Covid19 Impact & Post Pandemic Public Spaces: A case of Indian Cities

Cities across the globe have faced several public health crises. From the Athens plague in 430BC, to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, to the recent spate of Ebola epidemics across sub-Saharan Africa and now Covid 19. All of them have driven profound changes in the city’s laws and identity. India is witnessing a very disparate Lockdown; the country is experiencing the second largest migration after its independence and partition in 1947. The worst affected are Construction workers, Labourers, street vendors and farmers. As per the records, around 80 million people traveled back to their homes without any public transport facilities amidst this pandemic. During this Reverse-Migration (Urban — Rural), this public health crisis has been converted into a humanitarian crisis for India because all these migrant workers and labourers are dying of starvation, fatigue and Road accidents. Moreover, because of recent communal tensions and rising Islamophobia, Indian Muslims are facing a renewed stigma amid Covid19. Muslims in India are reportedly facing a surge in threats and fake news targeting them, after a religious meeting in March was identified as the source of a major infection cluster.

Delhi, the capital city has a population density of 11,297 persons per sq km, with 1,797 densely populated unauthorized colonies which holds 30% of the total Delhi’s population. Be it Mumbai’s Dharavi or Slums of Delhi both has showed that stuffing the poor into a small city landmass has enormous health consequences, especially during a pandemic. Several advisories and public heath interventions have been done in the last three months in India; some of them was restrictions on the use of public spaces, confinement and social distancing and other policy measures to reduce transmission of CoV19 and protect public health., in urban planning Lingo, connoting the spatial context, the better phrase would be ‘physical distancing’. Indian cities are well known for their active street life, with narrow lanes with sharp turns, sudden dead ends, and houses overlooking the street, Bustling Bazaars with overcrowded pedestrians, Hawkers and vehicles: Every nuance had a function. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we feel the sting of having lost our familiar, vibrant, social and lively public places. The most crucial part of the situation is uncertainty about what lies ahead and fear that our sense of place and space may be permanently transformed. When we move outside our homes, we observe bizarre and distant social interactions, raising questions about how social relations in public spaces may be changing. There is huge uncertainty about how COVID-19 will impact future public space design, use and perceptions. How will our relationship with public space change and for how long? In the realm of public space and design, a essential question concerns how long these impacts will be felt, and the degree to which they will be transnational. It may take years before we are able to ascertain how the global pandemic has changed the planning and design of public space.

Impact on Street design
Sidewalks in the numerous South Asian Countries tend to be crowded, irregular, if they exist at all. Sidewalks are occupied by street vendors, pavement dwellers and a range of informal activities. In India, the social distancing measures announced have meant ‘jugaad’ style appropriations of streets. In efforts to direct social distancing while queuing, sidewalks leading to shops have been marked with yellow circles a meter and a half apart. Cities in both the Global North and South may need to consider adding more space to accommodate for new queuing norms at the entrances of shops, services and public facilities.

Source: Author | Streets showing pre-pandemic & post pandemic conditions

Fears of contagion in closed indoor spaces may increase demand for more exterior spaces, this is where it can fulfill the gap. While living in unprecedented times, people are not only battling the fear of corona virus, but are also gripped with anxiety and worry of losing their source of income amid the economic crisis due to the lockdown.

According to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH), cities are associated with higher rates of most mental health problems compared to rural areas: an almost 40% higher risk of depression, over 20% more of anxiety, and double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to loneliness, isolation and stress. In India, while we are beginning to see how urban design impacts physical health, only a handful of experts understand the links between mental health and our poorly designed cities. The Covid pandemic has highlighted the need to put people first and create liveable cities. The pandemic could force planners and designers to create a new vocabulary or typology to describe places in terms of social density, distances, crowding, or public health risks. The pandemic will create a new lens through which to think about public space, maybe a new street design, infrastructure, housing and mobility options too at least for the hotspots. The pandemic is likely to push street vendors, other informal workers and pedestrians out of the street and post pandemic this is going to affect their relationship with the public space and their social behavior. This pandemic may also helps to generate new patterns and configurations of use, potentially reshaping public space in our cities. One of such way can be attained by regenerating the dimension of our traditional terrace systems.

Graphic representing regeneration of traditional terrace systems | Source: Author

Historically, the terrace social systems were also equally important as street systems. As urbanization took place the essentiality of terrace systems have become blurred in the nexus of Indian cities. More optimistically, those who have lived through severe confinement or lockdown may have a renewed appreciation of Terraces and balconies, although this may not be the case for everyone. There are likely to be heterogeneous effects by individuals, and perhaps gender and age, and other dimensions. It has become cliché to claim that this crisis is an opportunity, and yet never before has so much attention been devoted to cities and health, making this is an unprecedented opportunity to examine the links between urban planning, public space and wellbeing. There should be engagement through technology, environmental, social reforms and public awareness and education. We need to focus on developing effective public health infrastructure and making stronger social institutions.

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