The COVID-19 crisis has decimated urban economies across the country. Local and state governments are facing a huge revenue crisis, as small businesses are closing down, the economy is drying up, local taxes are facing shortfall, and unemployment rates are surging, belling up the inevitability of a future crisis.
These problems add to the list of already existing ones for our Indian cities, like urban air pollution going off the charts, and contributing to over a million deaths every year. However, our cities are engines of recovery, and building them today to be resilient, could be the best way to mitigate the economic and social fallouts of any future crisis.
Against this backdrop an international alliance of urban leaders, C40 Cities, have floated the idea of a ‘15-minute city’. The idea is simple: developing or reorienting cities in a way that residents are able to meet most of their needs within 15 minutes of walking or cycling.
The idea advocates creating sustainable neighbourhoods, and bringing social equity and accessibility. Mayors of 96 cities from across the globe are a part of the alliance. From India, five cities – Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Jaipur – are part of this initiative.
What Does The ‘15 Minute City’ Concept Advocate?
The 15-minute city concept, aimed at establishing hyper proximity infrastructure – is not new on the urbanism contours, specifically in the Indian context. Any Indian city, with its density and neighbourhood economies, actually comes close to the concept of a 15-minute city. Our cities have developed circularly over the years, with a legacy of mixed land-use characteristics, with the mix of commercial and residential uses.
India has practised the concept of neighbourhood cities (by chance or design), but has failed to complement the design with productivity, sustainability, and resilience. And urban planning principles have remarkably failed in designing cities as closely looped, self-sufficient systems with prioritised public open spaces and sustainable work and living architecture.
And given the rising inequality in our cities, and cities plagued with high AQI, long travel time, and creation of urban heat islands, it is essential to endorse an idea that has its fundamentals on the instalment of the pedestrian infrastructure, sustainable buildings, integrated transport solutions, and open and shaded green spaces, enhancing principles like walkability, improving public transport and allied infrastructure.
And not just limiting to infrastructure development, the 15-minute city idea will also foster dialogue between the citizens and the government, and enhance the participation of citizens in cultural, and social growth of the cities.
Why Indian Cities Battered By COVID Need To Re-Build Better
Creating these hyper-local cities will be a daunting task. And cities are taking long-term approaches to do that, like Melbourne’s 20-minute city approach is relying on larger radiuses, and Barcelona’s on Superblock initiatives on innovation and technology. There are some elegant examples from across the world which could be the inspiration for our urban designers. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has echoed his transformative plans to convert the French capital into a 15-minute city.
And this idea – that Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride – forms the cornerstone of her recent re-election campaign.
For Indian cities battered by the pandemic, it is prudent to join the bandwagon and build back better. For instance, our transportation models, which focussed more on the car users has led us to dizzying knots of flyovers and expressways. And while we created more space for cars to manage traffic better, travelling time remains unchanged, for without investing in multi-modal transport structure, we kept adding more traffic – a phenomenon known as ‘induced demand’.
All our cities have fallen into this trap – where roads are widened, road network lengthened, without achieving any of the objectives. All this, while the realities of urban mobility defy logic.
The Census 2011 data suggests that for any Indian megacity, the combined percentage who either walk or cycle to work is over 30 percent, and about 15 percent use cars to travel, and over 50 percent of residents travel less than five kilometres to work. Widening roads or lengthening road network may not be the solution, but redesigning roads, and creating more sustainable and integrated mobility models, will be.
Reorienting Cities: More Green & Open Spaces, Room For Cyclists & Pedestrians
Cities across the globe have achieved this by investing in mass transport solutions, pedestrianisation of streets, or even imposing congestion taxes. And with 21 out of the 30 most polluted cities globally being Indian, and vehicular traffic contributes to almost 20-25 percent of air pollution, these solutions are essential for decarbonisation and localisation of Indian cities.
The pandemic has offered this opportunity to reimagine our cities. With many people working from home, and that becoming a norm, our cities can have their way in sustainably rebuilding, and decarbonising themselves.
First and foremost, will be to develop the city for pedestrians and cyclists, and reorienting our cities and create green and open spaces, as most of the Indian cities do not even meet the required open space norm of 10-12 square meter per person or 25-30 percent of a city area. Reclaiming parking lots as cars become less, alternatives like crowd staggering to better use roads, re-purposing of streets, and shared use of institutional open spaces and playgrounds, could be the initial steps. The motorised streets could be converted into street markets, sidewalk extensions, outdoor exhibitions and dining spaces, and transit lanes.
Creating Inclusive & Diverse Communities
The 15-minute city is a modern-day urban experiment, which could be manifested in multiple ways.
The crux of this discussion is – creating inclusive and diverse communities, accessible cities, putting urban infrastructure to judicious use, make urban spaces resilient to unforeseen disruptions, and put the word ‘sustainable’ in our urban planning.
It will enable reimagining a neighbourhood, as not just an association of buildings but also a network of social relationships. And for Indian cities which are growing at an unimaginable pace and in an inorganic fashion, they will have to reinvent the idea of urban proximity, and become more regenerative, culturally vibrant, inclusive, and sustainable, else they’d be steering themselves towards a problematic future.
(Aakash Mehrotra is a novelist, blogger, and an international development consultant. He works in South Asia and African markets. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)