Will the Covid-19 crisis change the face of Indian cities?

Covid-19 might reignite the debate on the trade-off between densification and sprawl in cities among urban planners, and present an opportunity for more nuanced Master Plans

Updated: Apr 24, 2020 04:01:53 PM UTC
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Cities across the globe have become epicentres for the Covid-19 outbreak and are under complete lockdown. The outbreak has affected the self-employed and the daily wage earners the most. Covid-19 has laid bare urban India’s stark socio-economic inequalities and is no different from various other epidemics that have shaped cities.

Such shocks do not just transform cityscapes, but also alter the economic order and community structures in them. This crisis is an opportunity for a deeper introspection on the inherent structural flaws of our cities.

Covid-19 might reignite the debate on the trade-off between densification and sprawl in cities among urban planners. Space in a rapidly urbanising India is a premium, resulting in the preference for compact city-planning models. Such cities are generally more productive, manageable and energy-efficient, but at the same time are also more vulnerable to contagion and more strongly exhibit socio-economic disparities.

On the other hand, urban sprawls may have greater liveability and wellbeing in such a crisis. Covid-19 will at least nudge planners to factor in mitigation strategies such as social distancing when conceptualising norms for all future planning.

This leads to a larger point about urban planning in India. Cities need to be thought of as a ‘system of systems’ and must accordingly adopt a holistic philosophy. On top of the list is the reimagined ‘Master Plan’—the only statutory document used to plan urban infrastructure, land use and development control in cities.

Despite understanding the symbiotic relationship, most cities do not simultaneously plan for transportation alongside the Master Plan. Therefore, planning of cities needs fundamental reforms and must go beyond archaic Town and Country Planning Acts to be more responsive to land markets, sustainability and metropolitan development. Most significantly, they are not considered inclusive development instruments. Master Plans in India have not adequately addressed the requirements of low-income households and the informal sector; this lacuna could be addressed through a bottom-up approach to assess their requirements and their contributions to the city economy.

Even beyond the lack of foresight for the plight of the urban poor, Master Plans fail to capture the constantly evolving nature of cities. Only when the next Master Plan is prepared 20 years later does a city realise the shortcomings of the previous plan. These shortcomings are multi-dimensional: low convergence with mobility planning; disintegrated infrastructure planning; disconnected economic planning; and lack of integration of resilience and climate action.

Further, Covid-19 has also made us recognise the importance of communities and participatory governance in urban management. Cities must prioritise operationalising Ward Committees and area ‘sabhas’ to full capacity. They must ensure diverse  representation of all communities to drive inclusivity. With more cities going digital, there is a need to ensure that those with no digital access can equally benefit from these technology platforms.

Despite all the planning, cities must also acknowledge that this not foolproof. They would always remain exposed to external shocks, unless they risk-proof the infrastructure. Cities often skip this because it can be an expensive and time-intensive process. However, early planning not only helps cities in mitigating the impacts of disruption, but also has long-term benefits for the government as well as citizens. Similar to inclusion, resilience also has to grow beyond the traditional definitions of responsiveness to a broader understanding that covers the five pillars of city growth: infrastructure, service delivery, finance, governance and capacity. Across these pillars, both inclusion and resilience must be treated as foundational elements for cities to plan their growth.

These challenges of cities cannot entirely be addressed only through proactive and inclusive urban planning; economic growth is equally important. While economic planning is a thought for another discussion, it must be stressed that such planning will need to prioritise the informal labour market, who are hit hard by most crisis situations. The answer, perhaps, lies in thinking about our cities differently. As the Covid-19 situation is continuously evolving, these ideas may not be comprehensive. However, the crisis has made it evident that cities need to be more proactive in preparing for and managing various situations.

The writer is Partner - Urban Infrastructure at PwC India.

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The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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