Toward healthier cities in the Philippines



IN 1905, visionary architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham designed Manila according to the principles of City Beautiful and City Efficient, taking inspiration from the bay of Naples, the canals of Venice, and the rivers of Paris. During that time, Manila was one of the best planned cities and other countries looked up to it. However, after World War II, it seems that Burnham’s plan was forgotten, and Manila has instead taken inspiration from the 70-year-old mistake that is the car-centric planning of Los Angeles.

Concrete pavements after another cover the once beautiful landscape of the city. What should be space for pedestrians is now taken over by private vehicles. Road widenings and highway constructions do not necessarily solve the worsening traffic. Rather, allocating more space for cars would produce more traffic. More traffic means more pollution, making the city, making its residents, unhealthy.

Take the Cheongyecheon Stream in Seoul, South Korea, for example. An elevated highway covered a neglected stream. The mayor decided to remove the highway and open up the stream, despite the traffic congestion that Seoul was experiencing at the time. It is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Seoul. With the opening up of the stream, not only did it provide a place for people, but it also provided opportunities for developments as well.

Green and open spaces
A study by John Campton, author of The Proximity Principle, confirms that proximity to parks and open spaces increase property values. These open spaces serve as the “Lungs of the City”, and provide spaces for activity, socializing, and recreation as well. Apart from open spaces, green spaces or city gardens are not only aesthetically pleasing and environment-friendly, but also promote healthy lifestyles and healthy neighborhood interaction. Hong Kong, given its size, is 70 percent open space, while Singapore is 60 percent open area. The Philippines is 400 times the size of Hong Kong and 350 times the size of Singapore. Our country has the potential to be developed like these cities if the right programs and projects can be implemented and properly maintained.

Walking and biking
It has been proven that the living and working environment of a person can greatly affect his or her health. To be healthy, we need to walk at least 10,000 steps. In Dubai and New York, I walk 20,000 steps a day. In Japan, I can walk 15,000 steps. But here in the Philippines, particularly in Metro Manila, I find it hard to walk even 2,000 steps. What our country lacks are cities that promote a healthy lifestyle. One way of doing this is through people-oriented streets that are both walkable and bikable. It should be kept in mind that sidewalks are for pedestrians and should be people-friendly, with ample landscaping and lighting, not as substitute for parking space. Providing proper lighting increases security and night-time activities. Covered walkways must also be provided to provide comfort when walking. Elevated and air-conditioned walkways may also be considered for streets that are already challenged with space, as well as polluted urban corridors like EDSA. Those who have less in wheels should have more in roads. More people walking would mean lesser cars, thus a decrease in traffic and decrease in pollution.

Aside from walking, cities should promote biking and mass transit. There should be proper space allocation for bicycle lanes and bicycle parking. Other cities have started adopting strategies such as bike rentals and bike sharing to promote cycling. For mass transit, there is an increasing number of cities integrating bus rapid transit (BRT) systems into their city transport systems. Mass transit systems are not limited to BRT, but include as well as the light rail transit and the subway, among others. Elsewhere in the world, prime ministers and other government officials take the bus, the train, or even bike their way to their offices.

Promoting a mix of uses
Apart from this, healthy cities promote mixed-use developments. Having a mix of uses allows a more compact development, therefore more efficient use of space. For example, one building can accommodate hundreds of families, thousands of workers in office spaces, and leisure centers below that distress the members and provide an avenue for other necessities. A building efficiently multiplies space enough to fit a thriving community. This outlook is called mixed-use development. It transforms the skyscraper from being merely a monument to the actual living quarters that people need. Mixed-use and vertical developments make it possible to have more spaces for parks and open areas.

With shopping, recreational, and dining areas within proximity of places to live and work, people would be encouraged to walk more in compact cities as opposed to urban sprawl. Horizontal developments tend to make people more reliant on cars.

I think we all would like to live in environment-friendly and healthy cities and communities, where all public spaces are connected, accessible, walkable, bikable, safer, well-lit, convenient and clean; are mixed-income and cross-generational; with mixed-use development for places to live, work, shop, dine, learn, worship, places for healthcare, recreation, and leisure, and where there is a 24-hour cycle activity center.


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  1. Cycling lanes in other cities are proving highly unpopular and generally increasing traffic problems. Personally, with the selfish,dangerous driving culture endemic throughout the Philippines I wouldn’t risk my life on a bicycle in Manila or anywhere else here. This is yet another example of taking ideas/ practices from other countries where they work and parachuting them into the Philippines where, due to the culture and conditions they won’t. e.g. Roundabouts/ rotundas as a means to control traffic flow at junctions! Does anyone know how to approach and use them properly or indeed, do they in my me first mentality even care?

  2. Filipinos have unhealthy habitations because of their unhealthy habits, squatters and their pets urinate/defecate anywhere, everyone spitting and coughing without covering their mouths. No wonder the RP has the highest TB/respiratory disease in SE Asia.

    If you build a nice clean public park or air-conditioned walkway, next thing you know there’s some homeless family living there. That’s what turned most of MM into one big garbage slum.

    In future writings I hope you can elucidate on what we can do to solve this “squatter culture” that prevents our metropolis from becoming like Singapore or Seoul otherwise “drawing lang ang lahat ng magandang plano.”

  3. Dear Mr. Palafox,

    This is so far the best article you have written on your column. This is very different from your last week’s one dimensional viewpoint. I could then take back what I said about you and I am looking forward to reading more like this in the future. More power to you sir.

    Rene C.