Philippines 2015
Glimpses of the Future
The City

Blueprint for a city’s soul

Metro Manila has a weak identity and its citizens feel little attachment to it. But the soullessness of the city is not fated. The future of the city of our dreams is in our hands and that of enlightened local governments and urban planners.

Metro Manila circa 2005 is a sprawling, congested and anarchic megacity without a soul. [photos courtesy of Paulo Alcazaren]

AT TIMES, when the breeze is just so, the sun is shining, and peals of children’s laughter ring out, Luneta’s grand past can still be glimpsed, leaving no one to doubt that for 19th-century Manila, it was the prime leisure amenity. The American planner Daniel Burnham laid out a grand civic district in Manila, like Washington D.C.’s. Burnham’s grand plan was never fully implemented. Only a few of the planned civic structures were built. After the war, plans were revised to move the capital to Quezon City. Luneta became a cogon-filled no-man’s land eventually turning into the city’s Central Park.

In the last two decades, Luneta has lost its original luster. Malls and fast-food joints have replaced it as city folk’s weekend destination of choice, despite efforts to include both features on the grounds. The park is now populated with strange statues, like the 40-foot Lapu Lapu where the 1960’s globe fountain used to be — kitsch replaced by folly. Extensions to the seaside section — their threats to mar the views of the bay thwarted by the project’s suspension for lack of funds — are an eyesore. Most of the park’s daily users are Manilans but their own local government does not manage this prime city amenity since it is under the National Parks Development Committee. It does function as a national civic space for Independence Day and presidential inaugurations but, without key national government buildings, the place is without a soul.

This is also true of Metro Manila, whose soullessness is one of the main reasons the metropolis has a weak identity and why its citizens feel little attachment to it. Metro Manila is a national capital without a clearly defined physical center. Unlike Washington D.C., Canberra, or New Delhi, Metro Manila’s major civic structures are scattered around the metropolis. The Congress is in Novaliches, the Senate in Pasay, the Supreme Court on Padre Faura, and Malacañan is by the Pasig. The present administration’s plans to decentralize its functions, like the move of the Department of Tourism (DOT) to Cebu, further fragments the national government’s already inefficient physical infrastructure.

But before there was Metro Manila, there was, of course, Manila, whose urban history predates Burnham and goes back over 400 years to when the Spaniards used urbanization as a tool for control. Intramuros de Manila was the prime example, creating a template for all Philippine towns and cities. Pursued even by the Americans, this hegemony is continued today by the local elite. Thus, Manila’s ups and downs reflect the instability of empires that placed it only at the fringe of their attentions, and, later, the vagaries of postcolonial, Third-World development. Manila, in other words, has always been a work in progress, with master plans continually being abandoned as regimes changed. This is why the city has always looked haphazard and why its future has always been in question.

Sure, there’s been growth-in area, population, and urban problems. The arrabales around it evolved to new towns and eventually a “greater” Manila that would become today’s maddening Metropolitan Manila. Future change seems destined to go from bad to worse. By 2015, can a city already so fractured in its governance, infrastructure and identity, possibly sink lower in the mess its citizens are now mired in? Can traffic, crime, floods, lack of jobs, a dearth of open space, and the loss of heritage get any direr? Can air, water, noise and visual pollution overwhelm Manilans any more than these four elements of urban blight already do?

Sadly, yes and yes. It’s the reality of runaway urban population fueling sprawl and speculation-driven, environment-unfriendly, culturally vacuous “real-estate development.” For the 11 million currently living in Metro Manila, the more compelling question may be, how far worse can it get?

There are several answers to that. Fortunately, among the possible replies is that it need not get any worse because there are a few things that can still be done to avoid what seems inevitable for a dystopic city.

Postwar Manila still had traces of the genteel city Daniel Burnham had envisioned in the early 1900s.

