Metropolitan Cebu is one of the cities that can bring our country well into the 21st century. It has the opportunity to transform and adopt the best practices that we can learn around the world in terms of planning, land use, and mobility. It is also in a position to learn from the mistakes of Metro Manila and make sure not to repeat it. Metropolitan Cebu has the capacity to surpass the national capital region, in terms of economic output, livability, sustainability and resiliency, if as early as now it realizes the importance of good architecture, good urban planning, as well as comprehensive land use plan, transportation/mobility plan, tourism plan, disaster preparedness plan, security by design, and urban design.
Metropolitan Cebu is not like Metro Manila. I do have to caution that some areas of Cebu are slowly mirroring the traffic mess of Metro Manila, especially in major arterial roads and major activity centers like the Cebu Business Park and other central business districts.
Metro Manila, despite having an average national economic share of 34 percent of the national income, major activity centers and nearby regions are experiencing critical planning, resiliency, and sustainability problems. Incidence of social gentrification, social inequity, and environmental degradation are high, as well as the uneven quality of education and health care in adjacent provinces. Slowly, cities in Visayas and Mindanao are repeating the mistakes of Metro Manila, and this is something that we need to prevent through immediate action, short-, medium-, and long-term planning.
So let us plan Cebu and the other cities and regions of our country that are worthy of human dignity across present and future generations.
Toward a Cebu megalopolis
The land area of the region of Cebu is four times the size of Hong Kong, or six times the size of Singapore. The area for development is vast, and if we plan the city like Hong Kong and Singapore, the province can comfortably accommodate 30 million people, while preserving heritage, ecological sites and the natural environment.
Development should not end in Metropolitan Cebu. Urban growth centers should be established in the North (e.g. Bogo City) and South, so that these emerging urban growth centers will act as counter-magnets and balance urban development. Quality education, quality healthcare, good infrastructure and job opportunities should be accessible throughout the region. Development should spread out evenly like butter on a piece of bread.
The birth of the megalopolis begins by establishing the North and the South urban growth centers. One of the main problems of Metro Manila is that it encourages rapid in-land migration and wide disparity in education, health, and job opportunities.
There is also a need to act on the mobility challenges of Cebu. Major roads and access roads along commercial districts are becoming congested with too many vehicles. According to one of my professors in Harvard, businessmen and government should realize how walking, biking, and public transit impact society positively. First, it means less people will own an automobile. Next, you have more people walking and passing by parks and commercial districts. Foot traffic is good for retail and commercial developments. Also, walking and biking help create fit communities.
Alleviating the traffic problem in Metropolitan Cebu
Traffic on the other hand is not simply an issue of mobility, but it is an issue of holistic and integrated planning. Having more roads will never be the solution because the demand for cars will always be more than the supply of roads. That is why mass transport and pedestrian-oriented transport plans are the preference of the first world nations and cities around the world. New York and Tokyo invested in multi-LRT systems and subways, and South Korea and Singapore invested in the massive use of Bus Rapid Transits.
If we compare the city to a human body, the heart is downtown, the central business districts. The roads and the waterways are the arteries, and the lungs are the open spaces of the city. What’s been happening is that we’ve been selling the open spaces of our city and we don’t complain. And road arteries are clogged despite tremendous pressure of traffic. What do our cities need now? A heart transplant, and a heart bypass.
Planning for future generations
After the earthquake in Kathmandu Nepal, Tzu Chi Foundation asked us to help build a hospital and three schools. Master Cheng Yen wants us to design buildings that can last a thousand years. That’s a total of 40 generations. Here in our country, we seem to plan only for three to six years.
Like buildings, planning of the city should be cross-generational, not co-terminus like elected government officials. Projects and plans should not change every three years or six years; they should progress and develop in many years to come. Continuity and sustainability of the cities are important.
When I was in Harvard, professors and colleagues would tell me to write a book on “Metro Manila: How not to do it.” Another one would be “From Greed to Gridlock.” I believe that the Cebu Island Megalopolis, with three metropolitan areas, can do much better than Metro Manila.