Planning and designing the public realm

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ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

ARCHITECTURE and planning affect behavior, most especially how people carry out everyday tasks. The way streets, communities and cities are planned and designed affect our daily lives and our health. For instance, many of our streets are designed for cars and “stop anywhere” buses, jeepneys and tricycles. On top of that, we barely have any shaded walkways. Many are even used as parking spaces and location of stalls by street vendors. Those are the reasons why Filipinos walk an average of 400 meters only.

When we prioritize vehicles over people, the public realm could feel very limiting. Streets and other public spaces, like parks and community centers, must be designed on a human scale. With a population of a hundred million, only around 5-10 percent own cars. Given that all of us are pedestrians once we step out of our vehicles, why do we then give up our sidewalks for wider roads, parking, and vendors? Even stop lights prioritize moving vehicles with more than 99 seconds of green light, but only less than 10 seconds for people crossing the street. In our road designs, we are guided by the rule of thirds: 1/3 for pedestrians, 1/3 for vehicles, and 1/3 for trees and landscaping. Trees are especially important to offset the pollution from cars and as natural shading along walkways.

We should also think about mobility and accessibility from the standpoint of people of all types of physical abilities, including PWDs, children and the elderly. There should be enough ramps on streets as well as going to different establishments. Tactile paving surfaces could also be used to serve as a warning or signal a change in direction, especially for the blind. For public transport, the Accessibility Law, or Batas Pambansa 344, should be complied with. Seats nearest the entrance/exit of public transport should be reserved for PWDs, senior citizens, pregnant women, and those traveling with infants.

One should also feel safe when stepping outside the home or office. Having better street lighting and bringing down walls could deter potential crimes by improving visibility or having more eyes on the streets. As an added precaution, government can also spend on the installation of CCTV cameras. Another recent innovation is ‘crime mapping’. Imagine an application like Waze, but informing the citizens about crime areas. Through community sharing and police information, citizens will know which streets to avoid and the police will know what areas to constantly monitor. Criminals are afraid of well-lighted places, many potential witnesses, and strong community involvement and enforcement.


Aside from streets, parks and open spaces are also important public amenities. They draw people closer to nature, providing a healthy playground for children, a place to recharge for those who are stressed from work, a venue to get fit through biking and jogging, and an opportunity for social interaction. Open spaces are also important for emergency preparedness. There should be at least one square meter of open space per person for evacuation. In case of an emergency, an open space must be able to accommodate the number of residents in the building, plus the fire trucks, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles.

Hong Kong, given its size, is 70 percent open space, while Singapore is 60 percent open area. The Philippines is 400 times the size of Hong Kong and 350 times the size of Singapore. Our country has the potential to be developed like these cities if the right programs and projects can be implemented and properly maintained.

Creating a sense of pride of place, culture and heritage also completes the experience of being in the public realm. Incorporating a place’s unique characteristics to its urban design gives it a sense of identity and arrival. For example, landmarks and signages could be designed to showcase a city’s rich history or its distinct environmental features. Ilocos Norte’s cultural heritage of Spanish-inspired houses and Baroque churches has become an important part of the province’s identity. When Palafox Associates was asked to prepare the Metro Ilocos Tourism Master Plan, we also proposed complementary activities to encourage visitors to be tourist-to-shop, dine, stay, overnight, and fully experience the landscaping features, creating a safe environment by bringing down walls and reorienting buildings to face the plaza, such as arcaded walkways, seats, lights, and directional signs.

Planning and designing the public realm should be a collaborative process between end-users, planners, architects, engineers, and decision-makers. When we finally see our political leaders riding the public transit, or walking on sidewalks and pedestrian pathways, then our country has truly progressed into a society that prioritizes its people. 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.

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