A slightly modified version of this piece appeared on Times blog on May 11.
Social distancing, isolation and locking down of cities and oneself is the norm in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. With this, inequality in cities has been laid bare, exposing the startling vulnerability of the urban poor. The current economic slowdown is being compared to the Great Depression of 1933. Amidst all this, nature seems to be recovering with frequent sightings of blue skies and clear river water across the country. Most Indian cities have come to a grinding halt for over a couple of months now and people are trying to come to grips with the uncertainties. For those who can afford it, technology offers the option to connect virtually, with the external world. Proximity and density are the new fears, and public spaces that were once hubs of vibrancy and activity, are now experiencing a new silence of the times.
Cities, citizens and public spaces
Public spaces bind communities, they are the lungs of a city, but the current reality has nudged people to question the impact of public spaces on their health and well-being. Proximity and human contact are rooted in the ways people interact in public spaces. From bygone times, they have defined how cities are remembered starting from forums, public baths, and amphitheaters of Rome, to the courtyards of temple complexes in India. Based on zoning and urban design norms, public spaces have evolved into different categories to serve as places for social connections, religious activities, hubs for economic opportunities and places for recreation. In Indian cities they are broadly segregated into five classes: Local level parks and playgrounds, community level park and open space, district level park and Sub city parks/complex/playgrounds and forest covers (MoHUA 2015). Besides these formal spaces, urban streets, pocket parks, incidental or residual spaces and roof tops have gained traction as other important forms of open spaces performing similar functions.
Recognizing the important socio-infrastructural function open spaces play, especially, for vulnerable groups (like the homeless, differently-abled, etc.), several cities globally, like Vancouver in British Columbia, have designated them as essential infrastructure—open for public use, despite the lockdown. However, in India, the current pandemic has rendered them non-essential. While they are key to a city’s viability, the influence of this pandemic on the near-term status of public spaces remains uncertain. It is discussed that in the post COVID-19 world, humankind will change the ways in which we work or study but the significance of community connection will be stronger than ever. So, as much as connections and proximity are in question today, these are also the path to recovery and rebuilding to bring back the city’s vitality in the new normal. It is then imperative to think of measures that can make different types of public spaces functional in the near future.
Five pointers for reactivating public spaces in the new normal
Below are a few suggestions on immediate course of actions that can be taken to make public spaces operational again:
- First, organized open space can be made comfortable and accessible through crowd management techniques like staggered timings, limiting the number of people at a given time, and extending hours for spaces that have regulated access. Under these conditions, ensuring safety and security will also become significant. To that end, both low and secured high-technology innovations can offer solutions (such as demand management apps) to achieve the desired measures. Some of these value-added services can be provided at nominal costs and become a source of revenue for maintenance of these public spaces.
- Second, collaboration with local health departments for daily sanitization of public spaces and for adequate provision of clean public toilets and hand washing facilities is imperative. For instance, taps operated by foot-pedals should be explored as they can reduce the number of common touch points in a public space.
- Third, more than ever, there is now a case for creating complete streets that offers space for all user groups. This can be done on existing streets by repurposing residual right-of-way and bringing it into the public realm. Also, through staggered access, certain ‘last-mile’ streets can be marked for use by pedestrians and non-motorized transport (NMT) only, thereby supporting the requisite physical distancing that maybe required.
- Fourth, an important step in recovery would be to increase the supply of public spaces which would result in better management through dispersed use and also have the co-benefits that result from enhancing natural infrastructure. One way this can be achieved is through shared use agreements for spaces like school playgrounds, college compounds, commercial and public building roof top access.
- Finally, while a majority of these recovery actions will need facilitation by government, individual level precautions and behavior change, such as respecting distancing and being mindful of others sharing the space, not spitting, limiting waste generation and ensuring proper disposal, will be key in bringing back normalcy to public spaces.
For an engaging conversation on better city design for public health and sustainability, city officials must consider reviewing the public space norms and supply status in cities. While global studies indicate a minimum of 9 sq.m accessible, safe and functional green space per person, India’s Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI) guidelines recommend 10‐12 sq.m open space per person. However, most Indian cities are unsurprisingly well below this norm. Mumbai has a mere 1.28 sq.m per person, Bengaluru offers 2 sq.m, while Chennai has 0.81 sq.m per capita and Delhi’s 22 sq.m per capita space is heavily concentrated in Lutyens’ Delhi. Given this situation, regulations should be amended to encourage upper limit provisions of open space in public and private developments, while also looking at ways of efficiently managing and increasing green cover through micro interventions like pocket parks and connected green infrastructure.
Taking these actions now will help in restoring both but will require concerted efforts by all stakeholders. We all need to work in consonance to ensure that public spaces are not only made viable and vibrant again, but also inoculated against future shocks.