Has the Pandemic Accelerated the Need For a Sustainable Urban Future?
The lockdown has given us a glimpse of how our environment can be resurrected in just a matter of months. However, one thing is clear that this brief lockdown won't wash away our existing realities
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We witnessed an eerily silent world for the first time. Empty roads, shuttered stores, quiet by lanes, deserted public places, closed cinemas and entertainment zones—a sudden solitude and stark departure from the maddening frenzy we were so accustomed to. The nationwide lockdown had turned these places into ghost towns. And the world came to a halt in the blink of an eye.
The invisible spectre is still there, spreading its tentacles but economies have unlocked after a period of three months, and we certainly have come out of this wiser. The hum of normalcy is now audible. And there is a palpable "relief' in the air.
Change is here to stay
However, our surroundings have changed; in fact, our towns and cities will never be the same as before, with the lingering fear of the pandemic. Maybe the situation will get worse, if we don't wake up to the challenge thrown at us.
The lockdown has given us a glimpse of how our environment can be resurrected in just a matter of months. However, one thing is clear that this brief lockdown won't wash away our existing realities—over-dependence on fossil fuels, staggering carbon emissions, dysfunctional housing markets, loss of biodiversity, widening gap between rich and poor and low-paid jobs.
Though governments across the world are moving mountains to tackle this health emergency and implementing rapid economic rescue packages to revive economies, they shouldn't lose sight of other key dimensions including emission reduction goals, making resilient societies and examining environmental health in strengthening resilience to future pandemics. There should be considerable emphasis on making preventive investments that can safeguard societies and reduce the costs of future disasters.
Exposed fault lines in environment protection and housing
The coronavirus has blown the lid off the faults that lie within the functioning of our urban world. For decades, cities have become the epicentre of economic growth, facilitating rapid influx of people, goods and money. The lure of creation of wealth, moving up the corporate ladder, enjoying the fruits of cosmopolitan life and getting access to modern services has resulted in an over-densification and saturation of cities.
This has created a perfect recipe for rapid mushrooming of the pandemic. Unplanned housing settlements and illegal housing societies with lack of basic public needs have conjured up a cataclysmic picture of health and hygiene.
A key question arises here. What are we building cities and urban areas for? Is it only to attract investments, spur growth and compete with global economies? Or, is it to create opportunities for healthy living, maximise quality of life, and build resilience and sustainability?
Today, amidst the pandemic, everyone wants to stay safe and healthy and ride out the crisis with a united zeal. Planning agencies are mulling opportunities to create safer and sustainable cities to prevent future disease outbreaks. Crisis-led innovations are coming out to the fore to rejig urban policies to make life safer and avoid costly disruptions in future.
To build back the world for a sustainable future, public stimulus spending can be directed towards some key dimensions which are discussed here.
The public transit dilemma and going green
Reimagining public transport has been one of the most important findings from the recent lockdown. With public transit coming almost to a standstill during the lockdown, air quality had improved drastically. Moreover, quieter streets and lanes have shown people that neighbourhoods can be more liveable and walkable.
Though public transport has again returned to the roads after the lockdown, governments are saddled with the enormous task of discouraging people from taking public transport for hygienic reasons or accelerating the shift to efficient, cleaner electric transport, to reduce emissions and improve air quality.
To make this possible, governments are resorting to public transport pricing schemes (peak/off-peak pricing) to make transport efficient and creating rapid electric vehicle charging infrastructures across major transit routes to make the shift to electric public transport feasible. Remote working or flexible working schedules are being encouraged to take traffic off roads.
Reconfiguration of public road space to accommodate cycle and electric bike sharing lanes are also in the pipeline to help people shift to single modes of transport.
Focus on well-being, inclusiveness and reduction of housing inequality
Believe it or not, one of the flaws of living in a modern city is the rampant inequality in housing quality among the various classes of India's citizens.
The pandemic has laid bare this reality when millions of migrant labours took the long walk back home during the lockdown. These low-income city dwellers without any rights to the benefits of city life have contributed to the economic prosperity of the country. These inhabitants must be taken care of and nurtured into well-developed sustainable communities. They should be included as part of the society and their skills must be given recognition.
These residents can then become registered taxpayers and participate in the city's social and environmental changes.
Governments are coming up with universal income schemes and other self that provides an income safety net for low skilled employees and help them move towards a sustainable living.
The clarion call for "Vocal for Local" by the Narendra Modi government in the wake of the Chinese clash at the Galwan Valley is a welcome move which serves to protect the interests of millions of independent local workers to contribute towards the economy. This move will create demand for local goods, create a permanent income source for millions of livelihoods in cities and urban areas and uplift the status of people towards a sustainable mode of living. That, in time will further boost the PMAY and other EWS housing schemes being run by the government.
Green, affordable and sustainable housing opportunities
The confinement of millions of people in their homes for months during the lockdown tenure has highlighted the importance of green, open spaces and sustainable housing societies. Many people living in cramped accommodations felt the need to shift to larger homes with green, open spaces to heal from this uncalled trauma.
Energy efficient housing societies with infinite green spaces offer a range of positive effects for our emotional and psychological wellbeing. Real estate developers of late are revising their blueprints and adding efficient, carbon-neutral aspects to their projects. Green building codes costs less than normal building structures. They help in better handling of solid wastes, conservation of water and curbing of carbon emissions.
With city dwellers seeking homes in less dense suburbs due to higher infection risk in cities, the clamour for liveable places will rise with time. This trend will lead to de-carbonization and re-densification of cities and improve the resilience to climatic changes.
On a concluding note, the ongoing pandemic has forced us to rethink what our future should be. The onus of creating a new urban future that is safer, greener, and more sustainable is upon us. As fragile living creatures, we humans can do our bit to help our future generations live well, though we know that no urban future is fool proof. The future urban economy must operate within the ecological limits of our biosphere and carry a social safety net for all. As individuals and corporations working for the housing industry of a rapidly growing nation, it is high time to think, plan and act towards achieving sustainability, or much more could be lost.