Leadership, politics and urban planning

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When we finally see our political leaders riding the public transit, or walking on sidewalks and pedestrian pathways, then our country has progressed into the first world status. When we finally see our mayors wait in line to ride the train, like Mayor Bloomberg of New York or ride the bike like Mayor Peñalosa of Bogota, as a routine and not for show, then we can say that our cities are inclusive or built for all social classes. By then, our cities like Metro Manila will be more democratic, filled with people who have respect and genuine concern. By then, we will have a city that is built for people where one can walk and commute with dignity.

I had the opportunity to talk with the former mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley. He said leaders should be the exemplar and not the exempted. That thought struck me, and stayed with me ever since. Politicians doing small actions such as the routine of citizens can have a profound effect. I read a quote by Mayor Peñalosa saying, “public transportation represents democracy.” A society where public transportation is poor is a reflection of a fragmented society.

It is said that about 500,000 cars travel through EDSA every day. But I believe about a million cars travel the streets of Manila. Nationwide, that’s about 2 to 3 million. With a population of a hundred million, only 2 percent own cars. But why is it that roads for private vehicles are given more priority than the rest? As a matter of fact, all of us are pedestrians. That said why is it we give up our sidewalks for wider roads, parking, and vendors?

Maybe there’s a correlation between how our politicians live and the architecture of our government buildings with the fragmented state of our cities. Mayor Daley shared with me that citizens wanted Chicago to become a city that is sustainable, livable, walkable, bikeable, safe and convenient. They started with the government centers. Chicago’s government centers and politicians are the exemplars. All buildings apply green architecture and sustainable development principles, using solar panels, graywater harvesting, passive lighting, and energy efficient technology. Politicians were encouraged to commute.


When I recently visited Dubai, I found it was easy to walk. It was enjoyable. Here in our country, it is a nightmare.

I realized that a handful of our government buildings need to improve its architecture. Right outside the façade are an ocean of asphalt and a sea of cars – a huge parking lot. And once inside, the lighting is poor and shoddy repairs are visible all over. In Chicago and Dubai, the government buildings represent what the country stands for – a national identity.

I remember attending a seminar of the American Planning Association in Boston in 1998. Some speakers presented and stated, “If you have a large house in the city, you’re preventing more families to live closer to their work.” The idea was low-density housing should not have a place in or close to central business districts. Vertical communities are the proper development for CBDs, the centers of jobs, trade, commerce, and major activities. The average employee is priced out of the housing stock. The low-density, gated communities limit the scarce urban land supply and restrict access and mobility to and from the CBDs. This causes millions of people to travel in and out of the city. In developed nations, leaders live in apartments and condominiums in the urban areas, such as the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and British leaders in London. Their large homes and villas are located in the suburbs, outside the city. Here in Metro Manila I wonder where most of our politicians live?

Supposedly, politicians and government institutions represent the idea of our cities, the idea of our country. In a democratic society, the building should represent transparency, accountability, good governance, leadership, and innovation. It should inspire the citizens by being unique, identifiable, and memorable, creating a sense of place, pride of city, and pride of country. The politician on the other hand should be the image of a model citizen, a servant-leader.

In 1977, Sultan Khalifa Al Habtoor of Dubai came to Manila and invited me to join an international team of professionals. The goal was and is to help HH Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum transform Dubai from the third world into the first in 15 years. Back then, I hesitated. I barely knew what Dubai was until I came across the book Lands and People. In that book it cited Dubai having no paved roads as of 1965. Metro Manila back then I could say was a hundred years ahead of Dubai. Today, Metro Manila is probably a hundred years behind Dubai in infrastructure like airports, seaports, railways, roads, and urban services and amenities.

The design of the government centers of Dubai encouraged business, efficiency, innovation, and discouraged red tape and corruption.

The desks of those dealing with permits and approvals were low and had no drawers, and monitored with CCTV cameras. It is transparent and easily accessible. In their permit centers, permits are signed within the day or if not a week should there be oppositions. The Ruler said it is the business man’s money, land, reputation, and time that he puts on the line. That is why he knows his business more than anyone else. What is good for business is good for Dubai.

We all deserve a better government with visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance. Let us vote wisely, for God, Country, and Planet Earth.

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4 Comments

  1. Bravo Mr. Palafox..Excellent..GOD BLESS PHILIPPINES..Ang tanging makakagawa lang niyan ay may malasakit sa ating mamayan at inang bayan…Kundi si BBM at si MDS..

  2. I hope this column reach and read by our political leaders. I admire your desire to make our country, the Philippines, to be some day belongs to a first (1st) world country. But as long as our political leaders would not change their attitude and character from selfish to selfless, the Philippines will the more go down the drain. Correlated thereto, I am also wandering why we Filipinos, being a Christian dominated country and God fearing persons, have this kind of attitude na “kanya kanya.”