Urban areas are right at the front of a public health emergency, as the world grapples with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Cities across the world consist of high-density settlements, with high mobility and interactions between people.

India is under a national lockdown — confining citizens to their homes and eliminating their mobility — that has slowed the growth rate of infections, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW).

The lockdown slowed the infection growth rate to doubling every 7.2 days, from doubling every 3 days (prior to lockdown), the ministry said. Essential services during the lockdown — including basic services like water and sanitation guided by urban planning — become crucial.

Urban planning processes and systems need to strengthen themselves and build resilience to minimise the spread of disease outbreaks and address other grappling issues related to equitable resource management, quality of life and environmental sustainability.

Urban planning as a process, in fact, came into being as a response to public health crises: A trade-off of the industrial revolution. It gave significance to sanitary issues and overall quality of life.

Concepts of garden cities, infrastructure networks and services and habitable spaces are attributed to the revolution in urban planning more than 300 years ago.

As we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, what can we learn to make our cities more resilient for public health emergencies? Let us look at the following aspects of urban planning that can be mainstreamed.

Decentralisation of urban services

Urban planning and delivery of services presently follow a centralised top-down model in India, which is a linear approach. We seldom witness local area plans prepared by urban local bodies (ULBs) and miss out the paybacks by creating circular economy.

A decentralised approach is critical in times of a public health emergency. Such a model is based on an equitable distribution of land and resources in cities. This model limits mobility and provides space for healthy interaction in smaller scales.

A decentralised planning approach also provides opportunities and benefits of distributing health and water infrastructure across the city. In most cities across India, secondary and tertiary health care units are concentrated, negatively impacting the timely delivery of health services.

At the same time, the primary health infrastructure in cities is not in a state to cater to the demand of neighbourhoods.

Decentralised infrastructure and services provide a range of benefits for all stakeholders. From the users’ point of view, decentralised systems are more economical: They reduce dependency on the central system, provide the opportunity for resource recovery and can be planned and modified according to the requirement of the users. From the authorities’ point of view, these systems reduce their overall load, and help in better resource management.

Comparative analysis of paradigm change in infrastructure delivery

Urban Services Current conventional practice Decentralised planning approach (sustainable pre and post pandemic) Role during public emergency (during pandemic)
Water supply One major and distant water source is used as a resource with a linear approach. At the same time convey stormwater offsite as quickly as possible with no regard for maintaining hydrological integrity of ecosystem.
Treat all supply side water to potable standards
Conservation and use of water bodies (lakes, ponds).
Preservation of aquatic ecosystems.
Harvest stormwater for water supply, irrigation, and/or infiltration benefits.
The level of water quality is treated and supplied is based on the intended use.
Smaller dependency on distant water sources.
Equitable distribution of water resources as per demand in low, high and medium density areas.
Right water for right use is available as per the demand for public health.
Wastewater After one-pass use, treat the resulting wastewater and return it to the environment Cyclical/close the loop: Recognise the value in waste, recover resources (reclaimed water, nutrients, carbon, metals and bio-solids) for beneficial uses including potable water offsets, fertilisers and generating power. This off-grid system can be cut off any timefrom the grid in case of persistence of any virus is detected from one system to avoid infectious disease, thus not hampering the entire sanitation system of the city.
Solid waste Collect solid waste and plan sanitary landfills for waste disposal Reduce, reuse and recycle waste. Segregate waste. Promote composting at neighbourhood level. Regular waste collection and treatment services are a key-element for the public health in urban areas.  This model serving small scale areas leads to effectiveness of safe management of solid wasteaccording to waste categorisation.
Health infrastructure Focus on tertiary health infra in urban areas, with negligible primary health care at ward levels Promote primary health care systems via mohollaclinics, in addition to secondary and tertiary healthcare infra This approach provides the sustainable provision of local health infrastructure against infectious diseases like COVID-19 as per low, high and medium density city areas

Source: Shivali Jainer, Dhruv Pasricha

Cities with decentralised systems in place for provision of these services have been able to keep up with the provision of essential services to all citizens during lockdown measures and have also ensured that the chain of transmission is broken, resulting in the flattening of the curve.

