The outbreak has exposed the limited resilience of our cities to face a crisis in every sector starting from housing, transportation, retail, healthcare, hygiene, food safety, to the economy. As per historical evidence, if we let specific diseases to shape our cities and design everything around pandemic considerations, any further unprecedented crisis can again catch us in unpreparedness. Instead, we can reassess how the cities could be planned and run in the first place and start focusing on planning and design responses for well-functioning cities to increase livability. Therefore, it’s the time when we don’t consider urban planning and designing as a mere option but a pressing need to enhance the quality of urban life and make people healthier with increased immunity.
Here are ten ways of how urban planning can address the multidimensional problems caused by pandemics and build back resilient cities:
1. Mixed-use Spatial planning
Although the urban density is a factor by which the cities thrive economically and vibrant public places like offices, restaurants, bars, urban squares, parks, and eminent public buildings characterize the spirit of the cities, in time of any disaster or crisis, the urban poor gets severely impacted due to the density, most of the time causing national emergencies. Therefore, a holistic city planning, ensuring proper mixed-class and mixed-use places can enable all people to support each other during pandemics and natural disasters. Moreover, the city densities need to be maintained between 400 and 600 persons per hectare to keep a better-built environment and surveillance in the urban spaces to make them manageable and also ready to be instantly re-purposed in case of emergency.
2. Focus on planning affordable housing for reducing urban inequality
Improper implementation of urban planning results in mushrooming sub-standard informal settlements by the migrant populations along the edge of the cities. Congested living areas with inadequate public spaces are vulnerable to a virus outbreak and also cause hygienic and environmental risk affecting the physical and mental health of the poor people. The living condition of the urban poor makes it technically impossible to maintain the social distancing guidelines, which is essential to survive this pandemic. Therefore, affordable housing needs to be planned in the unutilized and often disputed publicly held lands within the cities, without driving these vulnerable people towards the edge of the town, causing more disruption in social and livelihood networks.
3. Access to basic services
The essential technical infrastructure of a city is consisting of three parts: energy, sanitation, and communication. The inequality in the distribution of these services makes it difficult for poor people to access them during isolation, resulting in difficulty to maintain the lockdown orders and risking public health. This inequality can be addressed in urban planning to ensure the quality of life throughout the city.
Moreover, while denser cities are more economic to provide the basic services, density is also the main reason for the virus outbreak. Therefore, by the application of technology and creative approaches in urban planning, easy accessibility of these services can be achieved, ensuring hygiene and safety in dense urban areas.
4. Micro-mobility centered transportation planning
The urban mobility needs to bounce back and provide safety to the commuters for the economic revival of the cities. Therefore, public transportations needs to be modified with social distancing norms, otherwise people will prefer to opt for private vehicles to maintain better hygiene. This will also result in increased road traffic, air and noise pollution, and threatening many jobs in the transportation sectors.
To promote sustainability in transportation, micro-mobility needs to be planned with the existing formal and informal modes of commuting within cities because the micro and active mobility not only allows people to maintain physical distancing while commuting but also provide health benefits due to physical activity. Therefore, the city planners are rethinking the mobility plans by mapping the spatial connectivity, addressing the daily passenger volume, and destination locations. The future mobility needs to be planned by including a walking and cycling network with intermodal interchange facilities and resting areas as an addition to the existing public transport network to avoid more car-centric development in near future and resulting in more resilient city transportation.
5. Planning accessible and adequate public places
The key to avoiding any future outbreaks is to decrease the urban density, enhancing the environmental quality, and providing healthy and hygienic living conditions to the city dwellers; hence, a holistic approach to planning by allocating adequate lands for accessible public places within the city is crucial to address all these issues. This pandemic has resulted in many tangible changes in the cities and has made the people enduring for going out to open spaces. Therefore, the public places need to be planned based on the population type and density of the places to avoid overcrowding and combining green and blue infrastructures for addressing the environmental concerns. Moreover, all these open spaces need to be integrated with infrastructures so that these spaces can be used for future emergency purposes as well.
On a positive side, the Covid-19 outbreak is working as a catalyst to force the city leaders to embrace people-centered and environment-friendly development and encouraging the city dwellers to value open spaces more.
6. Planning social infrastructures in peri-urban areas
The shift in the working pattern, the urge for physical distancing, and the search for economic and spacious living spaces in more natural settings are driving many city dwellers towards the outskirts of the cities. Therefore, planning social infrastructures as well as areas for education, healthcare, and entertainment facilities in those peri-urban areas can not only create livelihood opportunities in those areas minimizing migration but also can help to reduce the urban population in dense city areas.
7. Ensuring Food security
Allocating places for urban farming in city planning can act like a local and sustainable option for growing food instead of over-depending on the global supply chain. Vertical garden, container, or rooftop organic farming options are getting popularity among the city dwellers to grow their food eliminating the application of pesticides or eventually buying them from the supermarket shelves. Panic buying before lockdown, increase in prices, and deficiency in supply are a few factors that are leading people to adopt urban farming from improving not only food security and nutrition but also controlling stress and reducing climate change impacts.
8. Initiating Bottom-up urban planning approach for urban development
As per UN-Habitat, planning should be revisited through regional, city, neighborhood, and building scales with new thinking. Therefore, moving away from a single departmental approach towards a collaborative and integrated approach by decision-makers, professionals and the community members can be advantageous to recognize and implement contextual solutions, continuing operation, maintenance, and eventually developing connections to scale-up the solutions for embracing the new post-COVID reality.
9. Strengthening Urban governance
By properly planning the built fabric for people to live and work in cities, a better urban governance system can also be achieved. The recent pandemic has exposed the current fragile condition of urban governance as a result of the faults in the urban fabric. Therefore, unplanned urbanization is not only responsible for the pandemic but also imposes a challenge to implement national and state-level responses to contain the virus outbreak. As per UN-Habitat, the preparation of spatial neighborhood maps with granular data by using smart technologies are important in monitoring and also establishing systems for emergency responses.
10. City-Level Granular Data interpretation
Embracing digitalization in public services real-time data regarding transportation, health, sanitation, and even population densities in different urban areas can be gathered. These data are crucial for urban planners to analyze them with the available physical facilities, so that during an emergency, depending on those ‘big data’ approaches, the urban planners can derive action plans and select locations for epidemic treatment and plan transportation and infrastructures in those areas.
The COVID crisis can be a turning point, representing an opportunity to establish urban planning guidelines to ensure long-term, equitable benefits for the people and the environment and implement preventive, proactive, and preventive measures to fight any further unforeseen crisis.