COVID 19 to catalyze the redefinition of urban planning and sustainability

Until now the urban planning was focused on mitigation to natural disastrous, climate change, pollution, chronic illness and lifestyle diseases. However, the global pandemic of novel coronavirus is going to change the whole narrative of urban planning and sustainable living. Here we bring you an analysis that would provide you with an insight to peep into the cities of the post-COVID 19, pandemic. 

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 31-05-2020 19:07 IST | Created: 27-03-2020 23:15 IST
COVID 19 to catalyze the redefinition of urban planning and sustainability
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As COVID 19 is spreading, the cities throughout the world are facing lockdown. There is no known period in the history of human civilization when so many vibrant cities were shut down overnight and deserted, simultaneously. These centers of modern civilizations are crumbling before an invisible enemy which has now overpowered all the countries of the world, altogether.

Besides, the novel coronavirus (COVID 19) pandemic has completely isolated the global cities from the external world. The movement of goods, services, people and money all have come to a standstill. This has triggered the largest-ever panic-stricken reverse migration – migration from big cities to towns and villages. The COVID 19 is said to be fatal only for senior citizens, people suffering from chronic diseases and those with low immunity levels. Sooner or later, the world will recover from this pandemic but the memories of human sufferings will stay to decide future planning, policy formulations and the decision of every individual household. Besides, there will always be two fears - firstly, the fear of another COVID 19 outbreak; and secondly, the fear of a viral outbreak of more contagious and more fatal. These two fears are going to redefine regional and urban planning approaches in the post-COVID 19 periods.

Though COVID 19 is the most contagious ever as it has spread throughout the world within months, the pandemics are not new for urban planning and cities. They have always redefined urban life. The sewage system which is an integral part of today’s urban planning was unheard of before London’s cholera epidemic in the 1850s that claimed over 10,000 lives. There is a long list of epidemics but none of them had simultaneously impacted all the big cities on this planet simultaneously in such a short span of time in about two and a half months. Today, big or small, all the cities are facing deserted look as if they are ghost towns of horror novels under the worldwide lockdowns which is unheard of in the history of mankind. 

COVID 19’s Challenges before Urban Planning 

Founded as the centers of economic activities, today's cities were developed to handle maximum population density where social distancing is entirely a new phenomenon. These cities were allowed to spread in all the directions and create smaller feeder cities on the periphery in the form of satellite cities. The transportation infrastructure was developed and is still being developed to facilitate this culture.

This ensuing pandemic of novel coronavirus has put a sudden brake on this model of development. Now, policymakers and administrators are facing four major challenges in controlling the spread of COVID 19 – restricted access, fortifying transportation system, creating alertness to public transit and providing radical data transparency. The urban planners will have to come up with innovative ideas to facilitate the survival of cities with minimum access, minimum transportation, and optimum social distancing. Here, the role of digital technology and the internet of things (IoT) will be maximum to ensure productivity and smooth economic activities. The virus has fully challenged the centuries-old tradition of employees going to their place of work. 

London’s cholera of the 1850s had been a defining moment for urban planning. However, in the past few decades, the focus was less on handling pandemics caused by infectious diseases. The outbreak of Ebola viral disease in 2014-16 in Sub Saharan Africa, despite having many times higher mortality rate than COVID 19, failed to trigger the narrative in that direction. This is probably because the developed countries of Europe and North America were not affected by the disease. For the past couple of decades, the urban planners were more focused on chronic diseases, lifestyle diseases, aging diseases, environment-related diseases and natural disasters such as flooding, drought, earthquakes and other climate led mitigation strategies. They have been increasingly focused on recreation centers, yoga centers, cosmetic services, plantation, water saving, water harvesting, and related concepts in urban planning and design. “The current pandemic brings the question of designing for infectious diseases back to the forefront, however, and raises important questions for future research and practice,” said Ann Forsyth, professor of Urban Planning at the Harvard School of Design. 

The slogan of minimum use of water will have to change as people will now consume more water to wash hands frequently. This is one of the biggest challenges, the COVID 19 has posed before urban planners that will require fresh thinking. The toilet complexes which were moving towards waterless will now have to provide water for handwashing. Besides, the food shops, restaurants, and hotels will have to think in this direction.

Vital Experiences for Post COVID 19 Urban Planning 

Though slowly, the climate change and technological innovations of the fourth industrial revolution were pushing the world away from big, dense and congested cities. Karen Harris, the managing director of Bain consultancy’s Macro Trends Group, has rightly said that the novel coronavirus is likely to accelerate the process in this age of declining cost of social distance. 

The increasing applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, and internet-based technological innovations were slowly redefining urban planning. Besides, several cities in the world have previous experiences of shutdowns caused by air pollution. However, until the COVID 19 pandemic, they all were at different stages of transition. The pandemic has emerged as a great leveler posing the same challenge before all the cities on this planet. However, the technology alone will not be able to address the concerns of COVID 19 pandemic. 

Highlighting that these were the options we were weighing against climate change and global warming, Michele Acuto, professor of global urban politics in the School of Design at the University of Melbourne, said, “COVID-19 puts a fundamental challenge to how we manage urbanization. Hong Kong has 17,311 people per square mile. Rethinking density management is a key for long-term survival in a pandemic world, really,”. He further emphasized, “Part of this means thinking about the decentralization of essential services,”.  Acuto is director of the Connected Cities Lab which is working to understand the urban dimensions of pandemic preparedness. 

Those advocating in favor of big cities are also emphasizing the change in urban planning. Richard Florida and Steven Pedigo of Brookings Institution of Washington DC, has presented a holistic model of urban planning with ten major transformative recommendations for post-COVID 19 pandemic, world. They are – pandemic-proof airports, large scale civic amenities, modification of vital infrastructure, readying key anchor institutions, embracing telework, ensure main street survivors, protect the arts and creative economy, assess leading industries and clusters, upgrade jobs and front line service workers, and protect less advantaged communities. Defending global cities, Robert Muggah and Rebecca Katz have also presented a host of solutions to handle the infectious pandemic and assessing the preparedness of cities to face COVID 19 outbreak. “Cities that are open, transparent, collaborative and adopt comprehensive responses are better equipped to manage pandemics than those that are not. While still too early to declare success, the early response of Taiwan and Singapore to the COVID-19 outbreak stand out,” said the authors. 

Sustainable Cities of Post COVID 19 Pandemic 

COVID 19 pandemic has provided a new paradigm for sustainability. In addition to air pollution, water management, natural calamities; the urban planners and architects will have to put their brains to chalk out innovative and sustainable designs to mitigate such epidemics in the future. 

The sustainable cities of post-COVID age will have to be Glocal (Global + Local) wherein they will be connected with the world through internet-based technological innovations while depending on local producers for their daily requirements of food, agriculture products, clothing, waste management and essential services etc. They will be decentralized in the sense they will not be dependent on global cities like satellite cities but will be fed by a centralized service delivery system from their respective governments. In its 2020 summit, the WEF had created a four days’ sustainable city in Klosters (Davos), Switzerland wherein almost all the essential supplies were availed from local producers. The cities of post-COVID 19 age will be beyond the Davos-Klosters model wherein, besides, ensuring local supply, minimum emission, minimum resource utilization, and global networking, etc, the ideas of social distancing, water management, hygiene, and health will have to be implemented from a new approach. This is the time to implement internet-based technologies and think beyond that to redefine the concept of sustainability for post-COVID 19 sustainable cities.

Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) is an initiative of VisionRI and aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of the global development sector and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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