“Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”— Jane Jacobs
Most Indian cities are densely populated and characterized by noise, pollution, congestion, and lack of basic infrastructures. The mushrooming slums of the migrating population, the narrow pavements congested by shacks of homeless people or vendors, and the inequality prevailing in urban development, possess risk concerning public health, as the cities are making up more than 90 percent national cases of COVID-19.
Besides the conventional ‘top-down’ and ad hoc urbanization of the Indian cities to the newly added tokenistic smart city models, community participation in the development process has always been neglected in India. Therefore, this can be a high time to build back better resilient cities by designing a sustainable pathway of development with community participation as a grassroots approach in solving urban issues. This participatory development approach has proved successful in many European and American cities to spread awareness and empower the local people in leading the projects.
“Top-down” approach vs. participative development
Unlike the top-down approach, the participative approach of the development process can resolve the conflicts during the planning process rather than during the implementation time causing more delay. This process also creates trust, credibility, and commitment among the citizens about government policies, and paves the way for long-term interventions.
The conventional architectural and planning processes need to be redefined by following Sherry R. Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, defining eight different levels of participation from manipulation to citizen control. The sub-district governance and grassroots civil societies need to be strengthened to empower the communities to set and achieve their vision and goals. Although the turn-out is unpredictable, the potential of community involvement needs to be identified for a more sustainable outcome.
Urban professionals can enforce community engagement in various stages of need assessment, planning, mobilizing, training, implementing, monitoring, and evaluation, in the following ways:
- Motivating the community participants by providing information about the built environment, planning process, and providing expertise to reinforce the contributions.
- Building and sharing a network of the available interests and expertise to support the development process.
- Motivating to focus on the outcome instead of indulging in self-interest.
- Allocating time for community participation in the development process to assess the quality of the resources to integrate into the implementation.
Here, we are going to discuss the urban issues that emerged from the COVID 19 pandemic situation and how the participative approach can support to deal with the issues:
Addressing the Urban population density and social distancing
As the cities thrive economically by increased population density, this pandemic has thrown a challenge to the cities to revive the economic condition while maintaining social distancing in the overcrowded urban spaces. To revive from this unprecedented situation and defer any further outbreaks, participative measures can be beneficial in both reinforcing social distancing in streets, public places, offices, and in neighborhoods as well as spreading awareness among the citizens to adhere to the new normal.
Therefore, tactical urbanism can be followed to engage the local people to create a cycle and pedestrian lanes in the busy streets, to define social distancing measures in public places, and to identify and utilize the underused areas in neighborhoods for creating pocket parks using the locally available materials and skills. These creative placemaking attempts are adopted around the world to encourage people to enjoy the post-pandemic city life.
Towards a resilient city
The long crisis scenario of this pandemic is embedded in the failure of the global urbanization pattern and has opened many possibilities to understand the implications to apply the best practices in resolving the issues. Rebuilding the communities with adequate basic and social infrastructure is needed to mitigate further risks of epidemics while addressing the mental health of the citizens due to joblessness, isolation, and widening income inequality.
Therefore, community-based organizations need to be empowered to prepare the communities to battle this public health crisis with people-centered interventions. Sharing foods, organizing community initiatives to promote wellbeing, promoting the local economy, and building inclusive communities in a participative way can empower people with emotional support and safety.
These grassroots community-based interventions can play an effective incremental role to achieve long-term impacts in building resilient cities by prioritizing walkability, reducing traffic, surviving street-level retails and restaurants, designing affordable housing, and reinforcing the “15-minute neighborhood” concept of Paris.
Addressing Urbanization inequality and public health to protect the vulnerable groups
The socioeconomic background is the main driving factor in developing the basic infrastructure and sanitation facilities within the cities, making the low-income categories the most vulnerable to spread the virus. Lack of access to water, sanitation, and modern public benefits like security and socio-economic development has resulted in an unhygienic living condition in the informal settlements, making the city hotspots for transmission of diseases.
Therefore, instead of long-term government projects, a participative approach with open-minded urban governance and collective thinking, will be very effective to uplift the living condition of the vulnerable urban spaces in a shorter time and will steer towards a better and safer outcome.
Mahatma Gandhi’s following famous quote can be our fundamental question while reflecting on the urbanization process:
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it?”
The city makers will need to evaluate the emerging effects of the collective effort of placemaking and solving urban issues for inclusive and resilient development in the post COVID world.
- 1 Jane Jacobs (2016). “Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs”, p.129, Random House
2 Source: Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, Vol. II (1958), p.65