Lessons from Lockdown Urbanism in India

Much of our understanding of the history of cities, places and communities stem from the exceptions, the isolated events that govern a change in the trajectory. The corona virus pandemic has provided us with one such situation. But like any seemingly singular situation, the current global health crisis did not arise in isolation and is the natural result of many underlying factors.

The pandemic and the severe measures to contain it have changed the functioning of the world in a duration of a few months. For now, uncertainty and grief have gripped us, and it is not yet certain how long this disruption will continue till things start to feel normal again. While we cannot aim to predict how these times of uncertainty will reflect on our design of the urban fabric and its occupancy, we attempt through this article to reflect on the global pandemic and the specific learnings for the Indian context through changing patterns, pressing questions, and contradictions to long-upheld principles in designing our cities.

The City and the Environment

Air Pollution in Delhi

The pandemic has certainly raised a lot of questions regarding the relationship between Man and nature. But these questions were already being asked, as evident in the United Nations acknowledgement that Climate Change is the defining issue of our time, or declarations by over 1488 local governments in 30 countries that have declared a state of climate emergency as of May 2020 [1]. In India, news on the dangerously high air pollution levels, foaming and frothing water bodies, drought and flooding had become increasingly commonplace, as was checking the local Air Quality Index (AQI) before leaving the house.

During the lockdown and self-quarantine, the number of social media posts and viral videos on the recovering environment, whether about the foam and froth free Yamuna in Delhi, or peacocks dancing on the streets of Mumbai, or the clearing of smog and dust at Jalandhar revealing a view of distant mountains. Regardless of the veracity of such claims, the virus has been a good reminder that other organisms inhabit the earth, and human centric planning has costed us dearly.

The perceived distinction between the built and the natural environment and the consequent dichotomous construction of the city and its environment has created a framework through which initiative such as the Namami Gange, National Clean Air Programme, are conceived as different to city building projects like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) housing scheme or urban transport projects. Even the seemingly environmental projects like the proposed Rashtrapati Bhavan Biodiversity park – which would showcase the ‘endangered biodiversity’ of the country at the expense of 48 acres of forest land [2], or even the Sabarmati riverfront development – that converts the stretch of river in the city into a stagnant waterbody thereby increasing stress on the already ailing Narmada [3], only emphasizes the divide between the city lifestyle and its biodiversity with the concern for the environment being primarily aesthetic in nature. There is little reflection of the environmental concern in municipal planning and design of city lifestyle in subjects such as access to food, water, clean air and energy resource. It is crucial that we see an attitude change by not just city planners, urban designers and architects, but also policy makers, bureaucrats and citizens, as this will have long standing repercussions on the future of our cities, and of our planet.

The Question of Density

Plan for Basavanagudi, Bangalore, 1891

Through the history of epidemics in the 19th and 20th centuries, we have seen cities develop by reorganising their health and sanitation systems by primarily addressing their density. Cholera outbreaks reshaped the sanitation in London and contributed to the creation of Hausmannian boulevards in Paris. Epidemics in India brought many newer models of hygienic and healthy layouts in the city, iron grid industrial layouts like Jamshedpur and residential layouts with conservancy lanes for better sanitation like Basavanagudi in Bengaluru among many others, to primarily de-densify the city for public health. Social distancing measures advocated for containment of the virus seem to suggest a similar strategy that reduced density will ensure a hygienic environment. Looking through the lens of social well-being and happiness in the city– there has been a growing consensus in the recent decades that living in densely populated cities can make us healthier and happier people owing to increase in the social and cultural possibilities. In fact, in the densely populated Indian context, the strategy of limiting density through Master Plan has proved to be ineffective and expensive, creating urban sprawl that take up too much land and puts a lot of pressure on its infrastructure systems. Not only does density allow for a better quality of life and a more active citizenry, it also reduces the burden on infrastructure systems, and prefers a more sustainable use of our land resources.

Are these contrasting suggestions? Maybe not.

The lockdown has more clearly than before, blurred the lines between work, home, commerce and leisure. Large companies like TCS have already announced that 75% of their 448,000 employees in the world will work from home by 2025, using the opportunity of the lockdown to update their 20-year-old operating model [4].
Many students and migrant workers all over India are being forced to take drastic measures to travel back home under lockdown as their accommodations fail to provide the bare necessities of a home. This shows that paying guest accommodations, workers accommodations and student hostels need to be looked at as an integral part of the planning for housing in the city, rather than just providing for the nuclear family unit. Furthermore, increasing work-from home directives, changing nature of the cohabitation, and maybe even changing nature of spaces of mass employment and education can enable us to design alternate models for city living. It can enable distances between separate city functions to reduce allowing for an inventive mix and an intelligent approach to the question of density in the city.