BUT LET’S start from the beginning: Intramuros, the site of the original settlement of Maynilad, has a past long forgotten but for what remains of its walls and churches destroyed in the war. Restoration attempts began in the 1960s, but contemporary interventions have succeeded only in Disneyfying sections as marketing gimmicks to attract tourists. Initially, the Intramuros Administration did a good job. But today, its goals are lost in get-rich-quick schemes that compromise the district’s heritage structures and management. There are now more informal settlers residing within than when 1960s Mayor Antonio ‘Yeba’ Villegas rudely tossed them out. Today Intramuros has lost most of its appeal and relevance to the lives of most Manilans, “wowing” few but the kitsch-inclined.

Unless complementary programs fit within larger plans for Manila’s revival, the Walled City will find itself more and more colonized by squatters, fast-food stalls, and a booming student population. Being independent of the Manila City government, the district also suffers from an administrative detachment leading spotty public services. Residents within the walls, formal or otherwise, lack a clear connection to the larger community. The rebuilt walls, in effect, isolate Intramuros from the rest of the city, just as they did in the first three centuries of its existence.

Reconnection is the key to its revival. This should start at the administrative level. Intramuros was Manila and to separate it physically, administratively, and socially creates a cultural vacuum that explains some of the city’s emotional emptiness. The changes should follow quickly at the physical level of urban design. Reunited Germany’s Berlin has undergone a modern renaissance, due to an enlightened program of redevelopment taking into account the original fabric of its historic core without limiting creative architectural solutions. The world’s greatest architects contributed to Berlin’s innovative “infill” projects. These replaced lost housing, office stock, as well as allowed new structures, helping central Berlin connect itself with its greater metropolitan area.

The same can be done with Intramuros. Reconnect it by mass transit or sensible traffic rerouting. Relax the stringent “historical” constraints to architecture (tropical modernist buildings can be respectful of older structures as well as to the conserved street layout as in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong). Make sure a mix of uses balances the mainly warehouse and educational functions that Intramuros now accommodates. Finally, re-populating its interior with formal residents in affordable housing, resulting in an interesting resident mix, will counter the temptation to “gentrify” the district. It is this mix that will ensure the place is alive after hours and supports the activity that will also bring in the tourists.

WITH A revived historic core, Manila can then begin redeveloping surrounding districts of the Port Area, Rizal Park, and Arroceros. Like Intramuros, the port and Luneta are independent of the city, which used to have them integral to its character and function. Again, it would seem rational to reintegrate these two districts with Manila. The functions of these three, in any case, need to be reframed in the light of their original roles (in the case of the park and City Hall areas), and changing uses of harbor fronts in modern cities worldwide.

Green spaces like these are a rarity in a cityscape of traffic, malls and slums.

Waterfront districts in central cities around the globe have moved outside metropolitan areas where they are physically closer to manufacturing plants, with ample space for expansion. Manila’s harbor was close to the industrial zones only until World War II. Today almost all manufacturing is done in industrial “parks” in provinces around Metro Manila, yet we resist moving the port functions to Batangas and Subic. And because of the disappearance of our rail-based freight system, thousands of container trucks course through Metro Manila’s streets daily, wearing out thin asphalt and adding to the already unbearable traffic.

With the ports moved, the waterfront area can be redeveloped as a mixed-use district linked to a revived Intramuros. After all, the leases on most of the warehouses in the South Harbor have run out or are close to expiring. The district would be a prime location for additional hotels (Manila has only one-fifth the number of hotels in Bangkok and Hong Kong). Condominium and office towers can also be built above the commercial podiums with pedestrian-friendly streets below. The original Pier 7 (now Pier 13) can be revived as a world-class cruise ship terminal bringing boatloads of tourists straight to hotels and the heart of Manila. The North Harbor may take longer to convert but w should eventually do so. New York’s South Sea Port, Boston’s and Baltimore’s harbors, and San Francisco’s pier district are good models. All successfully bring in investment and add value to citizens’ lives with access to housing, water-based leisure, and related amenities.

