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Covid 19: GIS and Digital Urban Development

Jul 2020 | No Comment

Covid 19 pandemic has caused massive destruction of the economy, livelihoods and reverse migration of the labour. It has underlined the need to adopt digital order, online communication and health as the focus of urban development

A K Jain

Worked as Commissioner (Planning), Delhi Development Authority and as a member of the Committee of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on the DDA (2015). He was as a member of UN Habitat (2007- 12). Author of several books, he is visiting faculty in planning and architecture. He was awarded 2nd Urban Professional Award 2014 at World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia and IBC Lifetime Achievement Award (2016)

Covid-19 is once in a century pandemic. It has caused massive disruption to the economy and the livelihoods, especially of those living and working in the informal sector. Their income sources have vanished. Most of them live in high-density slums which lack space, sun, air, clean water and sanitation. The Covid pandemic has exposed them to the epidemiological, transitional, health, hygiene and survival vulnerabilities.

It is estimated that the Covid 19 pandemic has resulted in loss of 200 million jobs of daily wagers. During the lock down, from 25th March 2020 to 31st May 2020, about 200 migrants died due to exhaustion and accidents. There has been severe shortage of public transport, shelter, food and for the migrant labourers. With public transport shut down, the workers walked and cycled hundreds of kilometres or travelled in autos, trucks, and even concrete mixers. It was quite late to provide special shramik trains.

There has been glaring lack of GIS database, digital order and information on virus sources. According to Chief Labour Commissioner 2.6 million migrants are stranded, whereas the Solicitor General informed the Supreme Court that 9.7 million have been transported back home. Other estimates vary widely-30 million (Chinmay Tumbe), 5 million (Dr. Noman Maajid, ILO), and 22 million according to Amitabh Kundu. No GIS surveys, satellite imaging and geospatial mapping have been carried out to identify the sources of corona virus and hotspots. Declaration of such areas has been based on commonsense and patient counts. We know that the pandemic was spread largely by those travelling abroad, which should have been the priority of the lockdown. The real time, geospatial data is vital to gain a robust understanding of the Covid 19, its causes and effects.

India’s 7936 cities and towns, having a population of 377 million, generate 60% of GDP and 70% of the jobs. According to 2011 census, 2613 cities have 13.9 million slum households with a population of 65.4 million. With diminishing returns from agriculture, people are migrating to urban areas for jobs, better facilities and livelihoods. However, There has been severe shortages of housing and health facilities. The commuting distances keep on increasing due to indiscriminate urbanization. Most of the migrants work in the informal sector as domestic servants, labour, vendors, construction workers and live in crowded, cramped and congested slums.

According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 76th round (2018) 80% rural houses and 62% urban houses in India have one room or less. 75% of rural households and 40% of urban households do not have access to tap water, 45% of rural and 9% of urban households are without washrooms/latrines. This means that norms of social distancing, self-isolation and regular hand washing are difficult to be observed by majority of households.

The Covid 19 pandemic in India raises the following questions:

• Whether the focus of urban development should change towards healthy environment and housing?

• Whether the medical approach towards the pandemic should link more closely with the GIS and digital order?

• Whether the virus could be controlled by the lockdowns, quarantine, facemasks, social distancing, etc.?

• Can there be long term strategy to deal with the vexing migrants’ issues, and a targeted eco-system for their resettlement, either as the fifth vertical of the PMAY (Urban), or by a new participatory women and children focussed cooperative model?

Healthy environment

According to UN Habitat and World Health Organisation (2020), if the purpose of planning is not for human and planetary health, then what it is for? The concern for human health and well-being is the focus of planning of the built environment.

Building regulations and urban planning are closely related to public health. After the industrial revolution, during the 18th and 19th century, the unhygienic conditions prevailed in the cities of Western world. As a result, the concepts of town planning, zoning, land use controls and building regulations were developed to safeguard public health, safety and convenience. In India, building regulations came in 1880s and modern town planning in 1900s.

Health had been a determining factor in the selection of the site of New Delhi, the new Capital of India. Earlier, in 1911 a site was selected at Kingsway Camp on the bank of river Yamuna, towards North of Civil Lines. It was dropped being malaria prone, low lying and water logged, and a new site at Raisina was selected for its better drainage and health conditions.

The public health depends largely on a pollution free environment with adequate services, housing and workspaces, free from sick building syndrome (SBS). The indoor and outdoor environment should not cause rheumatic complaints, fever, fatigue, respiratory diseases, asthma, etc. due to microbial, allergy, toxins, dust and mites. These spaces should be comfortable with proper ventilation, sun and temperature control.

