Social Distancing of buildings and landscape mask

Kashmir Magazine

Ar. Ghulam Hassan Mir

Starting from January 2020 till date, the Covid-19 has created havoc in the entire human world despite blaming it on the bloody wild bat at Wuhan (China). The Novel Corona Virus which is believed to have been originated in a Chinese city in November-2019 made its way through various and almost all countries of the world damaging their economy along with devastation of life and livelihoods.

The lack of beds, oxygen and vaccine has increased pressure on the healthcare system and exposed the medical infrastructure in the country to it a worst-case scenario. The patients gasped for breath and oxygen. It exposes the hospitals both in Government and private sector for lack of facilities in catering to the demands of the Virus struck population. The topmost reason being that only 1.5% of GDP is spent on the healthcare system in India which is extremely less as compared to the defence budget. The Oxygen demand is crucial as a hardcore medical requirement. So pre-Covid19 negative status, one needs to adhere to social distancing, masking up, hygiene and vaccination but once declared positive, home quarantine or hospitalisation, medicines, ICU bed availability and oxygen/concentration facility become inevitable. From the last month, the Indian experience of oxygen demand in hospitals makes one think about oxygen supply in the surrounding environment. This provokes me to say that today there is a direct shortage of oxygen for hardcore patients in hospitals because of a specific medical problem, tomorrow there will be a shortage of oxygen in general to the whole community/humanity because of environmental degradation, deforestation, increase in an urban heat engine, pollution, destruction of natural habitats, consumption of wetlands/water bodies, etc. Before the oxygen-less places/cities/regions evolve as part of pan-disaster happenings, let’s resolve to protect our natural habitats and plant trees abundantly.

Now let me connect COVID-19 with a built-up environment. Usually, the Covid19 scenario demanded social distancing of human beings approximately six feet, wearing a mask to protect the mouth & nose, face shield to protect eyes and moreover, hand sanitization. This was based on the theory that the virus makes its headway through the nose, mouth & eyes by way of sneezing, hand touching of surfaces but was not air born. However, nowadays, it is believed to be air born also. Therefore, day by day virus is turning out to be dangerous and monstrous. The hard work of scientists made it possible to produce the vaccine in a short record period of time. However, the quantity to be made available to all the world population is by itself a million-dollar question particularly when the virus is mutating regularly by different variants.

When I was asked about my job as a planner, I had to say that my main job is to ensure the social distancing of buildings in an urban built-up environment and also make sure that masking is carried out in the surroundings. What does that mean? Every building in whatever form and of whatever use needs open spaces around it for air/ventilation, light/sunlight, fire/hazard gap, privacy cushion, rescue/scavenging space and most importantly to mask up in terms of plantation of trees, shrubs, flowers, greenery etc. Technically speaking, buildings are built to inhabit people to protect them from extreme weather conditions, raise families, ensure comfort, settle permanently and the walls which are constructed are the first solid masks to be erected and create/produce spaces out of nothing on a barren piece of land. The doors help in accessing the spaces for utilization and in the absence of windows, these spaces could turn out to caves only. The placement & fixing of windows help in making light/sunlight enter these spaces and multiple windows help in cross ventilation/air circulation, thereby enable living beings to breathe oxygen freely. Natural light/ventilation is a must for all buildings habiting people even if there is an availability of artificial light/ventilation through mechanised means. Therefore, open spaces around buildings to be maintained as “setbacks” are as important as the building itself. The blind buildings are good for nothing except for specific activity/use/security. Because of the urban environment where congestion takes place due to scarcity of land, maintenance of open space around the building whether on all four sides/3 sides or even two sides as per planning norms should be ensured to the fullest. The walls, windows, curtains and open space around with trees act as masks for collective protection for the inhabitants of the household and the community/society at a local/regional or urban level. Let’s say that the building does not have windows for cross ventilation and someone is sick with flu, we must imagine the spread of sickness fast in a close-knit suffocated environment. Similarly, if the buildings do have windows for light/ventilation but the structures are too close to each other that stops sufficient light and air to enter, then again the building is not appreciable. The closeness shall help to spread sickness from one building to another in such a built-up environment. Apart from losing privacy and other associated benefits from the open spaces around, people should understand the importance of open spaces around the building for which huge investment has been made just to make it liveable for a healthy life of its inhabitants. The landscape mask around the building/structure is necessary to create a congenial environment, reduce the carbon footprint of the building itself, reduce noise and air pollution and most importantly, trees act as dust barriers.