The City is not an Isolated Entity

A city depends on food, infrastructure and other services

As city centres, economy generators and spaces of social and cultural production shut down, things haven’t ceased to function. We still receive the essential supplies of food, water, medicines and hygiene products from within and beyond metropolitan areas. Crucial infrastructure systems for water, sanitation, garbage and electricity are keeping our surroundings reasonably sanitary, well-lit and functional. The city’s reliance on a large number of migrant workers for essential services such as sanitation, garbage and sewage management, construction and factory work, or its dependence on distributed resources for food, power, telecom, landfills, storage warehouses, data centres, reservoirs etc, has never been more pronounced. The city no longer remains a localised spatial entity and can indeed be seen as a distributed urbanity across economic and cultural landscapes. Does this call for an approach in which the interdependence of our cities on extended geographic areas are considered in their design?
The break in supply chains of farm produce has had disastrous consequences. Even as the Food Corporation of India has declared a surplus in stored grains stocks [5] and fresh fruits and vegetables line the shelves of grocery shops in affluent city neighbourhoods and warehouses of e-commerce vendors, lakhs of people across the country are suffering from hunger, starvation and an inability to provide for their children and elders at this time of crisis.
Informal networks in India are not only the means for livelihood of an estimated 93%of India’s total workforce [6], it is the source of food, drinking water, garbage disposal, electricity and connectivity for many. The failure to account and design for their crucial role in the functioning of our cities has led us to a situation where the inequalities in our society only seem to increase.
While some sectors are cashing in on the temporality of city life through the so-called gig economy, through taxi services like Ola and Uber, food delivery services like Zomato or Swiggy, short-term rental solutions in urban areas like Oyo Life or Zolostays, furniture rental ecosystems or collectives for varied maintenance services like Urban Clap, among many others, design of city living rarely seems to take this temporality into account. Master
planning and zoning codes in India mainly address and create static systems, and with the temporal reality of our cities, this will need to change.

Public and Private life in the city

Social distancing in India during the lockdown

Fundamental to city design is the design of city life. With our usual avenues blocked, we look for new ways to adapt to the lockdown. Even the enforced social isolation and social distancing has felt less pronounced as the digital realm has helped substantially reduce physical distances. We are working-from-home, attending classes online, getting degrees, ordering groceries through e-commerce platforms, catching up with friends and family on
social media, spending leisure time streaming on Netflix, or dancing at the quarantine club parties online.
Even as our social space becomes digital, the domestic space has become the backdrop of all our interactions. Even public figures – journalists, politicians, and expert speakers alike now communicate with us through the setting of their homes. Public events like concerts, theatre, seminars, and institutions like museums are being brought to the comfort of our living rooms and bedrooms. Can this change the way we experience public spaces and socialise within the city?
The collision of our private and public lives has not been restricted to the way we communicate. We are planning our daily activities like grocery shopping and walking, while constantly being aware of a larger community. State backed surveillance is now a necessary strategy for contact tracing and monitoring. The nuances between surveillance, social control, privacy, community and the public realm need to be reconsidered, debated and redefined for the 21st century city.
While these new challenges, some governments are looking to technology to monitor the crisis with apps such as the Aarogya Setu in India and the TraceTogether in Singapore to track the movements and health of citizens. Wireless remote temperature monitors are being used to remotely monitor quarantined patients with little or no direct contact. Apple and Google will soon be updating their mobile software to alert users if they have encountered a CoVID19 patient [7].
Data governance, and new technologies for collection of data can be an important tool in the design of cities, and the accessibility of digital infrastructure could possibly break many barriers. But the debate is not of the possibilities of these new technologies, but its intent – totalitarian surveillance or citizen empowerment?
In the current isolation, we have fostered a sense of responsibility and community. The idea that ‘we are all in this together’ beyond borders, beyond the conventional institutionalized socio-economic hierarchy has created local as well as global solidarity. Furthermore, the dependency on our immediate neighbourhoods has increased. Kirana (local grocery) shops, civic amenity providers, and maintenance workers, clinics, have been instrumental in catering to the residents during the lockdown. As we reconnect with our immediate neighbourhood our sense of belonging is becoming more nuanced.
The Nagarpalika Act in the 74th Amendment of the Indian Constitution formulates ward committees for decentralised governance. These ward committees which have citizen representatives have the mandate of submitting proposals for ward development and in the distribution of funds. With public ward committee meetings mandated in cities like Bengaluru, transparency of data and open communication with the local government can create empowered citizens who actively participate in designing the city.

Authors: Amritha Ganapathy, Tanya Chandel for Mod Foundation

[1] Mik Aidt, “Climate Emergency Declarations in 1,488 Jurisdictions and Local Governments
Cover 820 Million Citizens,” Climate Emergency Declaration, May 6, 2020,
[2] Anisha Dutta, “New Central Vista Set to Be Expanded to Yamuna Bank,” Hindustan Times,
January 16, 2020.
[3] Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Gujarat Pollution Control Board. 2019.
[4] Sonal Khetarpal, “Post-COVID, 75% of 4.5 Lakh TCS Employees to Permanently Work
from Home by ’25; from 20%,” Business Today, April 30, 2020.
[5] FE Online, “Overflowing Granaries Can Give Food to India’s Most Poor; Here’s What Govt
Must Do,” Financial Express, April 9, 2020.
[6] Ministry of Finance Govt. of India, “Economic Survey of India – 2018-19” (New Delhi, July
4, 2019).
[7] Leo Kelion, “Apple and Google Accelerate Coronavirus Contact Tracing Apps Plan,” BBC,
April 24, 2020.

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