Next door, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission is turning the river into the vibrant waterway it used to be. But its pace is slowed by problems: 30,000 squatters on its banks, the protracted battle to move the fuel depots, and the presence of Malacañan Palace, which imposes restrictive security measures on boat traffic. Like Sydney’s Darling Harbor, Manila should coordinate all development along the water’s edge with a single authority, making sure the physical infrastructure as well as business, events and marketing strategies are tackled with the same goals in mind — that of turning the waterfront into prime housing, commercial, and leisure districts made unique by its proximity to the bay and river.

Weary Manila residents take a breather in the redeveloped baywalk.

IN THE meantime, if the political will to find a physical center for the government can be mustered, then several previous proposals can be considered. The Batasan complex district had been planned since the 1950s as the National Government Center or NGC, but it is now ringed with dense housing subdivisions and even denser informal settlements. Another option, Fort Bonifacio, is also ringed with housing and too proximate to military barracks from which coup attempts can be launched. This leaves us with the CCP complex and the adjacent reclaimed area, which is already the site of several government institutions. A proposal in the early 1970s had laid out the area as the NGC, with Malacañan transferred to a feng shui-friendlier location. A loop LRT line could connect the entire complex and the other new districts in the reclamation area with the existing line and the rest of the metropolis.

An NGC here would bring the capital close to its historic site, provide ample open space for parades and celebrations, and reintegrate culture and the arts-physically, if not ideologically-with our government. A consolidated NGC would also save the government billions in rent, increase communication efficiency between its branches, and offer easier accessibility for citizens. The NGC would also provide a symbolic center of democratic power, and create an appropriate central place where that power can be demonstrated by people. (Grimy EDSA as a favorite rally venue reflects this severe lack of civic space.)

With the NGC at the CCP, the Luneta would be the ideal place for Manila’s new City Hall-where Burnham’s planned imperial capital was to stand. The old city hall could be used as an annex, the Mehan Gardens and the Metropolitan Theater resuscitated, the Post Office turned into a boutique hotel (as was done in Singapore), and the Arroceros Forest Park incorporated into a larger park system tied to the Pasig River linear parks (some sections of which are already built).

With a new NGC, a relocated and revived City Hall complex, a resurrected Intramuros and vibrant waterfront, the rest of the original arrabales of Manila-Tondo, Binondo, Santa Cruz, Quiapo, San Miguel, Sampaloc, Santa Ana, Paco, Ermita, and Malate could follow suit.

Key to the revivification of urban life and the economy of many of these districts is heritage conservation. All these districts have historic buildings, plazas, and monuments showing the many layers of the city’s past. In progressive cities abroad, zoning, floor area ratios, and building control allow metropolitan governments to set building types, uses, number of floors, façade treatments, parking, access, safety features, signage and billboards, landscape treatments and sidewalk design. This control gives the metropolitan authority leverage in “guiding” real-estate developers. This can be used with the concept of development transfer rights where such companies earn “development credits” for restoring heritage structures, conserving visual access to points of interest or providing public parks and plazas.

PEDESTRIANIZATION as another approach to urban renewal is now being seen in the “walks” and “streetscapes” of Roxas Boulevard, Eastwood, Makati, Morato, and Avenida Rizal. This trend began in the West in the 1960s and was picked up decades later by Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and Shanghai. Now it is allowing Metro Manilans, having been without real sidewalks for over half a century, to rediscover the joys of walking. But wider availment of this pleasure isn’t possible because of street vending and the usurpation of sidewalks for myriad other uses like parking, barangay halls, religious grottos, and even karaoke parlors. The problem then is not the lack of sidewalks but a lack of space for all these other functions the city needs-more markets, parking structures, community centers, leisure facilities-and yes, even public toilets.

Avenida Rizal used to smell of piss, but it has become a pedestrian paradise.

