Three Questions Our Cities Need to Answer: Planning Our cities Post COVID-19

Through the Lens of Our Practice

The lockdown exposed many of the gaps and faultlines in existing practices of urban governance and planning. While the grave crisis of migrants and other vulnerable sections of the urban population required an immediate response, the lockdown also pushed researchers to reflect on their own long-term practice and respond to the situation from that vantage point.  As HUL coordinated migrant relief, designed communication materials and put together useful data for the pandemic response, members of the HUL team also composed responses to the situation on the ground from the lens of their own practice and on-going research. We present those articulations in this series of blog posts.

(Image is a part of sketch series “To draw is to remember” by Neha Vaddadi)

Three Questions Our Cities Need To Answer: Planning Our Cities Post COVID-19

The usual and somewhat trivialized everyday failures of our cities gave way to very visible and disastrous occurrences over the past few weeks owing to a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19. Millions of migrant workers across our cities, depending on their daily wages for sustenance, were rendered vulnerable with no clarity on their position in the state’s vision, and started moving towards their villages on foot covering over hundreds of kilometres. In the weeks following the announcement of the first phase of the lockdown on 24th March we saw multiple accidents and deaths – sixteen migrant workers walking home died under a goods train in Aurangabad, 6 migrant workers killed in a road accident in Orai, UP. As of 14th of May 89 people have been killed in road or train accidents due to walking/migration, 58 people have died of starvation, 29 people of exhaustion/ walking and the list continues. 

Lakhs of people needed to walk over hundreds of kilometres, gambling everything – including their lives – just to feel safe, and get access to basic needs and dignity that every human deserves. Why could our cities not give this bare minimum to the very people who have built them?

At this point it is impossible to ignore the shortcomings in the way our cities are made. We can’t help but wonder, would it have helped had something else been the case?

It might be a good time to look back at the way we think about planning our cities. In my attempt at understanding the possible changes needed in our planning approach, I started going through a number of articles addressing the shortcomings in our cities under the light of recent occurrences and what needs to be done going ahead. However, what I found was that most of the discussions still revolved around familiar notions of “adequate densities”, neighbourhoods, housing by-laws, equitable distribution of health infrastructure, enough green and public spaces etc. These points, being re-deliberated given the issues emerging, are not something that we were not already aware of, but something that we could not deliver.

When it comes to planning our cities, do we keep going on the same path, pushing the same ideas, just with more energy this time or do we try to identify and acknowledge the inherent flaws in our existing approach?

The first question that I want to raise here is, who are the people we miss out on while planning our cities? Who is a citizen in the imagination of our planners and decision-makers and whom does this imagination exclude? What became abundantly clear during this lockdown was our utter failure of accommodating the needs of migrants. Workers across different economic strata, students, and visitors make up a large population of our cities. Movement within the nation and outside is a norm and yet we are still stuck to the idea of a localized stationary subject when speaking about the delivery of citizens’ rights. Documents like ration cards, voter ID etc. are registered with a specific location (permanent address even among people who have nothing permanent in their lives), entitling you to certain things but only if you stay put at those registered locations. Migrants without a permanent presence at a location can’t use political patronage, access public provisioning, health benefits, access housing schemes etc. and often go unrecorded in any kind of enlisting exercise by the state. The problems which follow are being seen by all of us now. We do not have a way to accommodate the movements and temporality which make up the urban. We do not know how to talk about migrant workers while speaking of housing; how to incorporate the needs of someone who has just moved into the city and is trying to find their feet, not sure if they would be staying, or someone who migrates seasonally work and spends the rest of the year in a different location, or of the youth who come to take some courses, find jobs etc. Their logic and tactics of survival are left out in planning exercises. The lack of ability to account for hypermobile citizen subjects and still sticking to the idea of a localized, rooted citizen has rendered large groups in our cities extremely vulnerable in moments of crises.

The second question that emerges from our experience of these past few weeks, where we saw the failures in the way our cities have been planned in dealing with crises is – what is it that we are not planning for? We were clearly not ready for a health disaster or catering to the needs of millions who found themselves stranded in extremely vulnerable situations. What else are we leaving out? By planning for some things and excluding others, what does a city ultimately promise its residents and what does it not take responsibility for? Can citizens challenge the plans in case they fail to deliver their promises? To even think about this question we would need different kinds of “plannings” to come together. Despite all the talk in the past few years, different departments function in isolation – there is a plan/ design for land, for transport and other physical attributes, there are plans for policies, there are financial plans and so on, vertically stacked or existing in complete isolation. Despite the push for a UID at one level, the state delivery mechanisms had no use for it during food distribution during this lockdown. The need and purpose of different decisions get lost somewhere amidst processes which have been in place for a long time. We definitely need more accountability and clarity about our collective intent and limits while planning a city. 

The third question surfaces from a major issue we faced (and are still facing) during the lockdown – what is it that we are still not doing? There is no denying a vast gap which exists between planning institutions and field realities, but how do we handle the gap which has emerged in our society, owing to incorporation of technological advancements in planning processes along with a shift in governance ideologies, especially in a nation where over one fourth of the population is not even literate or has access to technological advancements, and one in six persons staying in the city dwells in slums? One part of the city is networked at a global scale while other parts do not have a way of connecting even at local levels. We could not, in the hour of need, find spaces to distribute information, locate where assistance was needed the most, create awareness, and address queries, causing tremendous confusion and panic leading to several unfortunate incidents. Before shifting to entirely aspatial modes/ digital networks of information circulation, we might need to create hyperlocal centres, especially in economically weaker and dense areas. There is a need for different points to provide residents with essential information regarding their rights, access to provisions, benefits and schemes. They also will be useful to generate granular data while strengthening things at neighbourhood levels, which is missing.

Our failures have stripped millions of people of dignity, access to basic amenities needed to survive, rights granted in lieu of their contribution to a functional society and not just as objects of charity. We fail to create a sense of safety within the spaces they reside in. These provocations are not solutions in themselves but questions which need to be addressed before resuming the discussion on new by-laws, reworking transport plans, new planning strategies, schemes etc. to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes yet again. 

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