I understand a Baguio Land Use Summit took place yesterday at the Convention Center of the city. There could be no more vital topic to discuss at this stage of its urban decay. But let us be positive and think of what can be done rather than lament the past.
First, Baguio indeed needs to rationalize its land use. Zoning rules should be in place and implemented with the understanding that there must be a balance between residency requirements and commercial enterprises. Baguio has many retirees as well as the day-to-day residents who work, study and take part in the city’s on-going activities. And let us not forget the tourists who still make Baguio a destination. One area of concern is the school neighborhoods. Students need dormitories, open spaces in their schools and hospitable places to study. As it is they are mostly crowded in substandard housing if they live in dormitories. This is an area where the educational institutions and the city authorities should get together to raise the standards of student living even if they pay modest rentals. If commercial entrepreneurs are gouging the students, then the schools and the city must see to it that they offer fair prices and decent housing. In other words, land use for students and residents must maintain standards that are acceptable and beneficial.
Commercial enterprises should be confined to a business center or within permitted zones. Activities that cause noise, pollution or heavy use of streets should not be allowed in residential areas. As it is, junkyards and car repair shops are in residential areas. These are dangerous and unsightly, specially near residences. Likewise, a proliferation of shanty stores in park and tourist areas must be controlled and upgraded. Land use must be beneficial, attractive and most of all, rational. Mines View Park is a park that has disappeared in a sea of too many stores. That is irrational.
Open spaces, parks and islands on roads should be respected and left as such. Open spaces such as islands on streets should be allowed their greenery rather than inflicting unsightly and oversized commercial signs on them. Parks should be allowed to keep their natural setting undisturbed. In other words, Nature must be ascendant in them as in grass and trees rather than cement and a proliferation of stores. Note the Baguio Botanical Garden, Wright Park and Burnham Park and see how Nature is treated and how they are populated by too many stores.
Open spaces are essential in a mountain city or any city for that matter. As it is every open space is liable to be claimed. Even watersheds have private owners. The Indigenous Peoples Law should not be abused. There is a charge that the Busol watershed has given titles to people from Besao, Mountain Province who claim it is their ancestral land. Many open spaces no matter how small have been claimed as ancestral land and titled. One example is a sloping lot at one end of Casa Vallejo which was planted to gumamelas and was a playground for us when we were growing up. It was public land but now it has been privatized with a title. It started as someone selling plants, then expanded to a carinderia and now there is a multi-storied structure that is used as a hotel. No parking area for the activities going there.
No more open space and damn the gumamelas. And it is for sale. It seems to be the intent of claimants of ancestral land to sell which may be against the law that awarded them the property.
What Baguio needs is a Master Plan followed by a Land Use Plan that respects the Master Plan. For this the city needs to engage respected and experienced professional entities who can figure out what to do. Politics will have to take a backseat here.
Baguio is for all its stakeholders from the original indigenous people, the pioneers that developed it, the government that shepherded it as a tourist destination, residents, students, professionals and tourists too, lest we forget. Included here as well are its traditional institutions like the Philippine Military Academy, the hospitals, government structures and now the schools. Keep in mind that these as well as Baguio’s tourist facilities and accomodations must be given leeway to be attractive and not hemmed in by counterproductive conditions.
In time the City Charter may need to be modernized. But first there must be a vision of how Baguio should continue, what are the acceptable limits of development, how to provide adequate basic services from housing to education. Land has become a pivotal issue. Is there a benefit to sell what is alienable and disposable in this time of overcrowding and pressure on the natural environment? Is the same kind of development of the past still to be encouraged in the present circumstances?
Baguio also needs to dialogue with its neighbors, the towns that surround it, to get some kind of cooperative activity about their spaces going on that will be of mutual benefit. Maybe they can host the developments that Baguio has no more space or can benefit from. And foremost, it must consult its stakeholders, the ordinary residents, the institutions, the business community to make land use rationalization a community effort.
The holding of the Land Use Summit in Baguio is a positive move but to be permanently positive, solutions to the land use problems there must be thought out and implemented with the expertise of those who can help. Thinking out of the box can help as well as a restraint on political considerations that involve selfish interests rather than the public good.