In a post-COVID world, rethinking public spaces in Indian cities, and the need for spatial interventions

With an already distressed pre-COVID normal, countries like India cannot afford months of lockdown and slowed or shut economy. However, the unlocking processes being ambiguous and unclear, bring with them confusion, disorganisation and even higher risk of transmission.

Adapting to the global pandemic is not just about maintaining individual safety but also about re-creating spaces which can respond to the public requirements of safety and convenience. We need spatial interventions to provide physical environments that can allow physical distancing to be exercised. While most handbooks and guidelines are being written with a perspective of the global north, these ideas cannot be applied to the Indian context.

Maintaining safety guidelines: Difficult in a compact, populous country like India

The country comes with its own set of spatial complexities and challenges which seeks answers to questions like, how do we retrofit and re-image public spaces in a highly dense and congested spatial fabric like ours? How can any strategy ensure public compliance and acceptance, amidst our ingrained habits and distrust in the system?

With bare minimum space to hold gatherings in our commercial spaces like mandis, haats and bazaars, and insufficient distance between vehicular roads and commercial properties, it has been highly impossible to keep these markets running while abiding to the physical distancing norms during this pandemic. Poor quality or no footpaths along such stretches has made the situation even worse. Penalising and harassing shopkeepers for failing to maintain physical distancing then appears highly unjust at different levels.

A typical street section with shops, informal vendors, customers and vehicular traffic. Illustration by the author

 With absence of usable vacant lands in the dense and congested cities like Mumbai and Delhi, it has been impossible to spread out existing commercial activities to larger spaces. Achieving physical distance of one to two metres between persons at any shop or restaurant has been challenging for most of our cities.

Re-organising spaces, streamlining movements and controlling public gathering through spatial and regulatory measures can create safer and convenient public spaces. There is a need for responsive strategies at a city level to create COVID sensitive spaces, be it streets, pavements, offices, institutes, markets, restaurants, food courts, public parks and similar facilities.

Re-opening open spaces and returning city’s breathable chunks back to its people

Long term physical seclusion, stress and fear of the pandemic can have adverse effects on our mental and physical well-being. Open green spaces like parks, lawns and playgrounds act as relaxing, breathable spots for the public. Apart from that, large scale open spaces do have capacities to hold people in big numbers even while maintaining adequate physical distancing.

Demarcating zones of varied sizes and allotting them to single visitors or families as per group sizes can allow people to enjoy these recreational spaces safely. Mobility from one zone to another can be restricted through strong visual instructions and occasional patrolling.

Demarcated seating areas of different sizes and distant walking trails in public parks. Place reference: Central Park, Jaipur. Illustration by the author

Demarcated seating areas of different sizes and distant walking trails in public parks. Place reference: Central Park, Jaipur. Illustration by the author

 Mandis, haats and bazaars can safely function with minor interventions

Limiting individual seller spaces wherever possible and opening up buyer spaces can allow better physical distancing. Introducing parallel tracks for movement can control crowding, where one row is for customers who are strolling to find their suitable shops or vendors and the next row immediate to the sellers will allow people only to buy. Halting spots in both the rows can be staggered allowing distancing in all directions. Apart from that, maintaining unidirectional movement through strong visual indication on floors is necessary to streamline the crowd.

A typical Indian sabji mandi post rearrangement and streamlining of materials and movement. Illustration by the author

A typical Indian sabji mandi post rearrangement and streamlining of materials and movement. Illustration by the author

Parking lots as the new alternatives

Parking bays appear as potential vacant areas at multiple stretches within cities. Adjacent or overlooking parking lots can partly be used as extended dine-outs by cafés, restaurants and food courts to spread out the existing customer capacities over larger spaces at adequately distanced locations. They can also serve as waiting areas for parallel running shops and services.

Parking lots alternatively used as extended dine-outs. Place reference: Church Street, Bengaluru. Illustration by the author

Parking lots alternatively used as extended dine-outs. Place reference: Church Street, Bengaluru. Illustration by the author

 Re-organised public libraries and reading rooms

Reading areas for the public can continue being safe with minor spatial and operational changes. Libraries can have separate reading zones exclusive of bookshelves. Provision of virtual catalogues to choose desired books instead of physically accessible book banks or stalk areas and allotting books to readers via counters can forbid indirect physical contact between readers through books and shelves.

Places like malls, cinema halls, religious and tourist spots need to redesign their available open spaces like entrance plazas, unbuilt spaces within premises or basement parking as suitable waiting areas. Introducing a booking system for visitors to occupy desired/available slots for such visits including restaurants and hotels can control overcrowding and queuing in outside majority of our public spaces. Such bookings can be done through phone calls or apps.

For public to adhere to the safety guidelines and rules, we need to motivate them with success stories from their neighbourhoods rather than scaring them and creating panic with the idea of severity and damage the pandemic can cause. Such communications need to be done in the simplest of language, more through visuals and in more frequent locations.

Involving a diverse range of stakeholders, like vendors and shopkeepers, designers and planners, in the planning process, civil society and government organisations can create user-sensitive spaces. Lastly, not to forget, none of these interventions can independently stop the transmission. Individual safety norms along with socio-spatial solutions, policy interventions and compliance by the public need to work in coordination to better tackle this health crisis.

Banner image via WikimediaCommons



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