RESPONSIVE URBAN PLANNING: COVID-19 A TURNING POINT FOR REAL CHANGE IN INDIAN CITIES
Geography and You|Issue 146, 2020
The global challenge of COVID-19 is still unfurling. States are grappling to control its remorseless spread with varied success and its impact both on long and short-term scales are still being understood. However, a distinct urban bias in its spread across the globe and universal response of lockdown and social distancing for its control has brought pertinent questions to the fore. Urban planning and the future of our cities in terms of urban life and city form therefore needs to be revisited. In India, the exodus of migrant workers from its large cities has added yet another dimension to this challenge.
Kanika Basu

The current pandemic and search for an effective solution reminds us that the genesis of modern urban planning can be attributed to communicable diseases and health concerns. Recent literature on urban planning deliberating on COVID19 impact in cities, reminisces that many iconic interventions in city planning and management have been in response to diseases. Ian Klaus talks about the London’s Metropolitan Board of Works and mid-19th century sanitation systems that developed in response to public health crises such as cholera outbreaks (Klaus 2020). Rogier van den Berg argued that housing regulations in view of light and air requirements was introduced as a measure to fight against respiratory diseases in overcrowded slums in Europe during industrialisation (Berg 2020). According to Sara S Carr public parks became more popular as tuberculosis swept through the US at the turn of the 20th century (Carr 2014). Tuberculosis in fact influenced a lot of architecture and urban planning right up to the 1960s, especially in modern public housing in the USA. Sam Lubell in his analysis attributes slum clearance and single-use zoning— separation of residential and industrial, to the health challenges in the early 20th century (Lubell 2020).

The compact city argument

The last few decades of urban planning have been dominated by thoughts and approaches that perceived density as the panacea for all urban challenges from affordable housing, energy efficient mobility, to economic growth and sustainability. Its origin can be traced to the compact city concept and approach in urban planning. Although, the term 'compact city’ was first coined in 1973 by George Dantzig and Thomas Saaty, according to Randal O’Toole, Le Corbusier with his Radiant City plan is one of the first protagonist of the compact city concept (O’Toole 2009). Essentially an anti-thesis of low-density suburb development, the concept experienced a resurgence of interest in 1980s as a response to the global challenge to sustainability goals and climate change concerns. The term compact city does not have a universally accepted definition. It is a combination of many strategies with the overarching aim to create compactness and high density that can avoid all the problems of modern cities and urban sprawls. The single most important attribute to describe a compact city is the population density supported by concepts like mixed land use with higher density, geographic limit of the city boundary, and promotion of public transport as mode of communication vis-à-vis private vehicles.

The concept was endorsed by the United Nations Earth Summit Agenda 21 (1993) and European Commission through its publication ‘Cities of Tomorrow’ that emphasised the importance of a compact urban form as a sustainable strategy for future urban development. The compact city approach was adopted by many European states and gained popularity. It also attracted fair share of criticism from a group of urban planners who questioned the perceived benefits of urban compactness through densification (O’Toole 2009). Analytical studies cautioned against hyper density and advised viable settlements at optimal densities for the human scale…” (Salingaros 2006). Similar view is reiterated in Erling Holden analysis of Norwegian towns of Greater Oslo and Forde that concludes “sustainable urban development points towards decentralised concentration—relatively small cities with a high density and short distances between houses and public/private spaces (Holden 2004).

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