Emerging cities in the Philippines


LAST week, I had the chance to be a panelist on the topic “Philippine Emerging Cities” at the 5th APAC Real Estate Investment Summit. It is refreshing to know that many businesses and key players have started to look outside of Metro Manila, bringing new developments and opportunities to the rest of the Philippines.

In 2014’s Global Cities Index and Emerging Cities Outlook (A.T. Kearney), Manila ranks second, after Jakarta, as one of the emerging cities in the world to most likely progress. The report cited the improvement of Manila’s human capital indicators, like health care, as a major factor for its inclusion as an emerging city. The list identifies the top emerging cities by measuring human capital, business activity, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement.

In order for Metro Manila to gain momentum as a global player, it needs to be safer, smarter, livable, walkable, bikable, and better lighted. San Juan City, in the heart of Metro Manila, has updated its Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance using “smart city” concepts like hazard mapping, pedestrianization, transit-engaged developments, and zoning incentives.

It will also be beneficial for the rest of the Philippines if we develop urban growth centers outside of Metro Manila as counter magnets to the overcrowded megalopolis.

What makes an emerging city
For me, a city may be considered “emerging” if there is potential for job creation, a healthy workforce, and efficient land use; in addition to visionary leadership, political will, good planning, good design, and good governance. Gateway cities such as those with international airports and seaports also have an edge over others in terms of trade and tourism opportunities.

By these standards, I believe that the top emerging cities outside of Metro Manila are Puerto Princesa, Zamboanga, Clark, San Fernando (Pampanga), Laoag, Vigan, Legazpi, Balanga, Batangas, Lucena, and Iloilo. Davao and Cebu, on the other hand, already far exceed the pack. Although these two cities should be in the same cluster as Metro Manila, they should not copy its mistakes. The Davao and Cebu magalopoli should pursue better mobility through walkable and bikable streets with well-connected mass transport systems.

I see a lot of development potentials for Zamboanga City. Dubai, like Zamboanga is a port city. But unlike Dubai, Zamboanga is blessed with more natural resources. Zamboanga Peninsula plays a critical role in realizing the medium and long-term goals of Mindanao and BIMP-EAGA which is to become a major location in Asean for high-value-added agro-industry, natural resource-based manufacturing, and high-end tourism that will eventually shift towards ensuring socio-economic, physical development, and a southern gateway to and from the Philippines.

Laoag, on the other hand, can become the international gateway between the Philippines and the wealthier countries of North East Asia. Currently, the Laoag International Airport has direct flights to and from Guangzhou, China.

Learning from ‘instant’ cities of the world
As a young architect and urban planner in 1977, I was name-hired by the ruler of Dubai to join an international team of architects, planners, engineers, and other allied professions in the built environment. I was invited by Sultan Khalifa Al Habtoor of Dubai, under then Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Our goal was to help bring Dubai from the Third to the First World in less than 15 years. Not only was it an opportunity of a lifetime to practice my profession and build my career, but it also allowed me to travel once all over the world. The purpose of these travels was to learn lessons and best practices from different parts of the world and apply them to our plan for Dubai. That was also my first exposure to benchmarking.

While my contemporaries took inspiration mostly from grand European cities and countries, I studied as inspirations cities that became First-World caliber in less than 15 years, or ‘instant’ cities like San Francisco, Zurich, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These cities were able to transform from one resource to another. Zurich was able to move forward from chocolate and watch-making to becoming Europe’s leading international financial center. After the gold rush, San Francisco shifted from a mining town into a financial, tourism, and technology hub. I figured that Dubai couls also transform from an oil-dependent city to one that was driven by tourism, trade and commerce, real estate, health, and education.

What we can learn from these instant cities is that our cities should be in a continuous state of improvement. We should not be complacent with just one source of revenue. For instance, real estate and business process outsourcing may be booming today. But what are we doing now to ensure that we will have other sources of income in the event that these two industries slow down? We should be able to improve our competitiveness in tourism, agriculture, finance, education, and health care, among others.

Growth is inevitable, growth is necessary. In setting the framework for the development of our cities, we must focus on practices that are environmentally sound, economically vital, and that encourages livable communities—in other words, smart growth and new urbanism. Some of the best practices elsewhere in the world can be appropriately applied to address the country’s urban issues and challenges to make Philippines more livable and globally competitive.


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  1. Where are big cities like Cagayan De Oro and General Santos? Tagum should also be on the list.

  2. Iloilo is claiming to be the Queen City Of The South, a title which Cebu currently holds. Iloilo needs to stop dreaming. It must surpass Bacolod first before it can achieve its goal.

    • Moved by the Ilonggos’s loyalty [to Spain], the Queen Regent Maria Cristina honored the city of Iloilo (in the name of her son King Alfonso III) with the title Muy Noble. The Royal Decree granting the perpetual title Muy Noble was signed on 1 March 1898 by the Queen Regent.Over time, this title earned for Iloilo City the reputation of it being “The Queen’s Favored City in the South” or simply “Queen’s City in the South”

      Queen’s City in the South means the queen favored/liked city in the south
      Queen City in the South means emerging/leading city in the south (since it is leading why they did not use King rather than Queen)

      BTW, why Bacolod was not included? and that was according to expert architect Palafox.

    • Architect Jun Palafox’ statement is more credible than your opinion. You are living in the 70s. You need to get out more from your basement.

    • The reason why Arch. Palafox stated that Davao far exceed the pack is because it is years ahead in terms of Governance, Peace and Order, Social Services, Urban Planning and Emergency Response. It started its own 911 Emergency System thirteen years ago, complete with high resolution CCTV cameras installed in major intersections. Davao Police is the only Hall Of Famer among all the cities as the Best Police Office in the country. Contractors from Netherlands planned the drainage and flood control system. It is also the center of the BPO industry in Mindanao. It is an agricultural powerhouse and the fifth richest city the Philippines.

  3. Great work of inspiration? I realized that its beyond your interests to release full plans due to Palafox associates being a business but it would help to at least give some sneakpeak of your plans for these cities for them to become worthy of reaching the world stage. Mabuhay to you.