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There is still hope for Manila’s Urban Land Use

The view from the plane reveals a city with ugly patches of metal and tyres that seem to go on interminably. Now and then gray patches appear in view. These look like concrete roads dotted with cars of many-different colours. There is little greenery in sight. Instantly you think to yourself, “There is something amiss in how this city was planned.” 

This feeling is confirmed as your plane lands and you take a taxi into the city. The rain which is so frequent in this country has started to pour and pretty soon the traffic has come to a standstill. The road has rapidly collected water and has rendered some vehicles immobile. It all becomes a chaos with hundreds of cars and commuters stranded on the road. More than ever you feel that there is something wrong with this city.

One does not need to be an expert on city planning to see the obvious. Manila is a city that is barely functioning. From the buildings that are crammed together, to the roads that remain constantly clogged with cars, to the innumerable houses that occupy every available space – everything seems to have been built at random. It is as if no one has thought about creating a plan for a liveable city.

In old postcards, it appears that Manila once followed a well thought-out blueprint of development. The hub was Quiapo. Escolta, Avenida, Binondo and Sta Cruz were the centres of trade and commerce, while the fringes were the residential areas. This blueprint was forgotten somewhere along the way and the city has since just improvised its manner of growth with no clear direction.

Commercial buildings sprouted left and right and people who flocked to the city built their dwellings anywhere they liked. This surge of people and over-development has taken its toll on the city’s infrastructure and services, most noticeably on the water system and the roads. The city has been put under more pressure than it can handle. 

Although density is one of the main causes of a dysfunctional Manila, we cannot blame the people alone for this urban crisis. It is very natural for people to seek places where they can find work and other services. Manila, which is the natural centre of most businesses, happens to be ‘the place’ right now. Currently Manila’s population is almost 12 million and this number keeps on growing every year. Individuals cannot change these pressures, but the government can certainly wield some influence on other key variables that indirectly affect densification.

It can make decisions on commercial and industrial developments which generate employment that attracts people. The responsibility now falls on the government change the present economic structure in ways that will reduce the number of people flocking to the city and redistribute Manila’s population around the regions. The government in collaboration with the Local Government Units or LGUs in the metropolis and nearby regions can  still do something to help Manila not only survive, but thrive.

This is what I have gathered from a forum on Metropolitan Planning in Victoria. Victoria is unlike Manila in many ways but its long-term plan of development can be applied to Manila. Victoria plans to cover the development of the City of Melbourne and maintain its sustainability fifty years ahead.

The strategy is to involve the city and the other regions in implementing this plan. Regional  infrastructure outside the metropolis will be further developed and housing and services will also be expanded. This will enhance the regions’ investment appeal. The plan aims to increase growth and development in other regions, while reducing that of the city.

In the Philippines, most physical and social infra-structure is concentrated in Manila. What our government should do right now is to shift development outside Manila. Firstly it should address the infrastructure needs of the nearby regions like Rizal, Cavite, Bataan, Laguna, Batangas and even Pampang. Accessibility and ease of transport is a major consideration of big businesses and industries. I’m sure the government had this in mind when it constructed the SCTEX and NLEX highways.

However, these initiatives are not enough. Community infrastructure should go hand in hand with this plan. Schools, hospitals, employment, housing and other community needs should be augmented in those areas to make them attractive to people. If there is viable transportation, community services, entertainment (such as malls), major universities and opportunities for employment, people will be enticed to relocate to these areas.

The challenge right now is for the government to push through with rebalancing growth and development in Manila and other regions. Good governance and political will is necessary. The same goes for the leaders of LGUs. They should all seriously take part in addressing this challenge.

The leaders of LGUs should not plan in isolation from each other. Makati, for example should not try to accommodate all investors in its central business district without considering the effect this will have on the cities surrounding it.

A commercial establishment will bring more income to Makati but it will further burden the surrounding cities with the housing and social services needs of workers.  

A decision made by one city has consequences for the other cities as well. Only collaborative and integrated, as well as sustained, effort among the government and LGUs will spell success for this kind of venture.