The future of coastal cities: post Yolanda and beyond

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The future of the Philippines rests on its shorelines. Cities will be built along the coastlines, where industry trade is accessible, tourism is emerging, and where wind and solar energy is economically viable.

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Having the third longest coastline in the world, even much longer than that of the United States and Australia, the opportunity for emerging market and development is insurmountable. We have the opportunity to learn from and even surpass coastal and waterfront cities like Chicago, Brisbane, Venice, Denmark, Paris, and New York.

Confronting climate change and learning from Yolanda
The biggest challenge of coastal cities is the need to confront the worsening impact of climate change. It is no longer a discussion whether it is real or not. It now shifts to how we are going to address it.

One of my recommendations is the implementation of setbacks along waterfront and coastal developments. For the municipality of San Vicente in Palawan, we advised the local government to implement a 50-meter setback from the high tide — the first 30 meters is a no-build zone and additional 20 meters of non-habitable, non-permanent structures.

In the event of a storm surge brought about by super typhoons, and possible tsunamis, the waves can go as high as eight meters and have a strong current as far as 30 to 50 meters from the shoreline. Implementing a 50-meter setback can instantly save lives, but more importantly it can help conserve the ecology and the environment.

There should also be a coordinated, city-wide disaster plan. More than just evacuation plans, the disaster plan should also consider the local applications of the National Building Code. The geography and context of provinces and islands are unique, and should have contextual considerations. I call this “adaptive architecture.”

The local government should do a scientific study on wind intensity, probability of typhoon, flash floods, flood height, strong waves, mid-day heat intensity, and consistent soil tests. For example, areas that are susceptible to constant flooding should adapt a modern version of the bahaykubo’s stilt design. Livable quarters of the houses are mandated to be raised to a certain height.

Let us look past temporary housing and dependence on donations. I believe it is time that the government updates and strictly enforces the national and local building codes. On the other hand, while waiting and wishing for this to happen, private businesses can initiate designing their buildings that are able to adapt to the reality of climate change.

The heart of cities and the core of business
The heart of the city and the core of business is people. The activity, life, sale, and loyalty revolve on people. If the city is designed horizontally or in an urban sprawl, not only will we be using up too much land, but the activities of people will be also be fragmented. This leads to dependence on vehicles because places to work, live, shop, dine, and worship are much too far from each other to walk or bike. This is what we are already experiencing in the car-centric development of Metropolitan Manila. Ease of doing business is hampered by heavy traffic, flooding, and bureaucratic red tape, among others.

For businesses, there is a strong potential for clean and renewable energy. While a province is developing, there will be higher demand for energy, and many times supply lacks due to limited access to on-grid power. Having a lighted home is a first step of toward a more mature market. This also creates small impacts, such as children not having to study under dim candle-light.

After the Fukushima tragedy in Japan, the government built vertical housing developments. People will be living higher than the potential height of the waves. The size of each dwelling units are maximized, allowing a proper rebuilding of the entire community. It is observed that low level housing is still prominently being built in Samar and Leyte. After Yolanda and observing the wave heights, we should be building back better, safer, and smarter.

I was in the advisory team of then rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson, Sr. for his first 30 days in office. Back then, I made the observation that when foreign volunteers/organizations leave before Christmas of 2013, they would leave behind a big vacuum that the government and private sector will have to fill up.

What we needed then was a framework plan with immediate action within 30 days, a short term plan till 2016, a medium term plan till 2021, and a long term plan from 2025 till 2050 and beyond. The international community has been looking at us, not just to provide aid for survivors of climate change, but also to learn from our story of resilience. That crisis created an opportunity to re-plan, remake, and rebuild better, but the opportunity will not always be there. We have the potential to be the world’s center for climate change studies and innovations.

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