Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Vellore Institute of Technology, Tamil Nadu, India
Sharmila Jagadisan is an architect and planner with a interest to achieve positive outcomes for communities through interdisciplinary thinking. She is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture, Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in India. She holds a PhD in Planning from University of Auckland, New Zealand (2009). She is a Registered Architect, COA (Council of Architecture) in India since 2000, and she is a Member of WSE (World Society for Ekistics) since 2005. She has been involved in teaching and research in the areas of urban planning, housing and community development. Her Master’s thesis was on post-occupancy evaluation of low-income housing sectors in Chennai, India, obtained at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, India in 2001. Her PhD research in Ekistics includes Sociology, Environmental Behaviour Studies (EBS) and is intended to demonstrate how architects and planners need to approach urban design and planning decision-making in order to respond more effectively to community perceptions, values and aspirations. One of the outcomes of her PhD has been a suggested Research Agenda for the World Society for Ekistics. This includes integrating the Environment-Behaviour Research (EBR) of Prof Amos Rapoport (WSE member) into the broader body of ekistic theory and practice. She has been working with Dr Tom Fookes till 2013 on research summaries of her PhD to be published by the Ekistic Research Unit (ERU) - Auckland, which includes the EBR connection. She also co-ordinated the focus group for reviewing Master’s of Planning Practice programme for 2012.
Insight from "Expert Group Discussion with the Audience - How will our cities look like in the post-COVID-19 world?"
Sharmila addressed the questions of cities’ efficiency and the impact of COVID-19 on cities planning through her sharing. The Indian government issued a national lockdown on March 24 to control the movement of people. The lockdown has left otherwise bustling public spaces like streets, beaches, temples completely empty. However, the Koyambedu Market in Tamil Nadu, one of the largest wholesale markets in Asia with 3,750 shops and over 10,000 workers, became a hotspot for COVID-19 outbreak with thousands of confirmed cases. Many rushed to the markets for panic buying after the postponement of the lockdown was announced, disregarding any physical distancing rules. After the market was shut down, the laborers had to go back to their rural homes outside of the cities while unconsciously carrying the virus. Sharmila summarized her sharing with a few learnings from the current situation, that the lockdown has created both positive and negative impacts in India, but more importantly, has taught us to live in a more sustainable, holistic, and humanitarian way.
While India has some of the best software engineers, the wealth gap is huge, how can marginalised communities be engaged? Taipei has a great example of “broadband as a human right”, how is it in other places?
Sharmila agreed with the huge wealth gap, those who work in the IT sectors are mostly on one end of the spectrum. Most IT companies are even aiming to impose work from home by 2025, this would create a huge impact on private vehicles and road usage. However, on the other hand, many in the rural and remote areas do not even have access to livelihood and basic amenities like food, let alone getting connected and technology. Taking education as an example, some classes Sharmila runs simply cannot be taught online. Many people also cannot afford a desktop or laptop, the government has to think of alternative ways such as TV channels for them.
What is the role of urbanist in this crisis?
WHO set a standard of 9 sqm per capita when it comes to open space access, Sharmila pointed out that in Chennai the reality is only 0.8sqm. On another hand, the pandemic has taught us to live in a more sustainable manner. Residents in rural areas could not transport any of the produce and ended up using a barter system and exchanging goods with neighbors. Terrace gardens also emerged in densely populated households. When the access to parks and playgrounds became difficult and limited, people resorted to small community-level spaces. Streets were not treated as public space before COVID-19 but the pandemic made people redefine streets and realize their rights to use the streets. Sharmila thought that street planning has to be restructured as one of the main objectives of smart cities. To tackle the issue of narrow streets, there should be systems prioritizing pedestrians and children. It’s not about physical distancing, it’s about social solidarity.