This involves the following:

• Basic planning standards and codes

• Spatial frameworks

• Digital planning and urban processes

This needs adopting the following principles:

• Foster adequate levels of compactness and well-connected places

• Create urban environments that are more socially inclusive

• Design human settlements that are less demanding on resources and are more resilient

With the Information Technology (IT), the urbanism and buildings have become information exchange system. The buildings form a symbiotic and organic relationship with the elements of nature-earth, water, sun (energy), space and sky. The computation and big data analytics capture the complex multidimensional interaction of the elements of nature and evolve the tectonic solutions based on the urban issues and needs of the people.

Healthy and sustainable development involves reducing emissions from transport, power and industries, incineration of wastes, dust, etc. Such a city is planned on the principles of compact and dense development, intelligent traffic management, transport demand management, efficient, comfortable and non-polluting public transport, bicycles and non-motorised transport (NMT) and walk to work. The urban plans should incorporate low carbon transit system, zero net energy buildings, black hole technology of waste management and smart utilities. Intelligent and smart systems, viz. Big Data Analytics, Supervising Control Data Acquisition Systems (SCADA), ERP solutions, GIS, Integrated Digital Control/ Command Centres and Satellite Surveillance can be exploited for epidemic and air pollution control.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, urban areas account for 67 to 76% of global energy use and 71 to 76% energy related CO2 emissions. According to the IPCC (Climate Change Report, 2014, WG III) the critical aspects of spatial planning comprise

• Density, FAR optimisation

• Land use (mix of activities, population)

• Connectivity, walkability and traffic density

• Accessibility for all by public transit, cycle, walk

Location is most important for the livelihoods of the informal sector workers who cannot afford to lose time and money in commuting. As a principle, the distance between work and living should be below 15 minutes by public transport, cycle or walk, that is 10 km, 3 km, and 1 km respectively. In view of recent work from home trend due to corona lockdown, it may be mandatory to provide at least half of the built space for work-life integration and mixed land use. This will save the need to commute.

Prof. Richard Sennett of the MIT states that “on the whole density is a good thing. Denser cities are more energy efficient.” London School of Economics in its study “Experiencing density living in a denser London” (March 2020) found that ‘surprisingly residents’ satisfaction with their housing has little relation with their aesthetic quality. The degree of density also does not co-relate with how much they like their homes. Rather, a building’s internal design and comfort are most important.’ The study has also redefined the density in terms of habitable rooms as below:

• High 100du/400 habitable rooms/Ha

• Super dense 150du/ 500 habitable rooms/Ha

• Hyper dense 350 du/1000 habitable rooms/Ha

Health Infrastructure

The urban development and environment have profound effects on the health of the population. The determinants of health and well-being in human habitation encompass climate stability, global ecosystem and biodiversity. The global and local systems telescopically converge at the people, lifestyle, community, local economy, work, natural and built environment.

In terms of urban planning these include the following:

i. Land use and density pattern.

ii. Health facilities and standards.

iii. Provision of open space, public spaces and greenery.

iv. Development of sports facilities and play fields.

v. Physical infrastructure, water supply, electricity, sewerage, solid waste management and drainage.

vi. Conservation of natural geographical features- heritage, river and water bodies.

vii. Development controls and building byelaws.

viii. Regularisation and rehabilitation of unauthorised colonies, housing and slums

ix. Traffic and Transportation.

x. Air and Water Pollution Control.

A healthy city depends upon integrity of land uses and safeguarding adequate open spaces and protect living and working areas from hazardous and polluting activities, such as, industry, heavy traffic, wholesale trade, etc. The land use plan and density pattern should strike a balance between the aspects of crowding, health and traffic generation, besides conserving the treestudded and garden city character.

According to the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), the bed population ratio to be achieved is 5 per thousand persons, whereas in 2011 the bed persons ratio in Delhi is 2.55. There has been very little increase in the number of beds per thousand persons over the last 20 years. It is estimated that the total number of hospital beds required in Delhi in the year 2021 will be about 115,000.

The following can be proposed in order to meet the requirements of health related infrastructure:

i. Enhancement of Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for health facilities

ii. Promoting rebuilding of the old hospitals

iii. Shifting of contagious diseases hospitals from urban areas to the urban extensions and NCR with proper seclusion and connectivity

iv. Permitting hospitals, health centres, nursing homes, dispensary, mohalla clinics, path labs, etc. under mixed use and other uses, viz. industrial, commercial and residential.

v. Dedicated Centres for Senior Citizens and Mentally Challenged, maternity home, nursing home, family welfare centre, polyclinic, paediatrics centre, geriatric centre, diagnostic centre, etc.

vi. Health facilities may include Ayurvedic/Homeopathic/Unani and other streams of treatment.

