By Shivali Jainer, Dhruv Pasricha
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
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
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.
Cities with decentralised systems in place for provision of these services have been able to keep up
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
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
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
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
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
for the effective delivery of services.
A collateral advantage of decentralised planning is the strengthening of local institutions and ULBs
are involved in the delivery of critical services like sanitation, waste management, healthcare and
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
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
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
individual household to a larger community.
For example, in case of decentralised waste management project, the criteria for classification of
is the amount of wastewater generated, which in turn is dependent on the number of user population, area
and land use.
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
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
services like water supply, sanitation, drainage, health infrastructure, etc is lacking. It is to be
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
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.