IN the recently concluded National Conference of the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners (PIEP), I spoke on the qualities, lessons, and in some, radical changes that some cities around the world have pushed forward to become the progressive cities they are today. In my long experience and exposure to different cities and countries, what I have come to observe is that they all contain five distinct qualities that propelled them into what they are today. Let me share with you these qualities and the cities that I think best exemplifies each one.
Visionary leadership: Dubai
I have written a column before on the visionary leadership of the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum. With not enough oil to capitalize on, Sheikh Rashid borrowed money and leveraged it at his future income on oil. When the Dubai oil boom happened, the city received 98 percent of its income from oil and only two percent on non-oil income. Today, Dubai is 95 percent reliant on tourism, trade, and commerce, and only five percent from oil.
Dubai used to have the highest carbon footprint per capita in the world. Now, every tall building built in Dubai, must be LEED-certified, or at least follow the principles of green architecture.
Strong political will: Singapore
Singapore is very fortunate to have a Lee Kuan Yew who had the political will to effect neccessary changes since the city had no valuable resources to capitalize on. Lee Kuan Yew got inspiration from Hong Kong and other progressive cities and focused on the green environment and landscaping that extended to the buildings (For example, planting and growing trees was tax deductible for the first five years). Today, Singapore has an increasing number of buildings with sky bridges. These are not just architectural statements and open spaces, but act as important emergency links when a building is on fire by moving from one building to another. Singapore is also a walkable city, where rich people walk and take public transit.
Good planning: London and New York
In 2013’s Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Congress in London, the theme was Height and Heritage, or how modern tall buildings can blend with heritage buildings in a city. I had a long conversation with the city planner of London, who said it was possible to build high-rises in London, provided that the visual corridor of the city’s heritage buildings and landmarks are respeccted. One example is the latest high-rise addition to the London skyline. The original design was bulky and squarish, so they were asked to go higher and take a more pyramidal shape to prevent blocking the views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Big Ben. They were also asked to provide the first two floors for public access, and the top floor for tourism via an observation deck.
Mayor Bloomberg and the mayor before him did a wonderful job with New York. He closed down Times Square and Broadway for the pedestrian, narrowed down traffic lanes, widened the sidewalks, and encouraged use of bicycles and tricycles.The city now has one of the lowest carbon footprint in the world, and one of the most disaster-prepared. Central Park, right in the middle of the business district, is considered New York’s ‘lungs.’ Great cities have big open spaces and developments with more open spaces have higher value.
London and New York are also walkable cities with well-planned transit-engaged developments that even its more affluent citizens prefer to use.
Good design: Boston
Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre chain of parks, make up half of the City of Boston’s parkland. All the connected parks of the Necklace can be walked, biked, and even ridden with a horse. When I was a student at Harvard Graduate School of Design, I learned that one of the studies shows Boston as one of the healthiest cities in the US because of the active lifestyle and walkable neighborhoods. Boston has less number of obesity and heart attacks, proof that you can design a healthy city by forcing people to walk through good urban planning, design, and policy.
Good governance: Curitiba
In 1974, Curitiba was very fortunate to have an architect-urban planner mayor, Jaime Lerner. With a city council mostly made up of architects, urban planners, and engineers, they were able to revolutionize Curitiba by pioneering a low-cost, low-impact approach to solving the city’s problems. From creating the world’s first bus rapid transit, building parks to reduce flooding, to completely pedestrianizing downtown Curitiba, Lerner is a testament on how an architect-urban planner can completely change a city for the better.
In 2014’s Global Cities Index and Emerging Cities Outlook, Manila is second, after Jakarta, as one of the emerging cities in the world most likely to progress. If we address the urban challenges we face in the metropolis today, Manila can be one of the top global cities in the world by 2021, when the Philippines will be 500 years old and Manila will be 450 years old. What lessons can we learn from the global best practices of the more progressive cities?