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Make health impact assessment studies for urban projects mandatory

As the things stand today, COVID-19 is the worst thing to have happened to the mankind in this millennium. And unless something is done this may prove to be the worst thing that might have happened to mankind so far. But unfortunately, no one knows what needs to be done to contain its spread and bring it under control.

Though It’s a bit early to take on lessons learned from COVID-19, preliminary indications point out that part of the blame has to be borne the way cities are planned. In case of urban design, its usually believed that public health department has no role to play which in itself is the greatest crime we are committing.

One may readily point to the densification of cities is the main source of outbreak of diseases like COVID-19 but the fact is that China is not the only nation in the world which has highest density of population in cities. A few of China’s cities make the list of the top 30 most densely populated cities in the world, although most on the list are in India, the Philippines, France and other countries. Crowded cities may help to spread the disease much faster but may not be the sole reason for its outbreak.

It should be remembered that city planning originated, around the turn of the last century, out of concerns over health problems created by filthy slums and industries. However, later on paths of public health and city planning got separated and they started moving in different directions. Perhaps public healthcare became less interested in preventive measures and concerned with curing (due to private lobby) and the result is there for all of us to see. Meanwhile, city planning became more concerned with mobility issues than anything else.

The World Health Organization’s Healthy Cities movement was initiated in 1988; among other things, it encourages attention to health inequalities, participatory governance and the health considerations of economic and urban development. Some 1,200 European cities and many in Canada and Australia participate. But for we in India city development means more roads, flyovers and skyscrapers. Its high time for us to move beyond this limited horizon.

Time has come for city planning and public health — pushed by economic crisis, climate change and green technology, among other factors — to converge again.

It is also true that while planning future cities we may be solely guided by the recent COVID-19 which if happens will be a blunder because modern cities also have to cope with equally deadlier diseases like depression, which have been acting as silent killers over past several decades. A growing mass of scientific evidence does indicate that how places are designed and built can cause and complicate grave health problems for individuals and whole populations.

The concept of smart cities will give the town planners loads of data about people and their habits, etc. Therefore, we need to begin with a new imagination of the urban data we rely on. Sourcing the right information and its proper analysis may help the town planners to hit the dart board accurately. We can and should take full advantage of digital revolution to cope with the challenges arising out of situations like COVID-19.

It is high time that we have health impact assessment studies just as we have environment impact assessment studies for all major urban development projects. Fortunately, in developed nations some cities have already started this process and in India too we need to mimic this practice sooner than later especially in view of anticipated rapid urbanisation in the coming years.

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