It is no secret that the best lessons are learnt in the worst times. The year 2020 has taught us many lessons. Finally, the year is departing but the lessons learnt should have a far-reaching and deep impact on the way we plan, design and manage our cities
The passing year has given us some hope with the news of effective vaccine being made available to people around the world. Now, cities are gearing up to return to normalcy. They must seize the opportunity and plan for a brighter urban future with an eye on the rearview mirror to understand the multi-dimensional impacts of the pandemic, their response and learning.
One of the big lessons for humanity this year is to slow down and rethink the priorities. It is true for our urban spaces too. Many cities around the world have started working in this direction by focusing on creating an eco-system that ensures better living conditions for everyone in the city. City leaders need to keep assessing their requirements and priorities regularly. Growth without responsibility is not good enough.
Needs versus wants
Many cities are mimicking the development model of metro cities without assessing their local requirements. Such mistakes do not just result in wasting of resources but also damage the environmental health of urban spaces. Ghost cities of China are one example. Another example could be the expansion of high-cost infrastructure projects in cities, while economical options are available. Metro train project in small cities and the tepid response of locals could be one example. There is no harm in being future-ready and plan for increasing demand but cities must assess their needs and address those issues first which need urgent resolution.
A thought to de-growth
‘De-growth’ is not a mainstream idea, especially in countries which are still developing. If one asks what is prosperity then the obvious answer could be big and bigger economic progress. But the economic and infrastructural progress cannot be infinite on a finite planet. Cities will also have to learn this fundamental fact which was highlighted by the pandemic this year because most of our mighty cities, despite having the best of the resources, collapsed badly.
Citizens have begun to realize the importance of sustainability after seeing the disastrous impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Consumers are opting for ‘green products’ and ‘services’ which adopt sustainable practices. Cities can leverage on the progress in this direction to promote sustainable practices in their jurisdiction. This can pave a way for greener and steady-state of our urban spaces despite evolving challenges. This also encourages people to use less disposable items, use cars less, adopt sustainable products, etc.
Rethink open spaces
When cities were shut down during the lockdown, we came to realize the importance of open spaces in cities. Open spaces include recreational spaces, organized green and other common open spaces (such as floodplains, forest cover) in plain areas, according to the 2014 Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation guidelines. The guidelines suggest a norm of 10-12 square metres of open space per person. Most of our cities, as per their master plans, do not fulfil this criterion. Cities will have to look at this front and plan their development accordingly and ensure better mental and physical health of their citizens.
I don’t think after what happened this year, cities need to be reminded of building resilient urban systems to cope with disasters and health emergencies.
The experience of cities in different regions helped in framing policies elsewhere in swiftly responding to the crisis. The innovation and technological tools developed by cities in South Korea, Japan, China, USA, India and other countries assisted people in other parts of the world. Sharing knowledge and resources among cities is essential in the times when a vast majority of the world population will live in cities.
Role of LGAs
The role of Local Government Associations and the institutes which enable global knowledge sharing between cities is becoming increasingly important. These institutes shall be promoted and cities must become proactive partners to share their experiences and learn from the innovations of others.
Improve community sanitation standards
The performance of India in improving its sanitation standards in the last couple of years with its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been commendable. Now, it is the time for the cities to make sure that the momentum continues and the people adopt the sanitation practices as a way of their life. This can become possible only when there is a sustained collective effort from the local governments and the local community.
Contribution of sanitation workers
Sanitation workers acted as the frontline warriors and their incredible contribution to society was recognized by one and all. Cities must value their contribution in keeping the cities clean and must frame welfare programs for their well-being. Providing adequate safety gear and equipment in every city should be a top priority.
Urban transport systems help the cities run smoothly. COVID-19 discouraged people to use public transport or shared vehicles. Many people opted for personal vehicles like cars and bikes. Going forward, cities should encourage people to walk and cycle, wherever possible. This will also help in reducing carbon footprint.
Improve communication with community
Cities always become the first respondents to any kind of crisis. The need to adopt better communication strategies and encourage the local population to be proactive in urban affairs and local policy decision is of great significance. The idea of Swaraj given by Mahatma Gandhi still holds relevance in local urban governance. It was overwhelming to see how local community groups rose to the occasion and helped people in need during the crisis.
Housing for All has been on the agenda of the present government. The government also launched the Rental Housing Scheme for the migrant workers after the issues of inadequate facilities for the migrant population surfaced during the lockdown. Improving sanitation facilities and provision of basic civic services in all the colonies is needed to deal with a health disaster like COVID-19.
Vocal for local
The mantra given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is important for various reasons for cities. It not just makes cities self-reliant but also reduces their dependency on essential gadgets and gears in the time of crisis. We cannot ignore global cooperation because it has its advantages but the right balance between both could hold the key for the bright future.
In an ideal world, women and men should have equal power to transform their lives and society. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The pandemic has darkened the existing gender inequalities with women facing a high burden of the crisis. It makes the case for the role of municipalities to drive positive change through gender-sensitive policy-making and governance mechanism. Efforts are also required in designing cities and public services with a gender-lens.
Cities solved a host of issues during the pandemic using technology. It underlines the importance of being ready with the workforce and infrastructure to get the benefits of technological innovations. Cities must invest in training of their officials and create a responsive and tech-savvy workforce to find solutions to urban issues.
Data collection and sharing
The importance of having data and using the same for framing policies and programs came to the fore and the cities which had accurate data sets of their population, their travel patterns, housing, socio-economic strata could respond to the crisis well and they were able to minimize the negative impacts of the disaster on their citizens. Cities will have to work on data collection and also make it open without compromising the privacy of the citizens to get maximum benefits of data analysis. For this, cities are required to have collaborations with multiple government agencies and private tech companies.
The deteriorating state of urban environmental health can be healed and it was evident when the countries shut down their economic activities. People from Punjab could see the Himalayas and in many decades, the water of the Ganges became potable in certain pockets. Such examples are proof that if the urban spaces are managed sustainably, we can reverse the damage done to the environment.
Municipal governments need to work to develop an urban governance model under which service delivery systems work seamlessly, effectively and are simultaneously able to handle any emergency. The liveability of a city can be assessed if the city performs well on all indicators such as providing high-quality public services for all people, in both rich and poor neighbourhoods; adequate economic opportunities for residents and businesses; frame policies that create an enjoyable life for its residents.
Be selfless and compassionate
This lesson is not for just cities but also the citizens. Yes, you read it right. Cities will also have to develop the human trait of being compassionate. Cities need to be inclusive. Coronavirus, like all of us, is not permanent. It will disappear in thin air. But the contagion has reminded us again the value of selflessness, empathy, and compassion. The pandemic is an early-warning to reflect on our actions and choices. If the migrant workers helping us build a city are not well taken care of and the city where they work fails them in a crisis, it means our system is not adequate and need overhauling. It needs constant efforts on part of cities to ensure the well-being of one and all. Cities needs to be built, rebuilt and operate with this