Construction of each building/structure or even making roads is anti-environment. It disturbs the natural environment as it involves removing natural material at one place and then fixing it at another for human comfort. This cause depletion of natural resources and changing their character for another use. This development though necessary for human habitation is responsible for environmental degradation. However, if planned in a sustainable and smart manner, it could be possible to reduce its impact to a certain extent but it is never possible to reduce the impact to zero levels. Each building/structure or even a road acts as a heater absorbing, reflecting or radiating heat and in the case of buildings, it even releases extra heat/gases that are produced by electric lamps, blowers, room heaters, air & heat conditions, fridge/freezers, LPG cooking, Chimneys etc. Changing the character of a natural barren piece of land into a man-made built environment through development by way of construction makes it 100% anti-environment. However, if plantation/landscaping by means of trees/shrubs, greenery, water bodies are made part of the newly formulated development, then to a smaller extent, it can be compensated. Therefore, plantation/green space is of utmost importance whether a building is constructed or a road is laid. That is why only a certain percentage of ground coverage is permitted with open spaces all around and also the height of the building is restricted as per FAR/FSI. These days there is a heavy thrust on green architecture/technology but in our part of the world, there is a lack of research/development in this sector. Human greed has taken precedence over all other things related to development.

As said earlier, the need for medical oxygen in hospitals for individual patients has created havoc in the entire country, imagine a situation whereby because of negative development, the areas/territories in the form of villages/towns/cities/regions become oxygen-less and people start suffocating due to lack of it. The air pollution level day by day and carbon footprint increasing in an unprecedented manner is indicating towards the grave concern of reduction in oxygen concentration in the built-up (man-made) environment. This necessitates that preserving the natural environment in a sustainable manner is the need of the hour and reducing the carbon footprint through developmental initiatives makes it more of urgent nature.

Hygiene, health and happiness are fundamental to a good quality of life and these are dependent on the surrounding environment, water & air quality. One can never be happy unless one is healthy and one can never be healthy unless hygienic conditions prevail around. This necessitates keeping not only the physical body hygienic but even the interiors as well as exteriors of the building. Food intake is one of the reasons for falling sick of an individual but air/water and surrounding the environment too affects the health of an individual or a community at the collective level.

Concluding that one’s body and it’s health is the ultimate victim of a bad environment whether through intake of food having a negative impact of pesticides/insecticides, polluted drinking water, bad quality of air/less oxygenated surroundings, haphazard urban planning, negative urban development, increase in industrial waste and waste products, depletion in natural environment/ecosystem, reduction in ecology- flora & fauna, deforestation, climate change, ozone layer depletion, sea level rise etc. This is whole demands to focus on Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of villages/town/cities/regions or special areas which eventually leads to Health Impact Assessment (HIA). The soft medical treatment lies beyond hospital care wherein the environment all around us is required to be clean which will thereby put less burden on hard medical care like hospitals. The open spaces, green vistas, greenery, water bodies, forests, plantation etc. can all add value system to our health/medical care and as such the ecological audit of surroundings have become all the more necessary. We need to start making balance sheets of environmental debt than economic debt at rural/urban or district/regional or even state/national level. The sooner we do, the better it is.

Mir Ghulam Hassan is an architect and urban/regional planner. He has background education in disaster management & environmental sustainable development. He has been awarded internationally by i) Ford Foundation, USA for higher studies ii) ISOCARP/UN-Habitat for planning in Palestine and iii) G20 Global Leadership Program for South Korean Development Policy Development. He can be reached at



The ideas expressed are of author’s own and not of the organization, he works for.