Applying resilience to Indian city plans against pandemics (Part 1 of 5)

This is a five-part series that revolves around understanding the current situation of Indian cities during the COVID-19 outbreak, and how resilience can be applied within our cities as a response to the resolutions of ‘social-distancing’. In this first part, we shall discuss about what resilience means to our cities.

This post was created by the author during his internship period and is also available at Housing and Urban Development Corporation Ltd (HUDCO), New Delhi. 

As of today, the impacts and effects of COVID-19 on cities are still being discovered. The most evident instance of its effect is that people have begun to practice methods of “social-distancing”, hence people have locked themselves indoors and started to “work/ study from home”. These methods apply to only those sections of society who find them practical and affordable. Many informal settlements do not have access to basic infrastructures like water, sanitation, and electricity. Even where there is access to services, there needs to be a certain level of manual labor input to keep sanitary stations clean, and also residents (mostly women) need to collect water from a shared water tap. 

As pointed out by urban planners or medical doctors, this isn’t the first time in history that epi- or pandemics have caused shifts in city functioning and their forms. In fact, it is safe to claim that cities are shaped by diseases. City form and diseases have an established symbiotic relationship (The CityFix, Berg, 2020). Cities today are mostly a reflection of the combination of current trends and major issues. There are many examples throughout history that can prove the same. The 19th-century cholera outbreak instigated the need for new sanitation systems. Industrialization in Europe had caused settlements to be overcrowded, with an extreme lack of light and ventilation. Housing regulations were implemented to reduce the growth of respiratory diseases in these areas. Interestingly, the issues that we observe outside our windows today are more or less similar to that during the epidemics of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

There are two aims to this. One, it tries to check whether there is a need to change the current planning process, post-pandemic condition. Secondly, above proven, it tries to assess how planners can incorporate resilience in the plan-making process by using the current pandemic situation of COVID-19 as a trigger factor to come up with solutions to the long-running issues of inadequate and unsafe housing, the unhealthy standard of living and lack of accessibility to basic services and infrastructure. We do this by introducing the reader to a historical perspective on how town planning evolved in India by using Bombay city and New York City as examples. It talks about how the idea evolved and considerations taken by developers and authorities then to devise a plan for the development of the city. It gives an overview of the plan-making process and the results of the implementation, with specific focus to housing, open spaces and infrastructure related to health. It distinguishes between the issues of urban form and density. There are some practical proposals, design interventions, and probable policy considerations that are provided towards the end, to how a city can be made more resilient to pandemics by shifting the master planning focus. 

Defining ‘resilience’ and its need


The recurrent fact to be understood is that diseases and their patterns are foundations of how a city is planned. The story of how and why this is a fact will be explained in the following section by taking examples from the history of two cities; Bombay and New York. But before that, let us establish why we need to build resilience within our cities. 

Resilience can be defined in many ways. It varies when it is viewed as a trait, a process, or an outcome. “Determinants of resilience include a host of biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors that interact with one another to determine how one responds to stressful experiences” (Southwick, 2014). For urban planners, the concept emerged as a response to environmental concerns and climate change. The Rockefeller Foundation has defined resilience of a city as “…the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience” (Spaans and Waterhout, 2017). In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, this definition can be adopted, but with a little twist on its focus. Resilience as a concept until today has been focussing on how the city as a whole battle the negative effects of environmental crises, climate change impacts, and other external factors. However, today we are facing an issue that focusses not only on the city but also on every internal organ within the city. And this form of ‘internal resilience’ is what the paper tries to highlight, simply because the pandemic impacts human beings, the most vital unit of a city. This means that the impact is rooted in our lifestyle, and this will translate to other factors that were mentioned above. So we must focus on prioritizing our resilience application within the city at the start, and then move on to making cities externally resilient later on. 

Related Articles:

  1. Resilient City | Definition, Attributes and Features
  2. How urban planning can contribute to resilience and disaster risk reduction
  3. Disaster resilience and management in Indian urban areas
  4. How urban planning can contribute to resilience and disaster risk reduction
  5. Understanding Urban Resilience – Theories & Example

The need for resilience is nothing but obvious at this point in our lives. What we have with us is an extra reason to push for the idea of making our cities healthy, in terms of proper housing, providing appropriate infrastructure and its access to all sections of society, and reducing government challenges and political failures (socio-resilience). A very recent example of the poor resilience of our Indian cities is the recent super cyclonic storm Amphan that caused widespread damage in the eastern part of India, particularly West Bengal. Since our cities are neither externally nor internally resilient, what happened in Kolkata can be termed as “ adding fuel to fire”. But how did we reach this devastating state as of Kolkata? Let us try to understand by taking examples from the planning history of two cities; Bombay and New York, and try to understand the development strategies and responses to disease-related incidents during their time. 

Next in Series: History of Bombay and New York City Pandemics (Part 2 of 5)