Sustainable city planning and design

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ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

Traffic kills. Health organizations around the world say that walking 10,000 steps a day is required to become healthy. Whenever I travel to Dubai, New York, London and Paris, I am able to walk at least 20,000 steps but here in Makati, I only get to walk 2,000 steps. The traffic light near my office allots 99 seconds for vehicles and 9 seconds for pedestrians. If you are a woman in high heels you’ll never make it. Crossing the street is like running for your life.

While I was in Harvard, I was told that there are fewer cases of heart attacks in Boston compared to the car-oriented Los Angeles. And sadly, after the Second World War, Metro Manila and other cities of our country copied erroneously the urban planning principles, car-oriented, gated communities, and rigid zoning by segregation of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills.

On the other hand, our Asian counterparts such as Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore have adopted the more sustainable city planning and Vertical Urbanism of European countries. According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, “Development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Cities like Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore have an integrated mass transit system. They also share similar contexts with Metro Manila, which makes them viable models. These cities emphasize that mobility issues do not only revolve in down town proper, but accessibility and connectivity to adjacent cities, and the result is balanced development. Traffic congestion issues are the confluences of wrong transport demand and supply policies, and land use and zoning plans.


Aside from Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, many of the sustainable cities in the world are found in Europe, like London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Madrid (ARCADIS, 2015 top 10 sustainable cities of the world). We should learn from these cities and observe the impact of having a car-free city, a pedestrian-oriented transport plan, and a good mass-transit plan.

These cities, all First World, show that having a highly walkable city have tremendous impact to economic development, as well as to health, education, civic participation, and ecological sustainability. We should remove our mentality of having more cars, mansions, or big houses in central business districts, and promotion of primacy of cities.

Elements of sustainable cities
1. Self-reliant but interdependent. The local government is in the best position to understand the issues that confronts the city and citizens, but the plan and the solution should be inter-city and inter-regional. A city should recognize its social and economic strengths, and use this comparative advantage with adjacent cities.

2. Regional Transport Planning. Cities like Seoul and Hong Kong have integrated transportation plans among different cities. Cities are not allowed to make their own transport plans, it should always be integrated.

3. Regional land and water use planning. A river stretches to different cities, but if one portion is polluted or misused, it will affect the entire stretch, such as Pasig River. On the other hand, land use zoning also has a regional impact. For example, low-density housing in major central business districts will force people to live farther to the place they work. There will be an increase of transport demand from farther places, and choke points of entry and exit are emphasized.

4. Pedestrian-oriented and mass-transit transportation plan. Not all people can afford a private vehicle, and the increase of cars will always be faster than the construction of roads. In the Philippines, less than 10 percent of the population have cars, yet most of the roads are allocated to private vehicles than to public vehicles, sidewalks, and bike lanes. Cities such as New York, Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Frankfurt show that pedestrian-oriented cities increase economic activity, perhaps because of more window shopping time. In Boston, which is highly walkable and bikeable, there are fewer cases of heart attacks compared to the car-oriented Los Angeles. Metro Manila is currently making use of the Los Angeles car-dependent model.

5. Vertical compact mixed-use development. Vertical urbanism and development in cities are much environmentally-friendly and ecologically sustainable. It can accommodate more families per square meter of land, can pinpoint waste collection, and easier to promote energy efficiency, as opposed to the idea of urban sprawl where low-density housing takes up so much land until it expands towards the forest areas.

6. Energy efficient buildings. Material selection, waste management, and use of new technology in such L.E.D lights and inverter technology. Building permits should be revised to encourage buildings to conform to the new standards of energy efficiency. If all buildings adapt the correct principles of natural lighting and new technology, our cities will be 20-30 percent more energy efficient.

People will always move towards places with better health care, quality education, job opportunities, and all the elements that improve the quality of life. This is the primary reason people migrate towards progressive cities and urban growth areas. According to a United Nations study, 70 percent of people will live in cities by the year 2050. And for the Philippines, by then our population will be around 150 million.

In helping 39 countries, most especially the emergence of Dubai in the 21st century, and my travel to 67 countries and more than a thousand cities, I had observed that visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance are the recipe of success.

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1 Comment

  1. We always talk about headaches from traffic jams in roads. I agree with coming up with integrated road and transport planning. But while we busy ourselves thinking appropriate transport systems, there is always one area that is missed by so-called planners and this is about the truck density on the road.

    Most traffic jams are caused by trucks carrying vans and other cargoes for delivery. Planners always forget the FREIGHT TRAIN. One reason why local and national officials are not amenable to this is politics, the number of truck drivers versus the few train operators, and the truck owners, staff and customers. All the silly reasons just to put down the freight train.

    One single freight train can substitute 50 to 110 trucks on the road. A freight train doesn’t encounter too much traffic and delivers the cargoes faster. This is what we need that myopic planners don’t realize.

    Cargo congestion at the ports like the north and south harbors could greatly be eased by a freight train, what else?Having this system also will boost production in agriculture and other industries and thereby help a lot in decongesting the population of Metro Manila.

    Please study this possibility of including the FREIGHT TRAIN in your integrated transportation planning.