Private sector-led vertical urbanism in the Philippines



The 21st century is an exciting time for the Philippines as it bears witness to an urban renaissance initiated by the dynamic private sector to meet the demands of the growing economy and population. The factors driving this revival are the surging job creation brought by the increase in an educated and affluent workforce and the reality of urban densification in key cities. Private developers now turn to vertical urbanism to help provide a petri dish for economic growth and global competitiveness to thrive in, and in turn, change the pace and influence trends in the real estate industry.

Paving the way
Private developers in the Philippines have played a special role in the country’s urban development. In the west, city zoning and urban development is ordained by the government and planners, and then put into fruition by private developers. In much of the country, however, private developers initiate the development in a city after getting the government’s approval. As such, they are gradually helping in updating the country’s land use plans, which became obsolete after the Philippines became a Republic, and are encouraging further development in the country. As architects and urban planners, Palafox Associates has put forward recommendations to change land use zoning, increase densities in floor area ratios, building heights, and deed restrictions to the government, clients, land owners, developers, and their associations of land and building owners after obtaining government approvals to manage, maintain, secure, improve amenities and utilities over and above what local governments provide.

For decades, Manila had revolved around the elegant Escolta, the country’s first financial and central business district (CBD). But like in other cities, Escolta could not quickly adapt to the changed circumstances. Its cobblestone streets, made for the age of the calesa, or horse-cart, became constricted by motor-age traffic and the rise of suburban housing.

In order to meet the demands of the growing population and pressures from the market, the private sector led the development of central business districts away from Escolta to the shopping centers of Cubao, Greenhills, and Makati. Urbanized centers in the regional areas of the country also experienced a construction boom initiated by the regionalization of the offices of the national government.

In fact, one of the most crucial central business districts in the Philippines, the Makati CBD, thrived from the contribution of the private sector, the Ayala Corporation, in the 1940s. Makati is an example of how a town was planned to lure and nurture industry, and how the local government and businesses can work together to build a prosperous town from a wasteland of grass. It has become one of the most tangible contributions of the private sector to the country’s progress, an expression of a nation’s capacity for growth. As such, any study on construction, architectural progress, and urban planning in the Philippines can never be complete without mentioning Makati and its growth as an impressive example of town planning.

Makati currently holds the most number of tall building structures in the country at 57, with 54 buildings over 100 meters, and 14 over 200 meters. Five new tall buildings have already been completed in 2013, while 22 tall buildings over 100 meters tall are under construction and expected to be completed by the end of 2016 as an answer to the increasing economic activity in the country.

The second largest CBD in Metro Manila is the Ortigas Center, established in the late 60s. A former suburb, Ortigas Center has risen over the years to be among the most important CBDs in the country, with its proximity to Cubao, Quezon City, and Makati. It is home to the second tallest building in the Philippines and plans to expand its number of tall structures in the next several years.

Three new business districts are being developed to accommodate the increasing influx of service and IT-related businesses in the country. Quezon City, former seat of the Philippine Republic, has come up with a planned urban triangle development (TriDev), an ambitious blueprint for its plan to be Asia’s “City of the Future.” The 250-hectare property— bordered by four major roads in the heart of Quezon City—had already attracted several developers. The CBD’s master plan features five districts: The Triangle Exchange, the Emporium, the Downtown hub, the Residences and the Commons.

Another business district already being developed in Quezon City is Eastwood, a 19-hectare area set to be the site of more tall building structures in a few years. The Megaworld Corporation was largely responsible for its development. Last but not the least is Fort Bonifacio Global City, located at the cusp of Taguig. Once part of the main Philippine Army camp in Metro Manila, it is currently being managed by the Ayala Corporation after purchasing it from another developer, Metro Pacific.

All throughout the Philippines, new tall building structures are also being proposed and constructed in emerging metropolises as answer to the increasing demand of services, most of them focusing on developing their own central business districts and commercial establishments to make citizens realize that Metro Manila and its CBDs are not the only business hubs to reckon with.

The Cebu Business Park, a 50-hectare special economic zone developed by Cebu Holdings is a bustling community that integrates the commercial, residential, and leisure aspects of the city and region, created at a time when there was yet no business district south of Manila. The business park’s centerpiece is the nine-hectare Ayala Center Cebu shopping mall. Further down south is the growing development of Aeon Towers, a 34-storey high-rise condominium in Davao City.

What all these CBDs now have in common is the dominance of “mixed-use” developments that served as one of the basic units of CBDs, changing the austere models of corporate buildings sitting on empty windswept plazas, to become “city centers” that redefine the goal of work-live-play.

The rise of vertical planned communities is not merely a trend. In some ways, it is a return to what many see as the very best elements of community design (Kettler, 2005). One such example is the Rockwell Center, erstwhile site of an industrial power plant which closed in 1994 to give way to the redevelopment initiated by Lopez Inc.

When the decision to shut the power plant down was made, the Philippine economy was surging and riding on the wave of the Asian economic boom. Office, retail, and residential developments were constructed, all within a highly urbanized environment marred by traffic congestion. There was a no land-use zoning category for mixed-use developments in Philippine zoning laws at that time, with only a provisionary category under the law for “special use” in place. While places like Escolta were earlier created, Rockwell Center is the first of its kind in the Philippines as a development “intended” for mixed-use. As such, Rockwell Center is the first master planned integrated development in the Philippines that set standards for future inner city developments and paved the way for similar urban renewal activities in other parts of the Philippines, challenging the existing trend for urban living.

Philippines ascending
As 11 million citizens stream each morning into Makati and leave the city at the end of each workday, remnants of planning from the 1960s are still felt by a typical citizen commuting to and from their place, where they are forced to spend roughly 1,000 hours of their lives in traffic.

The resurgence of urban development through vertical urbanism is helping reduce these figures by providing more compact, high-rise residential housing for key workers. True enough, the most number of proposed and under construction tall buildings in the Philippines are for residential use. Based on the data provided by CTBUH on the number of under construction and proposed buildings in the Philippines, the number of residential and office/residential buildings still dominate the list and all of them are conveniently located in the cusp or within walking distance from each of the major CBDs in Metro Manila.

There is still plenty of room for the growing urban population to flourish without affecting the availability of land because in terms of size alone, the Philippines has the upper hand, with 30 million hectares of land area and an urban density of two persons per hectare.

The shift to high-density vertical development from low-density development is not a simple task. However, the efforts made by private developers to help proliferate vertical urbanism in order to minimize suburban sprawl, decrease the country’s carbon footprint, and save more space for the development of green open spaces hopes to inspire future developers and leaders to help shape a more conducive cityscape.

*This is a reprint of Arch. Palafox’s paper submitted to the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) in 2012, where he gave a lecture on the same subject.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), a Chicago-based professional organization, appointed Architect-Urban Planner Felino “Jun” Palafox, Jr. as one of their two newest Fellows. CTBUH Fellows are recognized for their contribution to the Council over an extended period of time, and in recognition of their work and the sharing of their knowledge in the design and construction of tall buildings and urban habitat.


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