THE dreaded novel coronavirus has found a way to wreak havoc in urban centres and densely populated cities of the world. We could safely say this to be, essentially, an urban phenomenon. Let me begin where the storm originated. We can trace the origin in the large, thriving Chinese city of Wuhan, which then spread quickly to other cities of the world. Although originating in Asia, the geography of the pathogen’s occurrence reveals that it has primarily targeted the flourishing cities of the wealthy west, with the glamorous New York showing the maximum fatalities.
In the countries of India-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent, nearly 75 per cent of the total number of positive cases have occurred in the top 35 urban agglomerations, with 32 metropolitan cities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh accounting for about 65 per cent of cases.
After nearly 60 days of lockdown, as governments relaxed the restrictions and cities started to come back to life, the question that haunted city dwellers was: what will city life be like in the future? There is no doubt that all classes of people have been affected and we are confronted with new challenges. The nature of work, the mode of travel, our social relations and the way of life may all undergo changes. Can our cities of the subcontinent learn some fundamental lessons this debilitating virus has offered us and plan a better future for our cities?
Here are some takeaways: One of the biggest gains from the lockdown or shutdown was the drastic reduction in urban pollution levels. This was the result of the near absence of movement of motorised vehicles on roads.
So, in the interests of a cleaner environment and health of people, the first priority should be to move away from an auto-dependent mobility pattern and adopt a strategy that promotes non-motorised transport. This would mean redesigning the street architecture to accommodate more bicycles and walkways. Some narrow and congested streets must be pedestrianised — for instance, the narrow and winding streets in Old Town of Dhaka, Delhi and Lahore.
Secondly, we must aggressively encourage the use of public transports by making it more accessible and affordable, especially for the poorer sections. Intermediate transports like autos and cabs are required to connect commuters to the last mile. For quite some time, they may have to carry a limited number of passengers and there will be no carpools. What is needed is a well-planned multi-modal transport system with convenient connectivity to different modes of transport.
One of the most painful outcomes of the lockdown or shutdnown is the loss of job, particularly for India’s migrant workers who had made cities their home to earn their livelihood, rendering a variety of services. Suffering from the loss of job and the loss of dignity caused by the lockdown and some inept handling by the authorities and employers, they started trekking back to their home. This will lead to two consequences.
One, a drastic reduction in the work force in cities seriously affecting the economy and, the other, pressure on the rural economy to generate more employment. How many will return to their original places of work at a future date is uncertain. All this point to the need to evolve a migration policy at the city level to ensure that workers at the bottom of the pyramid are treated as a dignified labour force who contribute substantially to the urban economy.
The policy should include matters relating to their shelter needs as they move into the city, the job opportunities depending on the skills and preferences of the individuals and the safety and security of the migrant population.
As cities and urban centres are major contributors to the national economy, we must plan to maximise the economic potential of urban agglomerations and other promising towns. The aim must be to promote local economic growth and create employment. The time is now appropriate to initiate action to decongest large cities by shifting some businesses and offices to smaller cities and towns. It is, however, essential to build infrastructure in and around the new areas where certain activities are proposed to be shifted or new activities created.
Urban health has now emerged as a key issue in managing cities. While scientists may be grappling to find a new vaccine for the present virus, we are really not sure when a new pandemic may break out. Our health system must be equipped to deal with new types of diseases from hitherto unknown sources.
A new concept being developed is called ‘one health’, which aims to integrate the management of the health of wildlife, livestock and humans that has been advocated by the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis. It seeks to regularly check for possible infection from livestock and wild animals that are farmed and traded and high human risk populations. We may consider adopting such an approach.
In the light of the new developments, we need to review the prevailing urban planning practices. The traditional land use and infrastructure development planning must yield place to more comprehensive planning that prioritises health, environment, employment and equity. The recent cyclone Amphan that hit the coastal areas of West Bengal and Odisha must serve as a warning to the authorities and people to be prepared to deal with more than one disaster at a time.
Urban areas will have to be designed and planned to survive the effects of climate change and disasters. Architects will have to redesign existing buildings to provide for more ventilation and natural light and reduce the use of air conditioners. Builders will have to rethink raising huge skyscrapers. Any city plan will have to be inclusive, with space, for the poor, the vulnerable and the migrant sections who are subject to the maximum stress during times of crisis.
Finally, a word about the management of lockdown or shutdown in three countries of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While we may take pride in having restricted the impact of the virus in terms of the number of cases and death, the credit should go in a large measure to the lower levels of government — the state (province), district and city administrations that have borne the brunt of implementation of the guidelines.
A key lesson from the virus, particularly to the centre or the federal capital, is: the greater the decentralisation, more effective will be the governance.
Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.
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