WE need to move towards vertical communities for us to sustainably conserve our farms and forests. If we continue our current practice of rapid urbanization and land conversion, as well as promotion of large low-density subdivision villages, it will only be a matter of time before clusters of trees and parks, even in the areas outside the National Capital Region, will be so scarce to the point that one would need to pay to enter these areas. In the future, to live in areas near shades of trees will be one of the most expensive luxuries.
In planning, the phenomenon of rapid urbanization and land conversion is called urban sprawl—also referred to as the uncontrollable expansion of urban areas.
There are simple explanations why urban sprawl occurs. For instance, most available jobs are inside or near the central business districts. Because of people traffic, more commercial developments and social services are accessible in these areas. Many people would want to live here, and the high demand for housing rapidly pushes land values to astronomical heights.
To accommodate more families wishing to live near their places of work, land developers will increase the number of homes that can be built on a piece of land. For example, when my firm Palafox Associates designed Rockwell Center, one hectare of land was appropriated to 200 families or dwellings. To reach this number of dwellings, tall buildings were constructed.
But what if low-density developments are allowed inside or near the central business district? What if instead of having 200 families living in one hectare of land, only four families are appropriated to one hectare of land? The law of supply and demand tells us that the supply of housing inside the central business district will decrease and the amount of demand increases, consequently pushing land value prices even higher.
It will reach a point that the workers inside the central business district cannot afford to live there. As an alternative, they will find family dwellings outside the CBD to live. But there’s another problem, what happens if the cycle repeats itself? More and more housing and commercial development will reach the outskirts of the urban areas, and land conversion of agricultural and forest land will happen because of housing scarcity.
This is exactly what is happening in Manila, Quezon City, and Makati City. In Makati, the daytime working population is around 10 times the night time population. Imagine the millions of workers moving in and out of Makati, using three primary access roads which are EDSA, C5, and Sen. Gil Puyat Avenue. What makes matters worse, housing scarcity is paired with other issues, such as the lack of mass transit as well as prioritization of private vehicles. Only around 5 to 10 percent of Filipinos own cars yet private cars take up about 70 percent of road space. (I believe in this administration we have the chance to redevelop our roads from car-oriented use to mass transit- and pedestrian-oriented use.)
The confluence of housing scarcity, wrong land use, and car-oriented roads alone constitute the bigger bulk of the traffic (grabe!) crisis and environmental degradation.
More sustainable in the long term
Singapore has a high population density, yet 45 percent of the country is open and green space. Hong Kong, which has one of the highest densities in the world, has dedicated around 70 percent for open, agriculture, and/or green space.
Vertical buildings or vertical communities utilize less land area for more family dwellings. It also makes possible putting together a mix of uses into a single vertical development. One building could have commercial or shopping centers on the ground floor; then office spaces, residential units, and hotel units, among others, in the next floors. The top floor could be dedicated for tourism with sky parks and social areas. A vertical development with a mix of uses also makes it more efficient for utilities and garbage collection. Moreover, one will rely less on private vehicles in a compact vertical community than in an urban sprawl.
Dubai is a great example of a vertical community that is integrated with efficient mass transit. It is the site of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Dubai is also a people-centered city. It is both walkable and bikeable. The pleasure of all nationalities, classes, ages, including seniors like me, is to walk kilometers, feeling safe and comfortable.
Dubai now has the most modern metro-LRT—the first train with first class and business class. With visionary leadership, the city has planned its infrastructure for transportation 50 years ahead of its time. Citizens do not need to use cars to get to their destination on time. Buses and trains are more than enough to move them.
(This March, I will be a guest speaker twice in Dubai for the 6thAnnual Vertical Cities on March 6, and the American Institute of Architects (Middle East) talks series on March 8.)