19 on cities include Council of Architecture India (COA), the ace organization controlling India’s architectural profession; Multilateral organizations like United Nations’ Habitat, the World Bank; Research organizations like CityLab, Observers Research Foundation (ORF) India, IIED, Academician Richard Florida, and some more.

UN Habitat’s Covid-19 response plan focuses on long term measures like policy, institutional framework, and capacity building of local governments and communities, especially slums. Specific measures include providing handwashing & sanitation facilities to the slums, mobile medical facilities, and temporary shelters for social distancing. City Lab, Florida and others insist on opening the streets to the people, increasing widths of sidewalks, bike-friendly cities, more open spaces etc. and also urban food gardens given the experience of food and essential supplies shortage during the pandemic.

Almost all the experts are talking about short term measures like urban tech, personal safety gears (mask, PPEs etc), access to handwashing, access control & scanning, space dividers, retrofitting of spaces etc. Some are predicting changes in the house plan of providing the handwashing facility and bathroom near the entrance and bringing back the vestibule! Most of them think that scaling down the occupant load or the number of users in congregation spaces, public transport & aeroplanes etc. is inevitable. COA advises avoiding public transport. Experts discussed the possibility of adopting these interventions by cities, especially megacities like Mumbai, Delhi, or New York for that matter.

According to Dr Jachnow, City Lab is promoting the idea of a sustainable city, whereas UN-Habitat propagates the sustainable city as a response to the pandemic. However, the intervention which is relevant for a city may not be equally good enough for another. It is possible to implement all or many interventions by a city in its urban space.

Understanding the diversity of cities is more important than trying to streamline them and have the same. Rather than mere physicality of a city, planners should understand flows and the interactions and the need for dynamics in a city.

Ar Mahajan underlines the difference in approaches of the CityLab and Council of Architecture. While appreciating CityLab for its sustainable approach, she criticizes the Council for its elitist views that people at Council do not think beyond the architectural projects and consider private transport as an answer to everything. They forget that cities operate on a large scale. They are happy to show big cars in front of their architectural fantasies and prefer widening of the roads at the cost of curtailing the footpaths. She advises COA to rather adopt a holistic view of urban problems and educate their architects on the issues of planning.

Further research  & Closing comments

While talking about the further research on the post-pandemic recovery of cities, Dr Jachnow suggests looking into the lockdown or isolation facilities for different communities of different sizes. E.g. a European family of 3-4 people or Indian group of 10-15 people a household in Mumbai. The challenge would be to design the facility to isolate physically while maintaining communication. Ar Mahajan suggests retrofitting of a dilapidated residential building in Mumbai for social distancing.

Dr Jachnow is disappointed that people are reluctant to learn anything from the disasters especially if it requires significant mind change. While working on the recovery plan after Nepal Earthquake (2015), he observed that, instead of building safer and resilient architecture, people build floor taller houses very quickly which are more unsustainable, unsafe and a lot more vulnerable to earthquakes than before. Even after having a first-hand experience of surviving the devastating earthquake, they hardly learned anything. They thought that the next earthquake would happen only after 100 years or so, and they need not bother for now.

Ar Mahajan agrees! In 2005, 26 July, huge floods happened in Mumbai, and many people lost their lives within a few hours. But the people and decision-makers did not learn from the disasters and in the last 15 years, it has been business as usual. However, according to Ar Mahajan, the ongoing pandemic has shaken humanity to the core and people have changed their mindset within a short time. In the last decades of the 21st century, during the AIDS outbreak, many migrated back to their villages carrying AIDS along. Then no one assured them any help, neither tried to stop them. Today, the same people who were vehemently opposing migrants, are urging the migrants to not leave the city, assuring medical and other kinds of help just to stop the spread of the disease to rural India. Ar Mahajan is hopeful that after this pandemic, policymakers will learn to take the planners’ advice seriously

Author: Prof. Meera VM (Urban Management, Urban Economic Development & Resilience Expert)

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