Pandemics are carving our lives and shaping our cities. The Piazzas of Rome, High Line of New York, garden cafes of Paris, and the waterfronts of Mumbai are those delightful spaces which every city craves for. As the reds of pandemics are at its peak, these quintessential spaces or the ‘hotspots’ have been deserted without a soul in it. On a spur of the moment, the pathways hardwired into our public places became too narrow for social distancing. Therefore, one of the burning questions that planners, designers, and architects will have to face is the traction between the idea of ‘coming together’ in cities and ‘self-isolation.

At a time of intense stoppage of activities due to which our plazas and arenas have become obsolete, we may have to refocus on what worked and what works.

Rethinking the density

First of all, imagine us as trees in forests. When one tree is ignited, the fire spreads effortlessly burning the forest into ashes. Furthermore, as we live in concrete forests bundled without gaps in it, the virus precipitates and thrives. It is evident that people hesitate to step into elevators today, fearing the virus transmission. In this context, It seems that we may be heading to a world where cities decentralise into smaller units and villages rise in prominence. The theory of density and clustering seems to be at odds as packed spaces promote close-knit human contacts. Therefore, Architects and planners will now have to break the fundamental premises of density, by planning suburbs and local destinations.

On the other hand, if the ‘density’ is good, we may have to equate built areas with parks of varied sizes and shapes, thereby promoting fresh air. By way of example, the ‘Central Park’ of New York is now housing field hospitals and shelters, despite being the lungs of the city. The presence of such parks limits silent virus transmissions as they are reservoirs of fresh air. Moreover, Inkblots of greens in urban areas serve as ‘flex-spaces’ that can be reserved for temporary functions at the age of pandemics.

The idea of ‘coming-together’

In today’s scenario, countries around the world are closing down their exquisite public places; cheers to the animals and birds who own them now. The beauty of a metropolis is that it offers a one-stop destination for all needs. The pulse of its gathering spaces can be captured in one frame as people stay and linger for watching a movie, shopping, viewing performances, and so on. However, the more sticky these public places are, the more germs propagate through people, causing panic.

Over the past few decades, the city centres have snatched an unreasonable share of essential services and activities, while suburbs stayed low key. ‘Decentralized’ activities scale down human proximity. Therefore, it’s time for us to promote ‘hotspots’ in each suburb and self-contain them to break the city links during a crisis. Moreover, at Urban travel hubs, we may have to design flexible furniture that can be pulled apart to bring about personal spaces.

“Quarantine”- a spatial buffer

Although the word ‘Quarantine’ is scientific-sounding, it blurs the boundaries between design and health. As we know it, this practice was put in force in the 14th century. Ships arriving from Venice were to remain in isolation for safeguarding the coast from the ‘Plague” during that time. Furthermore, several iconic development boards established sanitation systems in the mid 19th century in response to ‘Cholera.’

Similarly, we are moving to a new chapter in city planning were the tempting public spaces are overlooked by the government as temporary hospitals and laboratories. Therefore, we need to heighten the resilience of cities to pandemics by allocating land parcels for spatial buffers and self-isolation units.

Food is medicine, food is a cure

“You are what you eat,” said Brilliant Savarin, a physiologist. Food is one thing that makes every part of us. And for this good reason, a province in Canada invited its students and laid-off workers to work in local agriculture to move over the immediate crisis of food production.  Several pieces of research advocate that the locally produced food minimize the food scarcity and eases the burden on global food chains. On the same note, these platforms not only encourage the local economy but builds complete and self-reliant communities. Therefore, we should reserve some zones within the city and the buildings for food production and research. If there are enough dairy farms and food cultivation areas to sustain the city, we may not witness empty grocery shelves in future.

‘Localness’ and ‘Third place’

It is undeniable that pandemics hit harder on one zone of the city leaving the other. Therefore, when a chunk of the city is under threat of viruses, a collective effort by the groups is the need for the moment. Do our neighbourhoods have such places that embrace ‘localness’? The proximity to Community centres, hospitals, police stations, and social spaces matter since they promote knowledge sharing. Currently, half of the world’s population sits at home. So essentially, we need spaces for local exchanges, local shopping, and care shelters. According to the sociologist Ray Oldenburg, these are ’third places’ where we exchange ideas, time, and build relationships. They are necessary to minimize lonely souls within urban areas.

Flagrant Délit, MadelonVriesendorp’s painting that became the cover of Rem Koolhaas’s ‘Delirious New York.’

Spatial inequality

When there are competition and coercion, faulty lines start to appear. The number of fatalities has started displaying the vulnerable people of our society, the homeless, the healthcare employees, and the service workers. The key to mitigating vulnerability is by bringing a diverse mix to living quarters. Our folks working in the service industry deserve much respect in planning with better transportation lines and housing.

Prof. Richard Sennett, an advisor to United Nations stated in New cities conference that “we have to rectify our work- home transport networks as a multitude of people cycle 3 hours a day to get to the work”. Perhaps we need to strive for an Urban form where all have access to good health, travel, and recreation.

The way forward

To sum up, we, humans, benefit immensely as we are weaved into the amenity-rich fabrics of the city. Given these points, it’s a bit early to take on lessons because the nature of virus attacks varies over time. The question here is whether these extreme measures are temporary in our cities or irreparable. In these pandemic days, let’s hope that nature will heal its scars to bring a meaningful future and brighter city days.


1 Comment

  1. Kedheeswaran Reply

    Nice an in-depth analysis on over the nature ,living environment & built forms and all these catastrophe activity lead by a human society toward over-mining of nature ie. blues and greens

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