Avenida Rizal is on the right path. It used to smell of piss and harbor hundreds of kariton people. Today, it has become a pedestrian paradise. The old movie facades have been cleaned, heritage buildings spruced up, and stores are doing brisker business.

But downtown Manila needs a lot more than just a street makeover. The University Belt, which occupies much of downtown and its periphery, present a peculiar situation: 300,000 students in over 60 tertiary institutions within shouting distance of each other. This part of Manila is a city unto itself. The U-Belt has engendered a single-use district with a monoculture of college students. Many live in rat-hole dorms regulated only marginally by the city. Almost all establishments cater to this single demographic, leading to a proliferation of fast-food joints, cell-phone shops, Internet cafes, and instant-thesis centers. Students spend years in this district with little interaction with the world outside and come out ill-equipped to relate to the larger community.

In a more balanced country or large region, tertiary institutions are located as part of a hierarchy of educational institutions from primary to secondary to adult-education community colleges. This also ensures that cities can accommodate these institutions within planned infrastructure to prevent traffic buildup and the dense clustering of services to cater to a single type of customer.

Our cycle of clustering educational facilities began with Intramuros. Before the Second World War, the walled city was filling up with too many schools, such that some, like the Ateneo, moved out. After the war, schools moved even farther, to Diliman, Caloocan, and San Juan following the several waves of residential flight from the central city.

Successive rings of housing development called “subdivisions” have radiated from the Manila since the early 20th century. Before the war, it was to immediate suburbs like San Juan, Pasay, Kaloocan, and the Mandaluyong estate. In the 1950s, the second wave expanded to Quezon City and Makati in gated “villages” like Forbes and Philamlife Homes and public housing “Projects” numbered one to seven. In the 1960s, subdivisions popped up along Highway 54 (today’s EDSA) in places like Greenhills, White Plains, and Blue Ridge. The 1970s pushed the boundaries outwards to Parañaque, Las Piñas, Alabang, the Antipolo hills, and Novaliches. In the last 20 years urban sprawl has extended to what is termed “exurbia.” Green fields in Bulacan, Pampanga, Rizal, Quezon, Cavite, Laguna, and Batangas are turned into gated communities, housing a huge chunk of the NCR population of about 15 million.

Manila in the prewar period had broad, tree-lined avenues and a well-defined center.

THIS URBAN sprawl, now the definitive physical characteristic of the metropolis and the NCR, is sustained by dependence on car-based transportation. Only now has the central core and the fourth ring road (EDSA) been linked by rail-based mass transport. In other countries, mass transit parallels road development and transport planning dovetails with larger comprehensive land-use planning. Here, the infrastructure to support the sprawl has always lagged behind. Unscrupulous developers sell house-and-lot packages in remote subdivisions with only a country road connecting pseudo-Mediterranean housing to already clogged highways. This sprawl is an unstoppable virus fed by the need for millions of housing units. Yet supply will never be sufficient because population increase cannot be reined in.

To put it in perspective, the Philippines has to build five times as much housing as the Singapore government has in the last 25 years — tomorrow, just to catch up with demand. It doesn’t help that low-density, single-detached housing is the mantra of a market raised to understand property as only that which stands on solid earth.

Urban sprawl has generated alternative physical constructs in satellite central business districts or CBDs and mixed-use complexes. The homogeneous horizontal sprawl outward from EDSA is now punctuated with islands of towers and big-box malls. Makati was the original alternative CBD to Binondo. Now clones have spread along EDSA, in Rockwell, Ortigas, Cubao, Eastwood, and out in Alabang. These are what Joel Garreau calls “edge cities,” pocket urban developments that spontaneously appear wherever low land prices, highway access, and proximity of a large residential population exist.

