Urban Design in times of Covid-19: Imagining a post-pandemic city
More than a century before Sars-CoV-2, the Bubonic Plague-causing pathogen killed millions in India in 1896. Our cities then, as now, scrambled to tackle the epidemic.
The colonial authorities created an organisation with the sole purpose to redesign what was then Bombay to improve its sanitary and living conditions. The planned opening of the suburbs was, in fact, a result of this. Today, coronavirus has forced us to take a hard look at our cities, again. HT reached out to urban designers and architects to re-imagine and decongest four key spaces of our lives:
a classroom, a street market, an office and a congested residential area. A look at their designs and innovations.
Offices in times of Covid-19: Using tech to build a more agile workspace
The workplace in a post-Covid world needs to re-evaluate priorities and be prepared to respond with swiftness and agility to the next big disruption.
To start with, minimising the transmission of virus and other pathogens as well as ensuring employee health are top priorities for all organisations. To that end, we’ve looked at how reconfiguring the workspace to allow physical distancing, and using technology smartly can go a long way in upholding these new priorities. In a pre-Covid scenario, the open office plan that we worked with accommodated 50 people in the focused workspace with a total office capacity of 120 people. It comprised six types of spaces: High impact like the reception, which lent itself to face-to-face interactions; Plaza, like the pantry, which allowed free flow of movement; Learning centre, where people would sit and collaboratively work; Open and enclosed jump spaces, equipped with digital tools to allow teleconferencing and white boards to facilitate group discussions; Hive zones or focused work areas, which accommodated high density of employees; and Leadership work zones, for senior members of the company.
In the post Covid scenario, the reconfigured open office will seat fewer people, as the space allocated to each employee has increased with larger workstations and higher partitions, in keeping with social distancing norms. Agile workspaces like hive zones and jump spaces have been redefined. Close collaborative and communal spaces have made way for staggered seating; workstations are connected through digital tools that allow multiple users to work simultaneously and attend video conferences from their own stations; sliding panels create dynamic working and meeting spaces; and single occupancy pods and phone booths have been provided. Technology embedded in furniture allows workstations to be truly plug-and-play.
The reception, an area of face-to-face interactions has been replaced by a virtual reception that relies on smart technology and digital screens to convey information to visitors. Magazines, pens and pads, staple features of a reception, have been removed. Attendance systems have evolved to operate on facial and voice recognition technology. The carrying capacity of lifts, which lead up to a reception, is reduced to a fourth.
Technology can also be used effectively to minimise touch points like blinds, light switches, and toilets. Simple sensor-activated lights and faucets and smart window shades can be used, instead. Temporary plexiglass screens can be installed at various check-in points and hand-sanitiser dispensers as well as Ultra Violet phone sterilising stations can be placed in plain view.
Navigation is another vital aspect to the new office plan. Where earlier the movement was more free-flowing, a post Covid office must stagger entry and exit times to decongest arrival and departures. For instance, multiple shifts for lunch hour can be formulated to control the number of people gathered near the pantry at a particular time. Creating separate lanes for to and fro movement also decreases chances of transmission of pathogens.
Street Market in times of Covid-19: Managing customers with DIY, low-cost design solutions
Pali Market in Bandra west is, in many ways, a typical Mumbai experience. Unlike other market places with demarcated areas for different produce — a square for the fish mongers and meat sellers; another for the vegetable sellers; a separate lane for grocers and dry goods, and quite another for clothes or plastics — this market includes everything from restaurants to a mutton shop and vegetable and fruit vendors on a 200-metre stretch that connects St Andrews Road on one end, to Dr BR Ambedkar road, on the other.
With this market as the basis of our illustration, and using a tactical urbanism approach [where architects / designers work with municipal authorities and local political representatives] we have developed economical, scalable and modular design interventions that can be adopted in public places in different combinations.
We’ve envisioned a grid of six-foot circles. Differently painted, they have separate usages: here, blue indicates pedestrian flow, green, a sanitation station, and yellow, zones for customers to wait. The queuing circles have numbers on them to indicate the sequence of movement to approach the vendor. As a further precaution for street vendors, we have designed a polycarbonate sheet barrier for their vegetable vending cart which also provides a separate space for the person selecting the vegetables and the person paying for it. A window on one side of the barrier can be swung open to complete the payment process.
Other strategies to enable physical distancing includes insertion of sanitisation stations and planters as partitions. Putting a sign with text is not enough; simple, tactical design measures are more communicative in guiding people.
These interventions in this space go hand-in-hand with a pedestrianisation of the market, which will help decongest it. We’re also proposing a simple location-based application which tracks density (and not personal data) to encourage citizens to check the live feed of public spaces before going, hence empowering them to know the risks beforehand and make informed decisions.
Overall, the modular approach is scalable and can easily be applied to street markets, parks and other public spaces around the city. We have already implemented such a grid of circles at Bhaji Galli, a market in Grant Road with the assistance of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation officials, and aim to scale the initiative around the city in the coming weeks.
