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Vol. XXX No. 4, June 1-15, 2020

Will COVID Deal a Blow to Densely Packed Cities?

by The Editor

Time was when planning meant a certain amount of space for every individual – to allow him or her a decent bit of air and light. Then came the idea of tightly packed cities – dense in the core and with suburbs more spatially laid out. In recent years, city planners, architects and builders have been emphasizing vertical development – more and more multi-storeyed buildings. While on the one hand this does put pressure on existing infrastructure, it has, so planners argue, made for more effective utilization of space and reduces time spent in commute. All very well but then nobody foresaw the arrival of a virus that would put paid to the best-laid plans of men (mice have so far escaped).

The world over, the COVID virus has shown a steady pattern. Spreading as it does through droplets, it is the more densely packed areas that have emerged hotspots. New York is perhaps the best example internationally but we have enough and more instances within India too. Mumbai leads the rest, the congestion in the Dharavi slum in particular making it a hotspot. Chennai too has seen its numbers remain high with the more congested zones such as Royapuram, Tondiarpet, Kodambakkam and Teynampet providing perfect locales for the virus to proliferate. A week back, the Corporation of Chennai began an exercise to relocate some of the people in these areas with a view to decongest the localities and bring down the viral load. It is not clear as to how this panned out and as to what the response was.

This brings us back to the whole issue of spatial layouts of city areas. While urbanisation by its very definition does mean a certain degree of congestion, packing people in with no consideration other than logistics is hardly a solution. This has been highlighted time and again during times of disasters such as fires, water scarcity and floods. Now we are faced with something that is life threatening. Whether we like it or not, there was some sound common sense in the way planning was done earlier – set offs, open spaces, plenty of ventilation and physical distancing between residential units. Call us elitist for such a point of view but it is time there was a revival of discussion on how to incorporate these features into urban life.

Perhaps it is time to call a halt to unbounded development. Has the lockdown not shown us that quality of ambient air improves with less pollution? Has Chennai reached a point where it needs to see a tradeoff between rampant growth and a healthy life for its citizens? Perhaps it is time to say thus far and no further for Chennai and whatever growth needs to happen has to be in satellite cities and also in towns further in the hinterland? Should we press for a reconsideration of repeated relaxation of fsi and an uncontrolled mixing of zones until there is no difference between residential and business districts? May be the time has come.

Sadly for us, such being the builder-bureaucrat-politician nexus, once the COVID fear abates, we will go back to just the way we were before it all began. It will once again be seminars on urban redesign, advertisements for gated communities, a largely unorganized labour sector that depends on migrants in huge numbers and encroachments on public spaces. A sure indicator of this is the way planning has been going on the proposed skywalk in T Nagar, even during the lockdown – a forced solution to overcome the chaos caused by unplanned development. Somehow we never will learn will we?

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