World Habitat Day: A Reminder Of The Journey Of Ghost Towns Into Vibrant, Resilient Cities

In 1985, the United Nations designated the first Monday of October every year as World Habitat Day to reflect on the state of our habitat, and on the basic right of all to adequate shelter. The day is also intended to remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.

This year’s World Habitat Day aims to convene various city stakeholders to discuss the ways in which cities can be primed for recovery following the global intersecting negative economic shocks of COVID-19 and conflicts. In the aftermath of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, cities have witnessed profound behavioural shifts and innovative governance strategies.

Due to their proximity and accountability to people, the local governments were at the forefront of managing the crisis that the pandemic posed. The crisis was sudden, and it caught many governments unaware. However, governments at different levels responded to manage the spread of the virus. Different cities have different public health crisis response models (from universal public health care at one end of the spectrum to non-universal insurance systems at the other end), and the responses varied.

The lessons have been strikingly clear: Resilience hinges on striking a balance between growth and environmental sustainability. This equilibrium can be best attained through inclusive planning that addresses the vulnerabilities and social inequalities ingrained within urban societies.

This year, the theme draws on experiences from the global pandemic to provide a roadmap for health, social, and economic responses to crises. It redefines the significance of cities, sounding a call to action and advocating for a harmonious relationship between urban expansion and ecological preservation. It also sheds light on the colossal challenge of the climate crisis, which is being driven by unsustainable urban development and human activities.

The year 2023 has been a particularly challenging year for urban economies. The global economy growth is declining to about 2.5% and, apart from the initial COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and the global financial crisis in 2009, this is the weakest growth experienced since 2001. Given the size of the contribution of cities to the national economy, the future of many countries will be determined by the productivity of their urban areas. Cities are the engines creating the value that boosts economic recovery.

That’s why economic growth and recovery are sustainable, that cities can absorb, recover, and prepare for future economic shocks. It is crucial that this is also packaged under the green recovery framework that scales up private and public investments to finance the transition to a climate-neutral economy in a post-COVID world.

Cities all over the world have already embarked on this journey by implementing various models in partnership with the various levels of governance. It is often believed that these models can be localised and scaled up through partnership for local investment, where experiences are drawn to build a local finance framework for cities and communities, to help distribute existing funding and finance to where it can deliver the greatest impact.

This demographic transition is exposed to the risk of the emergence and spread of infectious diseases with pandemic potential for thousands of years and epidemics that have affected humanity have included plague, cholera, flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-COV), and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-COV). The recent addition is the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which engulfed the world in 2020 and even after three years remains a concern.

Cities have always been at the forefront of the battle with pandemics. The usual public health response has been isolation, quarantine, and border control to limit the spread of disease until pharmaceutical development catches up to address the disease. The response used during COVID-19 was similar, but this time, the extent of the impact has been different. Though cities are at the front line, the geographical expanse is larger, and the pandemic exposed global vulnerabilities and inequalities that have regional dimensions.

Interestingly every city has a unique way of organising space and activity to achieve a desirable purpose. A city is a place of social and individual interactions. As a marketplace, a city is a place where capital accumulates and where craftspeople congregate whose productive encounters lead to technological innovations. A city is a complex hierarchy of space from a very private, intimate, domestic world to the public for mass interactions. The density of the built environment and humanity are key features of a city. Density produces economies of scale and scope but becomes problematic particularly when public health concerns arise.

History has demonstrated that challenges have always existed between attempts to plan a city and the on-ground spatial activities that transform the planned structures with the result that human engagements with space always outgrow the rigid structures of its planners.

The experiences of past pandemics reveal that cities respond to the challenges posed by a pandemic and reset by transforming the physical form through upgrades of water and sanitation infrastructure, housing regulations, street design, and public parks. These changes alter the way inhabitants live and interact with each other. The core components of cities are density, global interconnectedness, and mixed land use, which in recent decades have contributed to phenomenal growth and prosperity. Bhubaneswar was not an exception, rather it witnessed similar investment to keep the city moving.

COVID-19 has not only challenged these foundational principles but has revealed other crevices that threaten the form of cities. Poverty and rising inequality are the two major problems that cities face. While there is no correlation between the density and the spread of disease, overcrowding and lack of access to services make certain segments of the population vulnerable.

The poor and middle class face the adverse consequences of the pandemic as they lack resources and often live in overcrowded locations with inadequate services. When almost a quarter of the world’s population lives in slums, which are concentrated in cities predominantly in cities like Bhubaneswar, adverse living conditions are worsened by events like a pandemic.

Similarly, informality alone is not necessarily a problem as it nurtures an informal productive economy that supports the formal economy in cities. Perhaps many cities escaped economic fall due to this informal economy. The frequent and prolonged COVID-19-related lockdowns during 2020-2021 caused a mass exodus of workers who had lost their sources of income and livelihood and had to return to the villages or cities they were from, causing reverse migration in many countries.

The formal sectors of the city economy were also not spared from the onslaught of lockdowns that followed the outbreak of COVID-19. City economies, which thrive on global networks for everything from sourcing and manufacturing to production and consumption-an arrangement that generates efficiency and growth-were disrupted as a consequence of border closures, work-from-home restrictions, and supply chain disruptions. The cumulative loss to the world economy was enormous. Working from home, teleworking, and online shopping created new structures.

While office towers resembled ghost towns, homes became places of work and generated demand for home improvement. This was the first time when the potential of homes as places of work was tested. Teleworking and work from home improved work-life balance for some, but for others it blurred the boundaries between work and home, causing mental stress.

Similarly, the effect of lockdowns on women and children was immense as schools closed and the household work that falls largely on women increased. Lockdowns and the shift to online shopping reconfigured brick-and-mortar retailing, and shop floor unemployment rose. Restrictions on the sphere of movement revitalised neighbourhood shopping. Whether these trends will persist in the future, only time will tell. It is, however, evident that cities adapted to the challenges posed by the pandemic, reconfigured economic structures, and established new linkages quickly.

The greatest challenge that the planet faces today relates to the climate crisis caused by human activities including unsustainable urban development. The stress that human activities have inflicted on natural processes and ecological systems is the primary cause of recent pandemics. Land use change, natural resource overexploitation, and migration have altered natural habitats and increased interactions between humans and wildlife. This has not only increased the chances of novel infectious diseases but has also increased the geographical spread.

The world is still grappling with COVID-19 and the risk is far from over. These past three years have taught many lessons in providing health, social, and economic responses to the crisis. History has also taught us that this will not be the last event, so we need to learn, and be better prepared and resilient. Cities will retain their primacy, and by 2050, approximately 70% of the population will live in cities. Odisha expects 40-50% of its population to settle in cities & towns.

The financial resources of governments will pose constraints. It is therefore important to rethink cities’ resilience in the post-COVID-19 world. The World Habitat Day along with month-long Urban October learning would make cities resilient. We need a collaborative effort between cities, academics, and Government. We need to work together, collaborate, listen to each other, talk to each other regularly, engage in dialogue with each other, with a great belief and, understanding that we are really part of one institution and we represent a common mission of igniting innovation benefiting common man in our society. That includes a balance between the growth agenda and environmental sustainability with inclusive urban planning that aims to reduce vulnerabilities and inequalities.

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