• In ‘stressful’ MM, urban planners are pompous TV bloviators

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    Marlen V. Ronquillo

    THE giant malls are dying in many parts of the US and that says a lot about the future of malls. In our country, though, the malls are now at the center of things and they are at the center of most Filipino lives. They are built recklessly, mostly along the traffic-choked metropolitan roads. The MMDA and the traffic people have two ways of measuring metropolitan traffic. One, during ordinary days and second, during Fridays when the malls are packed with vehicles and people.

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    The most dreaded days are when the malls hold a “three-day sale,” and this is when they sell assorted rags and soon-to-expire food items at discounts. For people who want to breathe, getting caught in the midst of these “three-day sales” is their version of hell. The old stories of the rampaging Visigoth hordes are child’s play when compared with the determined Filipino hordes who would step on the prostrate bodies of their next of kin to buy these rags and soon-to-expire food items.

    What led to this environment of allowing the malls to build recklessly and without consideration for urban order and sanity? And to build in spaces that would guarantee that they both choke the human flesh and the human spirit?

    That the malls are built in sites where they can choke the flow of people and vehicles in Metro Manila and other major metro areas—and therefore hazardous to human welfare—is rooted in the total non-existence here of a field that is vital to most cities of the developed world – urban planning.

    If you look at the physical architecture of Metro Manila, you will see that the last time there was urban sanity was during the time Escolta was the center of the shopping universe, Makati still had vast grazing areas and the current Eastwood hosted all sorts of textile factories and assembly plants. A few meters off Escolta was the Pasig River, still with passable BoD. To the north of Escolta were the theaters and more shopping. To the west was Chinatown. To the south was a spread-out orderly arrangement: City Hall, Congress, the iconic Post Office building, Rizal Park.

    The National Press Club stood grandly off the right turn to Intramuros and at the bar members of various persuasions—Marxists, Malacañang toadies, the ideological fence-sitters—argued boisterously over beer and hard liquor without fear of getting ambushed by riding-in-tandems.

    The buildings had delicate patterns and grand designs. Today, the lords of buildings are boxy malls and ugly, tenement-like skyscrapers.

    Building recklessly and building where it would hurt people and choke traffic has a twin in the overall metropolitan nightmare—no public infrastructure development at all.

    Metro Manila is 100 years behind South Korea in public infrastructure build-up and 100 years behind Singapore. It is 50 years behind Kuala Lumpur and Metro Bangkok, two Asean cities with less population.

    With a moderate vehicle population, that would have been tolerable. But over the past five years, tens of thousands of private cars, mostly dangerous bantam cars that would fold up like tansan once crushed by cement carriers (that really happened recently), have spilled onto the streets of Metro Manila like crazy.

    Because media have repeated a lie about cars so many times that it is now accepted as truth (that PUVs are at the root of the metro traffic jams), the bantam car-buying spree of the BPO workers and OFWs and the SUV purchases of the rich have been unregulated.

    Every year, the vehicle population of Metro Manila’s major streets surges and the whipping boys, the PUVs, get the blame.

    And where else outside of Mumbai and other South Asian cities can luxury, gated communities stand a few meters away from blighted slums? Of course, Metro Manila is the answer. Where else outside of the large South Asian cities is pollution unbearable and killing people at a fast and furious pace? Again, Metro Manila is the answer.

    In the latest survey of “Smart Cities “ conducted by the Opus Dei-run IESE Business School of the University of Navarra, the blight and chaos of unplanned Metro Manila became clear. The IESE surveyed 180 cities and Metro Manila ranked 148th, one of the kulelat. It was also a kulelat in the school’s 2016 survey.

    In the general category of transportation, Metro Manila ranked 176th. It is the only the world metropolitan area that prioritizes cars over modes of mass transportation.

    Another survey ranked Metro Manila very high—but this was on the “most stressful cities“ of the world category. MM was ranked 10th and we can very well identify the other cities in the list: the South Asian cities of Karachi, New Delhi and Kabul. On top of the list, as expected, was Baghdad.

    Metro Manila’s version of “urban planning“ is done on TV by TV-ready bloviators presenting puffed-up resumes. Listeners get the sense that the urban disorder is just one architectural perspective away. And that with political will, the government and the private sector can reverse the blight, the chaos and the urban nightmare.

    Of course, the bloviators can’t wish away the blight and disorder that Metro Manila is in. From the traffic gridlocks to the pollution to the reckless building and non-building, it may take an entire century for MM to enter the “smart city“ category and get out of the “most stressful list.“

    Right now, the national conversation does not help in creating an ideal environment to start clearing the blight and the chaos and to do some genuine urban planning. It is about EJKs and impeachment and a zero budget for an agency that handles the most fundamental of all rights – human rights.

    Right now, there is no relief to be seen. For the moment, the “most stressful” urban jungle called Metro Manila will just have to get its doses of urban planning from the pompous bloviators we see on TV.

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