Rehabilitation, housing and health

The worst affected by the epidemic are the slum dwellers, who do not have adequate space and services and live in overcrowded, dilapidated dwelling units. Often the planning norms force their eviction and shifting to far off locations from their workplace. Therefore, the density is important for efficient use of land with minimum building footprint, especially for the projects of in-situ rehabilitation of slums.

The present scenario of the migrant labour reminds of 1947 when about 50 million refugees crossed into partitioned India. The Government of India created the Ministry of Refugees (later Ministry of Rehabilitation) which provided immediate relief- food, shelter, medicines, water and sanitation facilities. Simultaneously, livelihoods – kiosks, shops, work sheds, small scale /household industries and homes were provided to the refugees. The refugees in Delhi were resettled in 36 Rehabilitation Colonies with about 70,000 plots of 80 sqyd, besides 15,000 shops. Similar approach is needed to rehabilitate migrant labours. They are valuable assets and builders of city and homes. However, in place of plots for individual families, group housing on cooperative basis should be promoted for a composite community development. As the Master Plan for Delhi stipulates minimum 2000 sm plot with 400 FAR, which provides 8,000 sm of built-up area, i.e. 160 dwelling units, along with 800 sm for about 50 shops/ work sheds and 800 sm for community facilities, such as creche, nursery school, community halls, dispensary, etc.

The Niti Aayog projects that per capita residential space in India will increase from 5.9 m2 in 2012 to 35 sqm in 2047. This means a drastic revision of spatial standards of the houses of poor along with an optimally compact and dense urban pattern. The shelter must be adequate, healthy and affordable, along with rental option as the poor can’t afford paying the EMI.

Healthy housing supports a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, relying on the immediate housing environment, and the extent to which this provides access to services, green space, and active and public transport options, as well as protection from waste, pollution and the effects of disaster, whether natural or human made. For housing to be adequate, the following seven criteria must be met: security of tenure, availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural adequacy. The housing should cater especially women, children and the aged ((UN Habitat & WHO, 2020).

Sustainable and healthy environment manifests climatic comfort and air quality with buildings free from sick building syndrome (SBS) caused by microbial, allergy, toxins, dust and mites. The wall between work and life should be dismantled by a composite, mixed land use.

In the context of impending pandemic, pollution, waste generation and water shortage, it is time to conceive the buildings, which detox the air, work as bioreactors and energy generators. They provide water loops for conservation of rainwater, provide space for waste treatment, and promote urban agriculture. Like food pyramid, building materials pyramid can be developed to identify the materials with least environmental footprints. The buildings should be able to produce their own food, water and energy, and are light, flexible and self-sufficient.

The buildings are healthy, environmentally responsible and resource-efficient through their lifecycle, if they integrate the following:

• Sustainable and healthy site planning, location, density, mobility, living-work relationship and building regulations

• Building envelope and built space, social distancing, privacy and safety

• Energy conservation, renewable energy and net-zero energy buildings

• Indoor quality, ventilation, sun and thermal comforts

• Sustainable building resources with high recycled and renewable content and low VOCs emissions and odour

• Reduced building footprint, depletion of natural resources and biodiversity

• Building services and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), lighting, water sanitation, etc. According to the Covid 19 Guidelines for Air-conditioning and Ventilation, issued by the CPWD (22.4.2020), low temperatures are optimal for air-borne influenza virus survival, which decreases progressively at higher temperature. As such, room temperature should be set at 240 to 300 C, humidity of 40% to70% with fresh air flow to inactivate aerosol droplet virus.

Buildings as respirational system

Buildings can be designed as huge airpurifiers, which transform the polluted air and exhaust fumes into clean air by water algae and sea sponge. These contain organisms that convert greenhouse gases and exhaust fumes into oxygen.

Urban nebulizer is a device to aid breath for an asthmatic. It takes temperature inversion, smog and polluted air of atmosphere and diffuses it by smokestack, combined with water vapour. The structure can also function as a botanical garden, mostly with acicular trees for air purification.

Detox tower: A building can double as a detox tower which cleans air through its outer skin and internal detox loop. The detox tube has three layerst he first is Voronoi/ aerodynamic adaptable structure, the next is a nanohydrophobic membrane layer with venturi that uses lichen and algae for purification purposes. Finally, the air passes through layer three, which comprises a flexible aerogel. The building can be designed to give the chimney effect, which cools the air entering at its base and flows out at the top, cooling the whole structure. The building skin also collects solar energy.

