Philippine waterfronts: From back-door to front-door urban development

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ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

THE Philippines is rich with natural resources. We are the second largest archipelagic country, with not just 7,107 islands, but with around 500 more islands recently discovered. Whereas other countries would go to war for water frontage, the Philippines is blessed with having the third longest coastline in the world. Our country is also strategically located at the heart of Southeast Asia, which makes it a key location for trade with neighboring Asian countries.

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Filipino culture and history are also deeply rooted in water. After the Aetas’ arrival in our country through the land bridges, the sea water level rose, causing these land bridges to disappear. The next settlers to arrive in our country would be the sea-faring Malays. It was from them we derived the word “barangay,” which is used to refer to the basic unit of the Filipino community. Barangay came from the Malay word “balangay” meaning sailboat, which they used for constant travel.

When the early communities developed, the waterways, creeks and rivers became a means for us to trade with our neighbors, such as the Chinese, Arab, and Indians, among others. The Philippines was also a part of the Galleon Trade, making it a trade hub of Spain during their occupation.

The evolution of a city starts with its port
Great cities started as port cities, using waterways as means to trade and to discover new lands. And it was evident how crucial the water’s role was in shaping our history. Today, even with the airports taking the lead in transporting people and cargo to different countries, sea ports still play a huge part. And the failure to realize this soon has led our waterways to deteriorate and serve as back-of-the-house or basurahan to those living along the waterfront. Elsewhere in the world, waterfronts are prime real estate.

These waterfronts are important urban amenities: commercial areas, parks, intermodal transportation hub, among others. What other smart cities have successfully done, and what the Philippines is still struggling with, is reviving the waterways and developing the waterfronts, which are the front gate to development. Cities have started to integrate waterfronts into their development; building infrastructure, transportation terminals, leisure parks, commercial areas, and increasing their competitiveness.

Learning from Seoul, Korea, skyways do not necessarily promote growth. Skyways can temporarily ease the problems with traffic, but in the long run, they would just be elevated parking lots. Building skyways is like cheating on your diet by loosening your belt. Seoul has successfully revived a nearly dried creek into a place for people. The elevated highway covering the creek was demolished. The creek was rehabilitated and is now a famous tourist destination. This rehabilitation has kick-started sustainable development in Seoul, turning the city into one of the top smartest and greenest cities in the world.

When the Sheikh asked us to master-plan Dubai in the 1970s, it was mostly sand and a creek, with a short coastline. The Palm Islands was later created in order to add 2,000 kilometers to its coastline. Apart from this, Dubai has understood the importance of ports, emphasizing both sea port and airport development. Now, the Jebel Ali Port in Dubai is the largest seaport in the Middle East, with an expected handling capacity of 22.1 million 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) by 2018 after completing its expansion. The port serves as a connector to more than 140 ports globally, and earns millions of dollars annually.

Another best practice is from Venice. The Grand Canal of Venice has a stretch of only 3.5 kilometers, yet it serves as a major economic driver, transportation means, and cultural identity for Italy, while the Pasig River which stretches 25 kilometers long serves only as the backdoor of development. The people have learned how to cope with their situation and has used it instead as a unique experience for the tourists. Along its waterfronts are shopping areas, dining establishments and galleries.

Pedestrian linkage
Waterfronts are the people’s linkage to the water, hence they should not only be able to cater for ships, boats, and vessels, but should also promote pedestrian-friendly spaces. For the Pasig River, we proposed pedestrian bridges that are meant for walking and biking. Proper road designs must be considered as well to make it accessible even to PWDs. Apart from developing the walkways, there should be destination points as well to invite people to go further and explore.

Connecting the country
Developed waterfronts improve the accessibility of people to places. Moreover, with the rivers and creeks acting as thoroughfares, it would greatly ease the traffic experienced in Metro Manila daily. Before the Americans left, they planned six circumferential roads to interconnect Metro Manila, but today, we haven’t seen the light of C-6.Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture made an update to the plan by proposing up to 10 circumferential roads. C-10 will connect Central Luzon to Calabarzon. We even proposed to connect the whole country through bridges, railways and tunnels.

It is high time Filipinos understand the importance of developing waterfronts, and start revitalizing dead waterways into an active water transport system. Especially in this country, with 36,289 kilometers of coastline, this would surely propel the Philippine economy, making it one globally competitive in waterfront development.

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2 Comments

  1. I was ready to commend you on your column with your view of urban development incorporating seaways and waterfronts when you mentioned your firm as you have done almost all the time in your column. Furthermore you have to mention projects you have been involved elsewhere, mostly out of the Philippines. Would it be possible to write about a project you have done locally that created a positive impact on housing, socio economic issues, and most especially that resulted in less traffic congestion?
    Otherwise, we all hear them all the time in the classrooms, seminars, political rallies, etc. and it is about time to write something else, maybe about the death penalty!