By March 5, a few months after the coronavirus epidemic broke out in China’s Wuhan district, 27 out of 28 states in India and five out of the eight union territories had announced that all schools would remain shut until further notice. Stay home and study, children were told even as many teaching models were tried: home schooling programmes, free online resources, public television and radio broadcasting channels and online sessions. Not everyone could attend, of course: many students don’t own laptops or have good internet bandwith, to start with. Needless to say, the pandemic has transformed the centuries-old chalk–talk teaching model to one driven by technology.
This disruption in the delivery of education is now pushing policymakers to figure out how to drive engagement. Hence a multipronged strategy is necessary to overcome the challenges of navigation, physical distancing, and sanitation in order to build a resilient Indian education system in the long term.
So what will the new classroom, and by extension, the school, look like?
A design that encourages indoor and outdoor connect can easily be reconfigured to address the concerns raised by the pandemic. Our model is based on the British School, New Delhi, which has five-star rating in the Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment, due to its flexible learning environment provided by the building design.
Our first principle is to disperse crowds and manage flow of movement. To that end, we’ve distributed the entry across three gates thereby reducing traffic to 33%. Each entry point is equipped with sanitation chambers accommodating ultraviolet baggage scanner and sanitation mats. Student movement is channelled by designating a separate staircase for each entry floor.
The break-out space near a classroom – any space that can be converted to suit our needs using furniture or other design products – is perfect for reconfiguration. In our re-imagining of the classroom, we’ve made good use of an outdoor court for this purpose. This cuts the density of children indoors and evens the spread across the break-out space.
Each year group is assigned four to six classrooms with an attached break-out space. A shaded courtyard can also be used as a break-out space for the extendable classrooms. The various clusters [or sections] can use them at different points in time during the day. The indoor classroom itself is reconfigured keeping social distancing norms of at least 1.8m between students. Transparent shields can be employed to reinforce the distancing.
Semi-covered areas in outdoor spaces can easily be converted to classrooms, but the real advantage of such a space can only be experienced in outdoor courtyards designed for maximum shade, given our weather conditions. Adaptive strategies such as temporary shading devices and mist cooling fans would also enhance student comfort.
Sanitation pods (with an automated sanitiser dispenser and a personal protective gear vending machine, which provides gloves, masks on need) have been placed strategically. Think of this as the new water-cooler, which allows social distancing and at the same time doesn’t do away with spaces of interaction.
A school that incorporates sustainable design elements like self-shaded internal courts, baolis (well-shaped seating with steps), sun shading strategies and verandas help connect students with nature. The provision of operable windows with sun shading encourages natural ventilation through the classroom. In a post-pandemic classroom, a decreased dependence on air conditioning is desirable and natural ventilation design techniques will help achieve this.
Rethinking schools post pandemic is a subject that requires a multifaceted approach, because even the most collaborative technologies with a pedagogical focus cannot replace organic social engagement and play. Therefore, educating the students about the pandemic through practical experience is vital.
Residential Areas in the times of Covid-19: More habitable space for good quality of life
As Indian cities battle with Covid-19, some of the densest residential areas have emerged as hotspots. The pandemic highlights the failure of urban planning that has led to the creation of such dense habitation spaces. Take the example of Seelampur, a sub-district in North-East Delhi and home to migrants. In the absence of timely improvement of basic amenities and infrastructure, the housing stock has remained inexpensive. At 54,000 persons per sq km, its density is more than four times that of Delhi.
By comparison, L’Hospitalet de Llobegrat, a neighbourhood in Barcelona considered the most densely populated square kilometre in Europe, has a density of 53,119 persons per sq km, marginally less than Seelampur. Yet, Llobegrat is a well-managed neighbourhood that provides its residents a fairly good quality of life. Despite similar densities, Llobegrat has almost twice the number of dwelling units compared to Seelampur, ensuring much higher per capita availability of habitable space i.e. the amount of living space available to each member of a given household. Llobegrat household size is only 2.6 persons. At 5.6 persons per household, Seelampur has the highest average household size of any sub-district in Delhi.
In our sketch, we show how a colony like Seelampur could be made more habitable. In its current form, a nine-metre wide road is the primary street, but it lacks pedestrian facilities, and it is often overrun with traffic and crowds. The narrow lanes (three to five-metre wide) between the buildings that abut the main street and those on the smaller plots behind, are unpleasant for residents. What’s more, the four to five-storey high buildings on these plots (which roughly measure 125 sqm) receive very little light and ventilation, and do not have any open space that can be used by the community. Even the dwellings are exceedingly small for the size of families that live there. Health care and educational facilities, too, are almost non-existent.
However, through a market-responsive urban renewal programme comprising plot redevelopment, plot amalgamation and street widening, the same density can be accommodated with better quality of life. Redeveloping the plots would mean an increase of the built-up area, which in turn guarantees greater habitable space per person. It would also mean wider streets with augmented infrastructure and planned retail and commercial outlets. Amalgamating plots would not only create larger dwellings, but also neighbourhood amenities and open spaces. The existing lanes and alleys should be retained for public access within these reconfigured plots. The main street can be given better pedestrian facilities, retrofitted with wider footways, landscape, and seating for the public, to create a vibrant environment.