Energy bioreactor

Bioreactor gathers CO2 from the industrial, organic wastes and auto emissions, which gets converted into energy by water, sunlight and algae. CO2 produced by the process also runs back to energise the bioreactor, raw products, and to create biodiesel, hydrogen fuel, and animal feed, besides hydrogen, water and oxygen. The building façade is an Algae Bioreactor, that makes it a zero-net energy building.

Noise and heat insulating panels, made of carbon fibre and cyano bacteria, create a closed autonomous system of air circulation within a building, protecting it from outer pollution by providing fresh ionized oxygen. The exterior should be able to open and close. Within these modules, the cyanobacteria grow. The modules are filled with a ‘special water solution’ that reacts with carbon dioxide to produce oxygen by photosynthesis process.

Water conservation and evo-transpiration

With increasing urbanisation, pollution and loss of biodiversity, there is an increasing shortage of potable water. There is a need to adopt an ecosystem and watershed approach, which includes the water recycling, rainwater harvesting, desalination and purification of salty/brackish water, conservation of water sources, rivers and lakes, controlling extraction of groundwater, micro- irrigation, water efficient, plumbing and fixtures, and fiscal and management reforms.

Grey water treatment by root zone system using urban forestry and nutrients can produce evaporation-transpiration. The irrigation system is 1 m below ground to reduce evaporation losses, pollution and to prevent odour. The vegetation cools the environment. An adult beech (Fagus Sylvatica) has a cooling power of 1,000 mega-joules per day. Each litre of water evaporated by a tree produces 2,300 kilo joules (0.64 kwh) of cooling. By proper design, we can use this energy to cool buildings, in addition restoring the nature. The plants species for cooling should be suitable for suction of particulate, evapo-transpiration and wastewater treatment.

Water reservoirs in the form of funnels, rain gardens, swales and reed fields serve as a hydro-botanic treatment unit. The rainfall stored in a reservoir and treated wastewater can be used for flushing toilets, washing machines, watering plants, cleaning floors and other domestic applications.


With ever-enhancing wastes and diminishing landfills, it is necessary that the waste is segregated, treated and recycled at local levels. Vertical waste scrapers can be alternatives for automated waste collection and recycling. A modular structure, which can be compressed like an accordion, can be erected as a battery of movable waste containers. Such structures can also be used for slum rehabilitation, emergency shelter and essential facilities like police and fire station.

The waste-scraper modules separate the leachate and other wastes for treatment, recycling and composting. The wastescrapers will have a programmed skin with a gasifier. The gasification process uses an oxygen starved high pressure and high temperature environment to remove impurities before its combustion. The wastes are filtered and processed separately. The decomposition and formation of organic wastes produce methane gas, which is used for fuel.

Composting reduces transportation costs and emissions as well as providing valuable compost for local needs. Containerised compost allows emission free composting on site. With pre-sorting, the recyclates can be containerised and sent to processing facilities. An interpretation centre is located at the base of the structure. The conceptual basis of the project is recycling of waste, least impact on environment, and providing amenities to the local community.

Urban agriculture

For urban agriculture multi-level platforms can be created along with micro-irrigation and humidifying mechanisms. Methanisation of organic wastes, air supply and photovoltaic systems provide supports to the idea of urban farming and artificial urban biotope. This can help in availability of organic produce locally, reduce haulage and wastage of agriculture produce and bring greenery in the midst of concrete jungle.

Building resources and sustainable construction

The idea of circular economy is based on the continuity of raw materials, products and waste streams in a closed circular loop. It involves an energy centered approach towards design, materials and construction. Adoption of circular models for the building design and construction requires formulating guidelines, calculating resources, labour and material flows, their environmental footprint and impact and lifetime scenarios. The basic approach of circular construction is zero emissions and wastes by on-site recycling to save the environment.

In the up-cycle scenarios, the materials are critically analysed to make sure that they do not cause any ecological damage. This involves a new design thinking and adaptation of architectural designs based on reversible solutions, the reuse and recycling of building components and wastes. Life cycle analysis (LCA) and Life Cycle Costs (LCCs) are the basis for absolute sustainability. The approach begins with the reduction of materials consumption, their recycling and reuse considering the following:

• Prioritise renewable, bio-based materials over non-renewable materials

• Avoid environmentally harmful materials and construction processes

• Use green energy sources

• Ensure that such resources are included in the standards, specifications, technologies and biological circuits

• Incorporate the social and cultural dimensions of green transition.

