To decision makers: Read this to avoid wrong decisions and urban planning ‘mistakes’

Published September 16, 2020, 6:33 AM

by Johannes Chua

It appeared laughable at first. The one-meter physical distancing enforced in public transport would soon be “minimized” from 0.75 meters to 0.5 meters to ultimately, 0.3 meters after a few weeks. Should I now bring a tape measure aside from a face mask and face shield? The government, however, is not laughing as it is dead serious on implementing this rule as Covid-19 cases continue to hound our health system.

But what about those who live in alleys, in rows of door-to-door apartments tucked in narrow passageways like those in Sta. Cruz, Pasay, or Quezon City, or those houses whose main doors or windows open up to the street? How do we make them feel safe and more comfortable or even happier design-wise in places as cramped and un-private as those?

First, that one meter, 0.75 meter, 0.5 meter, or 0.3 meter can’t be fully implemented in these densely-populated areas, where houses are separated only by a flimsy slice of plywood. With three or four members living in a 10-square-meter area, proper physical distancing can only happen if one member sleeps on the street.

HOW DO I LIVE Cramped spaces pose health risks to dwellers as partitions between rooms are usually thin plywood

Given that the pandemic has drastically altered the lives of all for almost half a year, what can still be done in terms of homes located in densely populated areas? What should the government do in the coming years to prevent the mistakes when it comes to urban planning?

Manila Bulletin Lifestyle invites Architect Louwie A. Gan to help us answer these questions, in the hope that our leaders would be guided to make sound—and not laughable—decisions.  

Gan is an urban planner professionally accredited by international organizations in green building and urban planning in the US and Vietnam. He has more than 12 years of experience in urban and master planning, green building, visual impact studies, landscape and urban design. He currently serves as consultant to the UN and the City Government of Makati.

In densely populated areas where homes (especially among informal settlers) are near each other, how can Covid infections be prevented if physical distancing is impossible?

Regardless of materials used, the main issue here would be ventilation. A lot of unplanned densely populated communities have less or no fresh air circulation to remove stale air. Regular disinfection may not be the most efficient due to cost constraint. Plus, the fact that people returning to their homes may be carrying the virus. This is the reason designers incorporate entryway mat systems that capture dirt before entering the buildings. Unfortunately, we do not have this design standard in the Philippines.

In terms of ventilation, increasing air flow in homes is important to control virus transmission. Buildings in informal settlement, however, are not equipped with setback or open space requirements to allow natural ventilation.

‘How we design and plan our cities have an impact on our health and wellbeing. If we opt to make our citizens healthy and adaptable to disturbances, cities have to design and build more public open spaces such as parks, streets with wide sidewalks, and green infrastructure.’

Architect Louwie A. Gan

If there is no open space available, providing mechanical ventilation may help but air outflow should be located properly to ensure air outflow doesn’t transfer to adjacent houses.

If these solutions are not possible, strategic decongestion to comply with minimum open space requirements as per Presidential Decree 1096 and/or Green Building Code should be mandated.

Is putting plastic barriers at homes that are small and with so many family members advisable? If not, what can you recommend instead?

Any form of barrier may definitely help reduce transmission. But covering the building shell will undermine access to fresh air circulation. Thereby, this will make the indoor environment uncomfortable and unhealthy (e.g. increased moisture content, temperature, stale air, viral/ bacterial accumulation, etc.). Unless this plastic barrier is perforated enough to allow fresh air inflow with bacterial and viral filtering capability, I do not see any issue. Sad to say, I haven’t seen one product that does this.

My suggestion here is to create a guideline on improving ventilation systems (natural or mechanical) to control airflow without risk of transferring germs and viruses to adjacent properties or habited buildings. 

As mentioned, an architectural solution should warrant access to open space for strategic fresh air intake to reduce transmission while maintaining indoor comfort. If fresh air intake is not possible, mechanical ventilation equipped with a filtration system and compliant with minimum distances should be utilized.

While some mechanical ventilation is cheaper and easier to achieve, the filtration system for viruses is costly. Therefore, the last resort is to initiate controlled and strategized decongestion to meet code requirements.

With regard to urban planning, what recommendations can you give the government to avoid the mistakes done during this present pandemic?

Our cities should be able to strategically adapt to local conditions if there are disturbances such as a health pandemic. To address disturbances, I recommend that the government should focus on the following:

HIGH DENSITY Overcrowding in urban places must be addressed by the government to avoid health challenges during a pandemic

Leverage low-energy processes through digitization: Government services should be accessible online. Whether its business application, announcements, news, data acquisition, emergency, etc., all these services should be linked digitally. Obviously, digitization is a key tool for information dissemination during crises.

Incorporate transportation and land use diversity: Infrastructure should serve the most number and vulnerable members of the society. For example, our transportation system is mainly attributed to private vehicle comfort. Diversifying our transportation to enhance walking, cycling, and access to public and mass transportation would definitely make our cities adapt to any disturbances. People should be able to get to their destination in case there is no public transportation because we have enough bicycle infrastructure.

In terms of land use, incorporate a mix of low-income members in every development. While this sounds more of a social equality issue, mixing social classes in every development would blur the lines between rich and poor but, most important, it addresses equal access to healthcare facility, education, and soft/hard infrastructure, which in turn boost the state of wellbeing of the poor that further lowers risk of sickness. Well-planned cities improve people’s state of wellbeing thereby reducing anxiety during pandemic.

How we design and plan our cities have an impact on our health and wellbeing. If we opt to make our citizens healthy and adaptable to disturbances, cities have to design and build more public open spaces such as parks, streets with wide sidewalks, and green infrastructure where we can share the built environment with the natural landscape and other species for us to survive.

Food security: It is time that urban areas produce their own food and not depend on other provinces that have the risk of being closed during a pandemic. This also ensures people who cannot work would still have food at their table.