Manila, a story of missed opportunities over the years


THE recently concluded MAYNILA Urban Design Week + Festival, which started last May 9, got me into reflecting about Manila and how its story progressed over the years. Part of our participation in the Festival is opening our doors to urban enthusiasts last May 14 and presenting to them our vision plan for the Philippines. We also participated in an exhibit in the historic Maestranza Plaza in Intramuros, showcasing many of our proposed designs for urban renewal within Metro Manila.

A brief story of Manila
Through the centuries way before the Japanese, American, Dutch and Spanish arrival, then Philippine islands were already a melting pot of culture. The geography of Manila, as Nick Joaquin has described it, is a land filled with rivers and esteros, which were like the Italian canals. The Filipinos then. led by the famous ruler of Manila Rajah Sulayman, used the river passages as speedy transport to get to areas such as Pampanga.

The Malay lineage of the rajah arrived in the Philippine islands as big families voyaging in a mother boat called the balangay, hence the uniquely Filipino term ‘barangay’. They settled and dwelled along river banks as now they are aptly referred to ‘Taga-ilogs’ or ‘tagalogs’. Back then the Pasig River must have been a sight to see as it was brimming and filled with cultural exchange and trade with the Chinese, Arabs, nearby south-east Asian neighbors and localize island to island trade. Regional trade routes and growth regions were already in the minds of ancient civilization peoples.

When Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived in Manila with the Spanish Armada, they were met with canons made by our very own Paday Pira. But the Spanish Armada overwhelmed the forces of the rajas of Manila, and soon established intramuros, ‘within the walls’, a walled city and fortress, which very much resembles a concept of what an exclusive subdivision is, exclusive and for the privileged. Three hundred years later the Americans arrived and established a neoclassical city in Manila designed by the late Daniel Burnham.

Missed opportunities
It is exhilarating to share the story of the ancient city of Manila as it was filled with journey and neighborhood romances of princes and daughters of rajas intermarrying with other tribes, and even with Spaniards. But aside from reminiscing of what we used to have, it is important that we describe Manila as we observe her today. In a brief description, like the love and romance between Romeo and Juliet, Manila today is a romantic disaster. It is boisterous, exciting, alive and filled with danger. With our current transit system, our citizens have never been more intimate.

Remnants of Eastern and Western tradition remain at the heart of the metropolis. Still family-oriented from our Malayan heritage, pre-dominantly Catholic and observing fiestas that were influenced by the Spaniards, but the way we built our modern city thrives in the post-war American car-oriented city design while integrating streets bearing Hispanic scale for horses.

Every year we are adding 30,000-60,000 cars to the streets. Although we keep on expanding and building new roads there will always be a necessity to build a new road until there will be no room for more, and currently, we are robbing the expansion of our sidewalks. By adding more roads, we only attract more cars.

In another thought, like the ancient tradition we also thrived along the river. But I think we took civilization along the river banks too literally that our houses and building are already on top of it as we filled the bottom with cement and steel. It seems nature has a long unforgiving memory, and water still persists to flow in the direction that it got used to. Nature can’t seem to move on, and we are experiencing her bitterness.

It is heart-warming and romantic that we have many stories to write about our tragedies such as the Ondoy experience, our daily commuting journey filled with intimacy and thieves, our poverty and rags to riches stories, and even our what-if earthquake scenario. Manila in the eyes of the world had become the icon of resiliency or tragedy. We have been known for our feats in Miss Universe, Miss World, and Miss International, among others. Should we not take action toward building a safer, smarter, and more sustainable city, we could also be known for “Missed Opportunities.”

Everyday many Filipinos put their lives on the line because the urban planning and design recommendations and best practices put forward in the Burnham Plan 1905 and the MMETROPLAN 1977 have not been implemented. I am also updating the Manila Megalopolis concept plan I prepared and submitted at the Harvard School of Graduate Design in 2003. Many of the recommendations I have already shared with the government and various groups through presentations and interviews. Our fellow Filipinos deserve more than just reactionary measures. More than ever, we need visionary leadership, political will, good planning, good design, and good governance.


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  1. Thank you Mr Palafox for sharing with us a part of our History that we may understand why we we have missed opportunities over the years. I hope and pray that your good proposals in Urban Planning be given credence and come to reality. Your patience and unwavering support for the greatness of people is always in your heart. And I feel that in your Column i often read. It was rightful to have said Nature can’t seem to move on, and we are experiencing her bitterness.

  2. Paddy Padilla on

    Very good observation. Needs to limit cars, taxis, and trash old jeepneys and buses in urban areas.
    As to walkways, the Malolos-Tutuban elevated rail should leave the lane below for bike or walkway lanes. Law should be tough and applied with vigor otherwise Manila will regress to obsolescence.

  3. The philippines doesn’t have architects, urban planners, or a culture of thinking beyond their next meal, or bribe.

    Visions are all well and good but end up in the wastebin.

    There needs to be a champion in government and a concerted effort to think outside the box.

    Burnham was a brilliant architect, but the american is long dead. Maybe we need a serious international taskforce/competition to move us forward, and accept that all we do is talk, but achieve nothing.