In view of the labour shortage after covid 19, resort to automation, prefabrication/ pre-engineered construction and computer aided manufacturing. As a thumb-rule, manpower utilized in building construction should be reduced to half by these systems. Akin to the concept of food pyramid, the building materials pyramid shows the environmental impact of various materials.

Construction and demolition (C & D) waste recycling

Construction involves generation of construction and demolition wastes. These need to be disposed of and recycled as per the Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016. Recycled products reduce the demand for new materials. Such materials include reused brick, steel, concrete, gypsum, sulphur, wood alternatives, reconstituted wood, straw, bamboo, wood waste pallets and panels for construction. The C&D waste as a resource and should be:

• Segregated at site and exclude the inert, chemical or hazardous wastes. such as oil, paint, batteries and asbestos

• Recovery from recyclable wastes, such as plastics, timber, steel, aluminium, bricks, wood, concrete, etc.

• Energy production from organic, bio-degradable wastes.

There are several examples of successful use of C & D waste in new buildings, e.g. Editt Tower, Singapore and New Moti Bagh Government Housing Complex, New Delhi. As a thumb rule about onefourth of building materials should be recycled from C & D wastes.

Automation, Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM)

During recent times the purpose of automation has been shifting from increasing productivity and reducingcosts to broader issues, such as increasing sustainability, energy efficiency, reducing dependence on manual labour, quality and flexibility of the building. Automation and robotics are being used in construction for prefabrication of building components for speed, accuracy and customization. The flexible production system using robotic can execute various tasks, such as setting moulds, placing reinforcement bars or mats, concreting of floor, roof, wall, beams and columns. Construction robots supplement skilled labour and to achieve construction speed, precision and quality for jobs like concrete and steel structural erection, external and internal finish work, maintenance and demolition work, etc.

A new surge has led to Computer- Aided Manufacturing (CAM) and Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) for prefabricated components, ceilings, walls, roofs, etc. As building design and construction are becoming more complicated with smart materials, services and digital networks, understanding and tracking various systems have become crucial. Building Information Modeling (BIM) provides computerized layers of information, planned details of the structure, 3D drawings, planning documents, service plans, specifications of building materials, components, light fittings and fixtures. BIM is an integrated, collaborative process that enables engineers, architects, contractors and clients to work from a single, digital model and share reliable, coordinated information at every stage of a project life cycle.

Smart utilities and services

Smart utilities and services include energy, transportation, waste prevention and recycling, air quality and water quality, which are low carbon and efficient. The term “smart utilities” denotes integrated, scalable systems which are instrumented, with sensors and controls are embedded for its operations. It is interconnected, enabling the two-way flow of information across the network, using analytics and automation to turn data into insights and to manage resource more efficiently. Smart services are also more resistant to attacks and natural disasters. They can anticipate, detect and respond to the problems quickly.

Smart utilities aim at high quality water supply, drainage, sewerage, streets and waste management. For water supply, the ICT solutions, such as SCADA system, enable enhanced efficiency and transparency. Similar benefits are available in respect of solid waste management and other utilities. ICT controlled three bins recycling, park and lawn micro-irrigation system make the utilities efficient.

Smart utilities can give energy saving up to 30%, reduce carbon emissions and provide higher efficiency and comfort. Information technology can be used for better services, high-speed communication and data management, carbon-emission accounting and performance objectives

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can simulate the entire construction sequence, sustainability issues and reducing waste by choosing the best option. These helps in precision in construction, laying underground services or cut exactly a panel or glass by satellite-guided tools.

GPS device can be attached to equipment grading the road. A GPSlinked device indicates whether the grading is being done in the right place, or it is too deep. On site virtual system, endless that the pipe work installed in a building is inspected before installation, a contractor digitally tags every pipe and electrical system.

The engineer can view an augmented version of reality through 3D glass recognizes the tags and displays exactly where a misplaced pipe should be relaid via a handheld computer. The 3D cameras recognise the objects and material, and whether they are being at the right place and being with accuracy. The way of measuring distances could become accurate with ‘smart fingers’. Currently at the concept stage, two computerized devices fit over the thumb and finger and measure the distance relayed between two points when they are moved apart. The data can be shown on a monitor and transferred via USB to a computer.

The idea of healthy habitat and building involves using the ICT, smart systems and morphotectonic strategies of planning, which enhance public health, hygiene and well-being.


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