IN his novel Noli me Tangere, José Rizal describes Manila as dreary, unmodern and unlovely. The trees around the plazas are withered, the unpaved streets choke people with dust on dry days and turn into slurry on rainy days, and the architecture is uninspiring. Rizal was writing in the late nineteenth century and the city is seen through the eyes of the novel’s protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra who, readers learn, has just recently returned to the Philippines after an absence of several years. Ibarra is a local. But, like his creator, Ibarra has been living, studying, and traveling in and around the cities of Europe. This simultaneously gives him, an insider, the outsider’s perspective. His gaze is sentimental but also filled with disappointment. He cannot help but draw comparisons. Manila, in his view, is a far cry from the mighty European cities he has experienced. He is afflicted by what Rizal called ‘el demonio de lascomparaciones’—the devil of comparisons.
Who among us lucky enough to have traveled to or lived in places where public transport is modern and efficient, where streets are friendly to pedestrians, and where buildings lend grandeur and distinction to the urban scenery, has not made comparisons and yearned for our country’s cities to make that great, revolutionary leap forward? Who among us does not harbor the hope that one day our cities will be equal to, if not better than, the foreign cities that we have admired?
Metro Manila’s transportation problems are legendary. The city’s paralyzing traffic, known hatefully as ‘carmageddon,’ has been called the worst on earth and is costing the economy P3 billion daily. The chronic air pollution (80 percent car exhaust fumes) is lethal and makes people sick and stressed out. The elevated MRT trains that serve half a million commuters everyday remain overloaded and constantly plagued by breakdowns. Bus bans put in place by Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada in 2013 brought chaos. Privatization and deregulation of land transport have exacerbated the problems largely because profit took precedence over the provision of service, as University of the Philippines physicist Giovanni Tapanghas observed.
The issues are not confined to Manila. Fernando Fajardo, economics professor at the University of San Carlos, in Cebu, has bewailed the absence of planning boards in Cebu City and the ineptitude of local officials who seem to have little idea of how a city functions as an “integrated economic unit.” Former Cebu congressman Tomas Osmeña is said to have visited the famed Brazilian city of Curitiba during his first stint as mayor, but nothing came of it according to Fajardo. Osmeña may yet reveal what he learned, given that he has again been elected mayor.
Emulating Curitiba would be a step in the right direction. The capital of Paranà state in southern Brazil, Curitiba sits on a plateau almost 1,000 meters above sea level. Two million people live in this humid, subtropical, highland city. It is more populous than Davao City. Under the city’s former mayor and pioneering architect, Jaime Lerner, Curitiba is respected for being the world’s most environmentally friendly city. His visionary plans were adopted in 1968 and took roughly only two decades to achieve.
Curitiba has benefited from regulated growth and planned transportation systems. Its bendy buses move along dedicated lanes whose routes determined the city’s expansion. The buses serve 70 percent of the city’s commuters and one arrives every minute. Large swathes of the city are pedestrianized. An innovative garbage recycling system was put in place, with incentives given to locals to separate organic and non-organic waste, and keep fields and rivers free of trash. Floodplains were reclaimed and converted into parks and boating lakes, giving 51 square meters of green space for every resident. Heritage laws safeguard the integrity of historical sections. The abundance of libraries, museums, theaters, exhibition centers, and open-air festivals attests to how urban planning has integrated culture. The city attracts 2 million tourists a year but its economy is grounded on industry and commerce. Such inclusive, oriented planning has resulted in a GDP per capita that is 60 per cent higher than the average in Brazil. “You get creative when you take a zero from your budget,” Lerner has said. “But sustainability starts when you take two zeros from your budget. Many other mayors tell me their budget is small. For many things, we had no budget.”
In stark contrast, outgoing President Benigno Aquino has opted to pump money into problems. Last year he signed off on $8.42 billion worth of infrastructure projects that included new railways and the construction of more major roads such as elevated expressways. He has secured a P4.8-billion loan partly from the World Bank to create a bus rapid transit system that will link Manila to Quezon City. We have yet to see whether all this money, in the hands of the Duterte administration, will bring about the creative, innovative, and resilient solutions that are sorely needed.
But while Manila’s transport situation is desperate, is it fair that investment is not spread to the country’s other cities that call out for development? Architect Felino Palafox has noted that the Philippine population is projected to reach 150 million people by 2050. By that reckoning, he says, the country will need 200 new cities. Is it too much to ask for cities to be places that are pleasant and livable?
I am fortunate to have lived in London and several major European cities. But I was born in Manila. I sometimes think how, had the city’s growth been controlled, had the arterial Pasig River been kept clean, had Spanish-era canals, bridges, and tram networks been maintained, Manila could have been comparable to Amsterdam. Then again, to make such comparisons can be dispiriting and spurious. El demonio de lascomparaciones.
*With thanks to Gaia Tera Vida.