WHEN I was beginning my career as an architect and urban planner, I had the opportunity to travel around the world and observe on the best practices of successful cities. This was one of the perks of being name-hired by the government of Dubai. The rulers of Dubai wanted us to get inspirations from the most progressive cities and learn from their best practices as well as mistakes made, which was my first exposure to benchmarking.
Now that I have been in the architecture and urban planning professions for more than 44 years, I continue to look at the evolution and progress of key cities around the world and attempt to appropriately adopt their development strategies, visions, and plans in our projects here in the Philippines and 38 other countries. Our architects, planners, engineers, designers, and staffers also make it a point to take pictures of the “uglification” of our cities and then re-imagine these images into beautiful and more functional places for people which we call “Postcards From the Future.”
Top 10 cities around the world
Last Friday, June 24, I shared with the attendees of “Postcards From the Future” the rankings of cities according to the principles of green, smart, livable, sustainable, and resilient planning and design. Many of the cities that were cited are Western cities like Stockholm, Copenhagen, Zurich, Frankfurt, Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco, among others. What these cities have in common include prioritizing walking, biking, and public transit as the main modes of transport. Copenhagen has made biking part of everyday life. Similarly, Portland has allocated 250 miles of bike lanes and made them part of the road design. Freiburg, in Germany, has even managed to do away with cars, relying mostly on walking and tramlines.
These cities also value green and open spaces. Elsewhere in the world, parks are considered as the “lungs” of the city and a prime amenity to the community. It is also used as space for recreation, sports, leisure, and for evacuation during emergencies. Vancouver alone has more than 200 parks and open spaces. According to the World Health Organization, it is ideal to have nine square meters of open space or evacuation per person. In Metro Manila, I do not believe we even have at least 1 square meter per person. Our parks and open spaces are slowly being eaten away by new developments.
Other cities that made it the top 10 rankings were able to introduce innovations. For example, Reykjavik, in Iceland, and Malmo, in Sweden, were both able to capitalize on clean and renewable energy. The city of Oslo, in Norway, has successfully shifted to hydrogen-powered public transport.
Technology can also be used to create smarter cities. For example, Santa Cruz, in California, managed to use geographic information system (GIS) for crime mapping. The data help local law enforcers to strategize and also to analyze the causes of crime. In Nairobi, Kenya, fast internet connection has paved the way for creating mobile applications for social enterprise as well as exposing corruption. One such application is the iCow, which provides up-to-date information to local farmers and help them improve their farming techniques.
Our Asian neighbors
Not to be outdone, Asian cities that are constantly in the top 10 lists include Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Singapore is very fortunate to have a Lee Kuan Yew who had the political will and visionary leadership to effect necessary changes since the city had no valuable resources to capitalize on. Lee Kuan Yew got inspiration from Hong Kong and other progressive cities and focused on vertical urbanism, smart growth, and the green environment. For example, planting and growing trees was tax deductible for the first five years. Today, Singapore has an increasing number of buildings with sky bridges; these are not just architectural statements and open spaces, but also act as important emergency links when a building is on fire by moving from one building to another. Singapore is also a walkable city, where rich people walk and take public transit.
Most notable for Hong Kong, aside from being ranked as having the second-fastest internet, is that it was able to keep 70 percent of its open spaces by making high-density, high-rise developments. If the rest of the world follow the density of Hong Kong, the world’s 7 billion population can fit in the state of Texas! Compact developments use less land. It is found out that people who live in compact cities also live longer because they are less likely to rely on cars as a means of getting around.
A noteworthy transformation in Seoul, South Korea, is the renewal of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Previously, the dirty stream was covered by an elevated highway to mask the visual pollution. The skyway has since been removed and the stream has been cleaned. Today, the Cheonggyecheon Stream is one of the most visited places in South Korea.
There are so many lessons to be learned from other countries. We do not even have to reinvent the wheel. We just need to go global, then local. Our country has so much potential as we are blessed with natural ecological treasures such as having the third-longest coastline in the world, the second-largest producer of geothermal energy, and abundant in gold, among other natural riches.
I strongly believe that we have the opportunity to be part of the top 20 economies of the world by 2021 and in the top 16 by 2050. As I have shared before, strong political will, visionary leadership, good planning, good design, and good governance are needed to realize plans toward positive change. Nothing happens overnight. Moving forward, plans and actions should not just be short term and opportunistic, but also long term and visionary. This would bring the Philippines well into the rest of the 21st century as a first world country.