This ad-hoc development further upsets the original circumferential and radial systems of roads and highways. Trips are not generated in simple house-to-work scenarios, in and out of central cores. Transport vectors point everywhere, making franchise allocation and road carrying capacities a nightmare to project. Road widening will not alleviate the problem: the Braess paradox states that no matter how much road you build, it will always get filled up. Unless we make a radical switch to rail systems (which operate under capacity because of jeepney and bus lobbies), traffic will always be a mess.

Ultimately, it’s a question of size. How big can Metro Manila get? Already it is so huge and homogeneous that the silliness of keeping governance separate in 17 jurisdictions is obvious to all but politicians. The sense of place and community for people nowadays is not determined by abstract political boundaries. These are rarely in synch with physical boundaries of thousands of settlements, gated villages and subdivisions, all with their own associations, de facto governments that take care of basic services the real authorities cannot deliver.

A HUNDRED years after the 1905 Burnham plan for Manila, the nation’s capital has a population 15 times the 800,000 souls he projected as ideal for the city. In 2015, close to 25 million will live within the influence of Metro Manila. Coordinated physical planning is a necessity for survival but such planning needs the teeth of regional-sized and wide-scoped governance. Metropolitan Manila is the only large urban central city in Asia not managed by a strong metropolitan authority.

Urban sprawl is the definitive physical characteristic of Metro manila, but the city of the future can be a kinder, cleaner and safer place.

Containing urbanization is half the battle. The other is retooling the city to accommodate the naturally increasing internal population. This means high-density, high-rise housing must be accepted as the main paradigm, much like Hong Kong and Tokyo. This also means adapting concepts like co-location of facilities — parks that double as school playfields, police and civil services in parking garages and underneath infrastructure. Ditto with drastic interventions like reboulevardization — bringing back service lanes, and trees to tame dangerous high-speed traffic in certain sections of the metropolis and to make districts friendly to ground-level business and social life.

Needed too are creative solutions to site-specific situations in the metropolis such as what to do with large government estates now ringed by urban density-the Quezon and Mental Institutes, the University of the Philippines, the military camps, the QC triangle, even the NAIA, the only international airport in all world cities located within metropolitan limits). Also required is rational solid waste, wastewater, and infrastructure maintenance program that is not just post-disaster in nature.

The metropolis has to be more compact and efficient in housing its population. New housing estates can be built, for example, as towers attached to the malls that ring EDSA. Metro Manila has to provide easy access to work, leisure, and recreational spaces and balance the disadvantages of dense life with enough open green space in the form of proper parks. The concept of eminent domain should be used to consolidate enough land for these public parks; Burnham’s allocation of four large city parks — each about half the size of Central Park in New York — should be resurrected.

As the Germans say, Stadluft mach frei (City air makes you free)! At least it should, because urban life is supposed to offer a cornucopia of opportunities. Metro Manila in 2015 is full of possibilities-the air itself could be cleaner if we switched to natural gas for fuel, finally banned all jeepneys and tricyles, and took to buses and trains. Travel time should be monitored as a gauge of efficiency metrowide to ensure nothing is more than 40 minutes away. Housing would be available for all in estates that have schools, health care, and shops nearby. The cityscape would be greener with more open space, compulsory street tree planting, and strict billboard control. Culture and the arts would come back within conserved heritage buildings or centers located within a given size of community or district (as malls are). Access within these districts would be provided by actual sidewalks. There would be proper pedestrian crossings and bridges, adequate lighting at night, and no floods, piles of uncollected garbage or cell-phone snatchers to worry about.

All these are possible. But only if we seriously question the way we’ve built our cities, only if we realize that any change must be effected at a coordinated metropolitan scale and, finally, only if we strive to redefine our urbanity with an appreciation of Manila’s past, an understanding of the complexity of its present needs, and a clear vision of the quality of life we want for our children.

Paulo Alcazaren teaches architecture and landscape architecture at the University of the Philippines, writes a popular column for the Philippine Star, edits a design magazine, and is currently working on three books on architecture and urbanism.