With water supply becoming more evident in the battle against the pandemic, a family of five would need 100 to 200 litres of water per day only to wash hands. It is important to introduce the concept of circular economy of water, by reusing wastewater.

In Singapore, 40 per cent of the water demand of citizens is met through reclaimed wastewater. Decentralised solutions for water supply and wastewater treatment — focussing on circular economy — will ensure citizens have access to safe water.

Similarly, decentralised municipal waste management holds key in trying to limit to transmission of the virus through movement of waste collected vehicles. Sanitisation drives and solid waste management are interlinked.

Cities like Mysore in Karnataka, Panaji in Goa and Alleppey in Kerala are considered one of the best cities in waste segregation and recycling, according to ‘Not in My Backyard’, research conducted by non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.

These cities have a strong system of decentralised waste management. In Alleppey, for example, the municipality does not collect waste and residents have to segregate and reuse waste as compost or biogas.

In Panaji, the municipality collects biodegradable waste every day and non-biodegradable waste twice a week, which promotes community compost. This reduces mobility and improves the health of hygiene of citizens: Crucial to contain the spread of disease outbreaks.

In terms of health infrastructure, the coverage of primary health infrastructure in Kerala through a robust public health system has the stat flatten the curve. It is estimated that more than 85 per cent of beneficiaries in Kerala have access to primary care through Accredited Social Health Activists.

This coverage of public health programmes has led to effective contact tracing and quarantine, without any negative impact on the delivery of essential services. In addition to this, the state also set up 1,255 community kitchens that prepare 280,000 food packets of the citizens. Such services are crucial when a lockdown is enforced in order to break the chain of transmission.

Decentralised planning — with focus on resource recovery and equitable distribution of resources — is key for the effective delivery of services.

A collateral advantage of decentralised planning is the strengthening of local institutions and ULBs that are involved in the delivery of critical services like sanitation, waste management, healthcare and public hygiene. This helps in building resilience at the local level.

What scale of decentralisation?

As mentioned in the 2014 guidelines of the Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI), the thrust of micro‐planning should shift to local area plans to encourage decentralisation and improve implementation of development plans.

Planning decision and implementation of plans should be disaggregated in order to bring the process closer to the local people, according to the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment acts.

They are, unfortunately, rarely implemented, as major conventional proposals and provisions point only to centralisation of services.

Ward-level local area plans (LAPs) — stated as the lowest scale of hierarchy in URDPFI guidelines — are supposed to be prepared by the ward committee in consultation with the community.

The scale of these plans is appropriate for decentralised planning, with the delivery of services at community level being more economical and sustainable.

The detailed project reports (DPRs) within these LPAs can be implemented at various scales ranging from an individual household to a larger community.

For example, in case of decentralised waste management project, the criteria for classification of scale is the amount of wastewater generated, which in turn is dependent on the number of user population, area and land use.

Scales of decentralization w.r.t. wastewater generation

Scale Individual Neighbourhood Zonal/city
Population 5 – 200 200 – 5,000 5,000 – 10,000
Catchment Area (‘000 sq m) 1 – 4 4 – 5 10 – 15
Wastewater Generated (KLD) Up to 20 20 to 500 500 to 1,000
Source: Water-Sensitive Urban Design and Planning: A Practitioner’s Guide, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi pp. 33

According to URDPFI guidelines, LAPs should be prepared to direct the development or re‐development of land to enhance health and safety of the residents to support economic development, enhance the quality of living and for area specific regulatory parameters for the area covered.

LAPs also provide a basis of identification of vulnerable areas in a ward. These are areas where essential services like water supply, sanitation, drainage, health infrastructure, etc is lacking. It is to be noted that these areas are generally informal settlements, where a cluster of COVID-19 cases are observed.

Decentralised planning can help with the efficient delivery of services by decentralisation of powers and resources.

They also provide a feedback mechanism for preparation of city level masterplans and zonal plans, etc reducing the overall burden on city-level infrastructure and at the same time providing robust and sustainable systems to fight sudden public health emergencies.

(Shivali is Programme Manager and Dhruv is Senior Research Associate for Urban Water-Waste Management initiatives at Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi) 

The article was originally published in Down To Earth. To read the original article, click here.