Learning from the past, moving towards the future

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ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

THE future of the Philippines is bright. The country was seen as one of the few bright spots for economic growth and investments in the past six years while the rest of the global economy was struggling with the American recession and European bailouts.

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In the latest report of the Urban Land Institute, titled “Emerging Trends in Real Estate for Asia Pacific 2017,” the Philippines ranks third in investment and fourth in development. The report reads:

“Today, the fundamentals appear as strong as ever. Demand is resilient, with many buildings pre-committed before completion. Vacancies remain low, and office capital values and rents continue to show good growth. Meanwhile, the logistics industry, traditionally a laggard in the Philippines, is also seeing accelerating demand based on increased consumer sales.”

The opportunities outside Metro Manila is limitless, and not limited to Metro Cebu and Metro Davao. Other up-and-coming megalopoli are Ilocos Sur, IlocosNorte, Pampanga, Zamboanga City, and Albay. In the next six years about P8 trillion will be poured by the government into infrastructure. And for the past decade, new central business districts have been emerging.

I have cautioned though that rapid growth with wrong development principles will hamper the progress of the country. The centricity of Metro Manila will reach a development boiling point in the next few years if lack of mass transportation, freight and truck transportation, rapid in-land migration, proper land use, and severe traffic congestion are not resolved.

The Metro Manila urban laboratory
Manila was designed to be the pride of the City Beautiful movement of the world. It was to become the Paris of Asia, while the rivers were imagined to become a better version of the Venetian canals of Italy, as they were wider and longer. Manila had a coastline and a cove, making it an ideal site for a pier. It had numerous tributaries and beautiful rivers such as the Pasig River, San Juan River, and Marikina River. It has a lake (Laguna) much larger than the island state of Singapore, with abundant fish and potable fresh water.

It had the vast plains of Quezon City which is ideal for commercial development and hilly San Juan (then a part of Rizal province) which was ideal for a suburban- type community. Nearby, it had access to the vast agricultural lands of both Bulacan and Pampanga. The mountains of Rizal, Antipolo, were less than an hour away for those wanting to escape the bustle of urban Manila.

Manila had it all. Fresh water, food security, natural ecological treasures, quite far from the dangers of volcanic eruptions, and a rich history left behind by our Malay ancestors, Spanish conquistadors, and a modified version of European democracy as instilled by the Americans.

Escolta was the place to be. It resembled New York in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the east of Escolta was the heritage town of the Parian, Binondo. In the south was the heritage site of the walled fortress of the Spanish conquistadors and the homes of the ilustrados.

Farther south, you will see Manila’s civic cluster at the Luneta. Today, you can still see the grandeur of the old Department of Finance building, and the old Legislative building. It is now known as Manila’s Museum cluster. The buildings were retrofitted to what we now know as the National Arts building and the National Museum.

Luneta Park resembled the Central Park of New York, but at its boundaries encouraged civic activities. At the center was the monument of our national hero, Jose Rizal. And to the west of the Luneta is the grand platform of the country’s presidents, the Quirino Grandstand.

But what happened to Manila?

The uglification of Manila
Decisions are made on the built environment by politicians, their favored contractors and some profit-centered developers. Good architecture and good urban planning are becoming of lesser importance in the urban development of our built environment.

After World War II, the reconstruction for Manila adopted the idea of a car-oriented city. Cities were relentlessly converting land-use zones without proper studies. Parks and open spaces were rapidly converted into high-density commercial areas while access roads and mass transportation were not improved. Sidewalks gave way to road widening, so boulevards filled with trees were removed.

In 1984, Metro Manila had one of the most modern Light Rail Transit systems. In 1975-1977, Metro Manila had the most comprehensive plan in the world– the Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project (MMETROPLAN). It was a World Bank-financed inter-agency project of the Philippine government led by the Planning and Project Development Office of the then Department of Public Works, Transportation, and Communication (DPWTC) and Freeman Fox Associates of London and Hong Kong. I was fortunate to be the senior planner and team leader for development planning of MMETROPLAN. Eight integrated LRT lines were planned to be accomplished in 15 years from 1977, along with a bus rapid transit, and cordon pricing in congested roads. As early as 38 years ago, urban mobility was already in check to accommodate the current population of Metro Manila. It also took into consideration that the megalopolis should prioritize pedestrians and masstransit over private vehicles.

With so much development and investment potential, this is the best time for an architectural and planning renaissance to happen in the Philippines. We should recall and learn from the mistakes of Metro Manila, and from there we adapt the global best practices for the developments that we are yet to build. I believe with strong political will, visionary leadership, good planning, good design, and good governance, the Philippines will be the top 16th economy of the world by 2021. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Philippines currently ranks as the 36th biggest economy in the world in terms of GDP.

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