Covid-19 has affected millions of people globally including unprepared city authorities and governments. Over 95 percent of the cases are in urban areas, making this pandemic an acute urban humanitarian crisis. As a result, issues that urban development experts have been advocating for years have come under the spotlight again. In Bangladesh, recent Covid-19 impact assessments conducted by different agencies and think tanks including PPRC-BIGD warn that there will be millions of “new poor”, adding to the city authorities’ responsibilities for providing full recovery support until they are back on their feet.
As we approach the World Cities Day to be held on October 31, it is important to take stock of the urban situation in Bangladesh in the wake of Covid-19 and consider what we can do to mitigate the crisis.
Physical distancing strategies used to contain the spread of the virus are extremely difficult to implement in a highly dense city such as Dhaka, especially in informal settlements and slums. A recent study by the Bangladesh Institute of Planners reveals that Dhanmondi is currently accommodating 1.5 lakh residents, although this residential area was planned for 18,000 people. Such density increases the risk of spreading infectious diseases through crowded sidewalks, marketplaces, mass gatherings, and commuters on public transport networks. With the pandemic’s catastrophic impacts on urban liveability and livelihoods, how do we effectively manage our future cities?
Bridging the urban divide
As the crisis continues to hit our urban areas, Covid-19 has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of dwellers in terms of health and lack of safety nets. A UNDP study estimates that only 17.84 percent of city residents are covered by social safety nets. Furthermore, SANEM, a leading think tank, estimated that the pandemic took away around 6 million jobs in various sectors. Most people who lost their jobs are low-paid or self-employed. They are the ones we rely on to run our cities and towns. Income sources have dried up for many such low-income families, with little or no coverage of social safety nets and no financial support to fall back on.
Moreover, many are pavement-dwellers and living in densely populated informal settlements in cities that lack proper basic services and other amenities, including health services. As such, reducing poverty as well as ensuring equity of the urban poor must be given due care and consideration at the policy level to balance an equitable national growth scenario.
Overhauling urban planning
Ongoing Covid-19 trends are closely interlinked with livelihoods, local economy, and functions of neighbourhoods. Balancing between “densification” and “disaggregation” is perhaps the key question for city planners when it comes to future urban planning. The pandemic has clearly proved how ill-prepared our cities are in facing any unforeseen risks. Planning refers to designing an evolving system that balances rewards, risks, and limits. There is an urgent need for more well-planned urban centres that are crisis-ready, built-in with prevention measures, and fully equipped with adequate health systems and proper surveillance to control any such risks. There is a glaring need for new urban design standards that combine crisis response with long-term, equitable benefits for society as a whole and for Mother Nature.
Easing mobility in cities
Global cities are gradually allocating more street space to make safer roads, promote sustainable development goals, and provide carbon-free mobility. For instance, Berlin is using tapes and mobile markers to create quick “pop-up” cycle lanes, and has listed cycle service shops as an essential service. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is planning to convert it into a “15-minute city” to ensure it takes no longer than 15 minutes for the residents to get to work, move around to shop or take children to school. London is also prioritising bikes as a safe mode of transport for commuters. Just as the pandemic has triggered a revolution in cycling around Europe, Bangladesh can also follow a similar strategy by encouraging cycling and introducing dedicated cycle lanes in city streets like those recently introduced in Dhaka’s Agargaon area.
Affordable housing: a new frontier to curb density
The pandemic has raised important questions in terms of housing, making the need for exploring alternative housing models a key priority. Are stay-at-home policies a realistic option for the homeless or a five-member family living in a ten-by-twelve, one-room shanty? Can highly dense slum settlements exist in the cities/towns in a post-pandemic world? This is an opportune moment for us to pursue sustainable urban development where agriculture, industry, and service sectors move in sync to provide affordable shelter. Given our problems with congestion and density, we need to redesign our housing landscape in a way that caters to future needs, including affordable housing for people in all strata of life.
Way beyond smart “cities”
Covid-19 has intensified the need for digitisation globally, including in Bangladesh. With the high penetration of digital gadgets in our daily life, the post-coronavirus approach to urban design should integrate this usage of data to ensure informed policy decisions. Embracing a smart-city pathway is a sustainable urban development solution that city authorities should consider. In many cities worldwide, including Dhaka, smartphone apps have proven to be useful in resuming activities and gradually getting business and trading back to some semblance of normalcy. City authorities must work with communities as well as businesses and entrepreneurs on a priority basis to design the digital infrastructure required to serve the various income groups and users, including children and students.
A paradigm shift is inevitable
The best way to stop a pandemic is to never let it start. The Covid-19 crisis has presented a unique opportunity for Bangladesh to rethink how our cities can be designed to make them better equipped to stop potential future diseases from spreading at the initial stage. The pandemic not only exposed the pathetic state of the poor but also pushed the vulnerable to become the “new poor”. These failures may have adverse multiplier effects unless reversed through a proactive course of corrective actions. Many cities have already announced policy measures to support sustainable urban development through low-carbon footprint, sustainable recovery, dedicated new bike lanes, widening pavements, and pedestrianising neighbourhoods.
The pandemic has forced us to stay at home literally but it also made it important for us to adopt and adapt to a new way of urban living and embrace drastic changes to all aspects of traditional liveability. Its impacts on our habits and socioeconomic fabric will vary from region to region. Moreover, sustainable urban development will require a new set of actions aimed at optimising our limited resources. Importantly, the new reality that we find ourselves in should lead us to welcome a new urban paradigm.
Ashekur Rahman is an urban governance specialist currently working with UNDP Bangladesh. Views expressed in this article are his own.