‘Urban-Think Tank’s Vertical Gym in Caracas’ dense informal neighbourhood now functions as an emergency centre in the Covid-19 crisis’

WE NEED TO REORGANIZE THE CITY

By Alfredo Brillembourg, professor of architecture and urban design, founder of Urban-Think Tank

 

Housing has become the front-line defense against the Covid-19 outbreak. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation. 

According to the UN, approximately 1.8 billion people worldwide live in homelessness and grossly inadequate housing. By ensuring access to secure housing with adequate sanitation, governments will not only protect the lives of those who are homeless or living in informal settlements but will help protect the entire world’s population by flattening the curve of Covid-19. I am deeply concerned about two specific populations groups: those living in emergency shelters, homelessness and informal settlements, and those facing job loss and economic hardship which could result in mortgage and rental arrears and evictions. 

People affected by humanitarian crises, particularly those displaced and/or living in camps and camp-like settings, are often faced with specific challenges and vulnerabilities that must be taken into consideration when planning for readiness and response operations for the Covid-19 outbreak and possible future pandemics. These are people that are frequently neglected, stigmatized, and may face difficulties in accessing health services that are otherwise available to a general population. In this context, Urban-Think Tank has been working to raise global attention to favelas, slums, and townships for the last 20 years.

The economic consequences for those in informal settlements will be long-lasting. As cities suspend daily activities and restrict movement, day laborers and those in informal employment will lose their income. This can result in people being forced to leave their homes due to their inability to pay rent. Without any social benefits, they will be unable to care for their families. It is of extreme importance from a protection and human-rights and public health perspective, that people affected by humanitarian crises are included in all Covid-19 outbreak readiness and response strategies, plans and operations. There is a strong public health rationale to extend all measures to everyone, regardless of status and ensuring inclusiveness.

What we do today will change the cities of tomorrow. To make them safe and inclusive, and resilient for future crises a mapping should be undertaken to identify the areas most at risk: areas where people are living in particularly overcrowded conditions, with higher densities, with less space for expansion, more in contact with at-risk residents, or with higher proportions of vulnerable residents. Wherever possible, mitigation measures to reduce overcrowding should be put in place: collective sites in which several households are sharing the same shelter should be upgraded as much as possible to achieve minimum shelter standards of personal covered living space and household partitions. Households living in individual accommodation below minimum shelter standards should be supported to improve those standards, particularly by increasing the covered living space in case of overcrowding. Vulnerable populations should be prioritized. In places where several households are sharing latrines or cooking facilities, additional facilities should be built to reduce the health risks of spreading the virus and diseases in general. Additional land should be negotiated to allow for expansions. There may also be more combination between state intervention and laissez-faire policies. In many cases, the city is both a stricken center and the disaster relief center. Its functional-space structure has developed in a long historical process, and should meet the daily needs of the city, as well as be constantly optimized with the development and transformation of the city. This is a continuous, progressive and stable urban evolution process that Urban-Think Tank is involved in.

As a fundamental response to the Covid-19 crisis, and as much as ever, Urban-Think Tank invokes the right to adequate housing.