THE Philippines has so much to offer to the world, not only ecological treasures by way of tourism, but brilliant minds, visionaries, and craftsmen. Other nations find the uniqueness and diversity of our ecology unimaginable—such as having the third-longest coastline in the world as well as endemic species of plants and animals. Another unimaginable phenomenon, our economy remains strong despite the fact we are crossed by an average of 21 typhoons a year and is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire—prone to eruption of active volcanoes, and earthquakes.
Despite all this, and insurmountable corruption through the years, the world is proudly calling us as one of the emerging tiger economies in the world. Not many people know, today, we are the 39th largest economy in the world. And I believe if we address corruption, criminality, climate change, and other national issues, we can become part of the top 20 economies in the world by March 16, 2021, when the Philippines celebrates its 500 years.
Two concepts are used interchangeably: Green Cities and Smart Cities. There are only slight differences between the concepts. Green Cities refer more to the passive integration of architecture and urban plan to the overall ecosystem. This concept is concerned in keeping carbon emissions sustainable, and manageable enough for the livability of the city. Smart Cities, on the other hand, are more focused in pro-active actions in becoming a green city—integrating technology, innovation, and citizenship in making the entire ecosystem and city livable. Though slightly different, both concepts are actions toward a more livable and sustainable quality of life.
In 2013, a project titled “Reshaping San Juan City: Planning Toward a Future of Green Consciousness” was awarded in Berlin, Germany. The event called “Smart City: The Next Generation” was organized by Aedes East-International Architecture Forum.
The formulation of the “Comprehensive Land Use and Zoning Plan for San Juan City,” done by our firm Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture, was applauded by the international community as a model city plan. San Juan City was called the “Smart City of the Future.” I was invited to present in a forum in Berlin, New York, and Shanghai the plans for San Juan and “Postcards From the Future.”
San Juan: Smart City
At the peak or at the highest point of Barangay Addition Hills, one can enjoy the scenery of a beautiful sunset. A kilometer down the hill lays access to one of Manila’s main river systems: San Juan River. Going to Ortigas Ave., one will pass by a barangay fondly named “Little Baguio,” used to be known for its towering pine trees and cool temperature. Apart from the special ecological terrain of San Juan City, Pinaglabanan Shrine heritage site known as the site for the start of the Filipino-American war.
There are five emphases in the plan for San Juan: land use, zoning, mobility, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and disaster responsiveness. San Juan has a hilly terrain that is situated along one of the major river systems of Manila, citizens who work and live in San Juan always experience floods. During the wrath of Typhoon Ondoy, in 2009, many portions of the city were submerged.
The mobility plan focuses on being mass-transit-engaged and pedestrian-oriented. It gives priority to walking, biking, and commuting over private cars and vehicles. One of the major causes of systemic traffic congestion is prioritizing cars over public transit, walking and biking. The plan dedicates bike lanes and elevated walkways that connect the buildings and streets to the LRT stations. An elevated monorail was also proposed to connect various areas of San Juan with the LRT stations in Aurora and EDSA-MRT.
By creating elevated walkways for pedestrians, it prepared the entire city during flooding. Instead of people bracing the floods going to work, school, or home, the elevated walkways allow people to move in safety. It also puts people out of harm’s way because they do need to walk beside speeding cars or very narrow streets.
On the other hand, the plan also integrated a flood detection and awareness system. The citizens were asked to be involved in identifying areas that always get flooded, and electric posts were painted with flood-height measurements. Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture created flood overlay zones and Hazard overlay zones for the city of San Juan when it was still not a national requirement for the Comprehensive Land Use Plans and Zoning Ordinance. (Thankfully, it is now a requirement.)
Another recommendation is to bring down of high walls. The concept is known as “Eyes on the street” and “Security by Design.” Lessons I’ve learned elsewhere say that criminals are not afraid of walls and high gates because people wouldn’t know a crime is happening inside the house. Compared to a street where everyone has a view, criminals are more afraid with more eyes on the street. They should also be coupled with the installation of CCTV cameras and integrated police patrol.
One of the recommendations for the zoning ordinance is the transfer of air rights. Lot owners can sell the air right of the property if they do not plan to construct a much taller structure.
Future city plan for implementation
The plan is feasible and viable. It helps that the international community is keeping an eye on San Juan City’s transformation based on our plan. Often, plans for the future are not implemented due to bureaucratic red tape.
In my observation of thousands of cities and 67countries I’ve been to, what we need are: visionary leadership, strong political will, good design, good planning, and good governance. With the vision, mission, values, and goals of San Juan translated in a plan, the city has a bright future.