Metro cities of the world account for 22 per cent of the world population (1.6 billion) and 60 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). When we talk about the best of any facility in a nation, we look towards their metropolises but the pandemic has exposed their weaknesses. The pandemic has allowed us to fix the problem of our metropolises and make them enviable again
A survey done in the United States of America shows that as many as 40 per cent urban dwellers are thinking of shifting to suburbs or less populated areas. However, this may be too early to assess the real situation in the USA or elsewhere. And, this seems to be farfetched for now in the Indian scenario because of the lack of basic services in villages and small towns. People living in cities cannot think of staying in villages and small towns for several reasons and lack of amenities for good living would top the list.
Cities-The Hot Spots
The pandemic has been particularly devastating to cities everywhere as their density provided fertile ground to the virus to spread fast. But the pandemic has also told us that everything is not fine in our cities and they require fundamental changes.
Urban planners love density because many urban systems thrive on it. Take the example of skyscrapers, shopping malls, metro systems in cities; they would falter if a large number of people do not use them. But density is also a good friend of contagious diseases. Our cities like Delhi and Mumbai, which are among the densest in the world, have been suffering the side effects of the pandemic.
To stop the contagion, all governments have suggested physical distancing. Is it possible in a city like Mumbai? It may be possible in high-income areas where the houses are big and people can choose to maintain distance. But what about slums like Dharavi in Mumbai or Seelampur in Delhi? In these slums, people live in close quarters and share public amenities including the toilets. It is increasingly challenging to avoid physical interaction and maintain total isolation and physical distancing in a high-density built environment and urban spaces. None of us knows the further ramifications of the pandemic on cities and urban living but the learning from it can pave a way for possible transformation that the existing built environment needs to undergo to make the cities truly livable, healthy and resilient. It will also impel policymakers to rethink the way cities are being planned, designed and inhabited. And, the role of city leaders will also change especially in the cities where they are just for ceremonial purposes. Local elected leaders will have to assume more responsibility in dealing with the crisis with proactive citizen engagement and also in assisting the union and state governments in providing valuable inputs for a speedy recovery. For this, the governments need to rethink the role of city mayors and make the required legal amendments to provide them with more authority at the
New urban model
With good news coming from various countries on work on the vaccine, it is expected that cities will come back to normalcy in a couple of months. The top priority of national leaders, mayors, and city governments will be to develop new policy solutions and enlarge financial resources at great speed to bring normalcy in people’s lives. When the dust settles, all the tiers of governments and the leaders will have to assess the damage, the lack of preparedness and address their weaknesses in dealing with the health emergency. Since the cities have remained in focus, the role of municipalities and local leaders will also be reviewed by the citizenry, civil society and planners. All India Institute of Local Self-Government (AIILSG) and National Institute of Urban Affairs have jointly kick-started a series of webinars namely Mayors’ Dialogues in which many of them have raised their concerns and talked about their limitations to handle any crisis without having adequate resources, administrative and financial autonomy. Such dialogues should become the norm.
Governments should initiate dialogues with elected representatives and empower them in a way they can lead from the front. Empowering local leaders will be advantageous because no officer can initiate a better dialogue with the community and no officer can know the city and citizens better. India has witnessed a slew of reforms almost 28 years ago with 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act but their implementation in the right spirit is debatable.
The pandemic has also stressed on the significance of coordination between national, state, and municipal governments in planning the strategy and optimizing resources to deal with the crisis. Countries and cities which are coordinating well are showing promising trends of containing the spread and restarting their economies.
According to a website called Cities for Global Health, in metropolitan spaces, the collaboration of central cities and peripheries, and the incorporation of metropolitan governance, can make a huge difference to ensure that quality of life is not further threatened under scenarios of fragility and that no one is left behind. Collaboration between administrations of different levels is key.
The website offers a virtual space to showcase what cities are doing and be inspired by others regarding specific initiatives or plans to the COVID-19 outbreak and other health emergencies. It seeks to foster collective responses and facilitate the access of decision-makers to first-hand experiences about how urban areas across the globe can deal with situations alike. It is to be noted that Cities for Global Health is an initiative co-led by Metropolis and the Euro-Latin-American Alliance of Cooperation among Cities, AL-LAs, and is part of the Live Learning Experience: beyond the immediate response to the outbreak, developed by UCLG and supported by UN-Habitat and Metropolis.
Our institute is closely working with these organizations to bring global knowledge resources to our cities and provide municipal leaders and their workforce a sneak peek into the best practices of global cities.
I am quite sure that access to such information would be beneficial for city mayors and they would be asserting their opinions more strongly on subjects of public good and also enlarge the spectrum of their engagement in urban operations with support from the municipal workforce.