Zamboanga: Urban revitalization toward a global gateway city


THERE are 145 cities in the Philippines and there is much diversity of natural and built environment, flora and fauna, culture, geography, hidden Edens, and economic opportunities outside the confines of Metro Manila. Our country is blessed with abundant ecological resources. And to be able to grasp the vastness of our country, in terms of land area, take note that the National Capital Region (NCR) is the smallest region in the nation. It is only one-fifth of 1 percent of the entire country; Laguna Lake is even bigger than Singapore; and our coastline is the third longest in the world, much longer than the coastline of the mainland of the United States of America.

On June 24 and July 9, my presentations on the “Postcards From the Future” got a positive, resounding response. There was so much elation when people were reminded that there is an entire country outside the chaotic urbanization of Metro Manila, and that there are many possibilities that can be done to alleviate the catastrophic traffic, flooding, housing, and other urban ills. Most of all, these planning, architecture, and development recommendations are technically viable, socially desirable and economically feasible!

To be able to decongest Metro Manila, and create a more inclusive and sustainable ecology and economy, there is a need to develop urban growth centers and development corridors outside Metro Manila. These will all act as counter magnets to the unbalanced growth of the country, revitalizing inclusive sustainable redevelopment and urban mobility.

In this series of articles, I want to share the richness of other cities.

Old Zamboanga, when I first visited in 1970, was a city where flowers blossom along the streets, the sidewalks, and the balconies. It was known as the City of Flowers. I felt so safe and the people were so nice and welcoming. It was an interfaith city, a very pleasant, peaceful, urban-rural, built-natural environment. There are also stories that the name originated from “Jambanga Bunga,” meaning, a bouquet or land of flowers.

The port city became the stronghold of the Spaniards in Mindanao and a gateway to Mindanao by the Arab, Chinese, and Indian merchants.

It is also a melting pot of culture. When the Spaniards came and established it as a strategic port city (Port Pilar), the Spanish language assimilated with local dialect that we came to know as “Chabacano,” a language that is still widely practiced today in Zamboanga. With a million people still using the language, Zamboanga City can claim the moniker as the only “Latin City in Far East”—that can be a cosmopolitan, multicultural interfaith metropolis.

Apart from the rich culture that the Spaniards had brought along, Zamboanga is also rich with tradition from its original tribes: Badjao, Samal, Tausug, and Yakan, among others.

A port is a place of cultural exchange, more than economic. Coupled with its geography and culture, within it lies the richness and identity of Zamboanga. I see a lot of development potentials for Zamboanga, from its topography to flora and fauna and natural resources, which are best for eco-tourism, agro-tourism, and even cultural heritage tourism.

The future of Zamboanga
Dubai, like Zamboanga, is a port city. When I was invited as the only Southeast Asian and Filipino to help plan the future of Dubai, in 1977, the port city blossomed as one of the cultural and business centers of the world today. It took Dubai less than 15 years to transform.

But unlike Dubai, Zamboanga is blessed with more natural resources, abundant flora and fauna. In Dubai, they had to import garden soil from Pakistan, flowers from Holland, and irrigation from Germany, so we could plan, design, and create a garden city in the desert. For Zamboanga, it is already naturally rich.

At present, Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture Group have been tasked to help Zamboanga revitalize and plan its city well into the 21st century and a first world metropolis. We put emphasis how the end-users will benefit from the plan, especially in terms of mobility and transportation, in the preparation of their comprehensive land use, zoning ordinance, transportation plan, tourism plan, disaster preparedness, and security by design. We try to emulate as much as practicable the lessons we learned from global best practices from 39 countries we’ve done projects in and from more than a thousand cities that I’ve visited and observed in 67 countries. Zamboanga can adopt elements from smart, sustainable, safe and resilient cities, where their wide sidewalks are filled with frescoes and sights to see. On the other hand, elements of the agropolis (“agro” for farm and “polis” for city) will be able to improve the food output of the city by integrating agriculture and aquaculture as part of the overall urban plan.

In addition, the Philippines, through the City of Zamboanga, can serve a crucial role in strengthening trade links with Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—East Asean Growth Area—the Muslim countries within Asia and the Middle East. Along with the cities of General Santos, Cotobato, and Davao, Zamboanga is identified to be among the selected urban centers in Mindanao for the BIMP-EAGA region. BIMP-EAGA was an initiative by four national governments to collaborate in closing the development gaps within the distant yet strategically proximate national capitals of different countries by increasing trade, tourism and investments within its sub-regions. The Zamboanga Peninsula plays a critical role in realizing the medium- and long-term goals of Mindanao and BIMP-EAGA, which is to become a major location within the Asean for high value-added agro industry, natural resource-based manufacturing and high-end tourism that will eventually shift toward ensuring socio-economic, physical development, and a southern gateway to and from the Philippines

Zamboanga, among other cities around the country, has potential to become one of the best cities in the world, although there is still so much to be done. I believe that with strong political will, visionary leadership, good planning, good design, and good governance, the city will be able to realize its high development potential.


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  1. Thank you. I pray that all of these will materialize for my beloved Zamboanga, orgullo del Mindanao.

  2. I thank you for your many writings about urban planning, etc. I read most of your recommendations to achieve smart, sustainable, resilient cities, and clean & wholesome unpolluted environment, etc. You further alluded in your latest writing, that “despite recommendations to past administrations, that many government officials still fail to understand the implications of a do nothing scenario resulting in catastrophic traffic, flooding, housing and disasters, among others”. Further, you stated the ” poor understanding of comprehensive planning” by the same officials that added the “causes of traffic congestion in urban centers…”

    I think our government officials understand quite well, what are the best practices in urban planning and creation of sustainable infrastructures against natural and man-made disasters. The knowledge of urban planning is not the exclusive domain of architects, engineers and urban planners. They also acquired these knowledge from what they saw & experience in many progressive cities around the world. It is our leaders’ “kind of culture”, that these hardships persist because these were ignored for too long and become almost a ” daily normal way of life” by them and all, and therefore resigned to the fact, as if there is no solution that can be done to this calamitous and pitiful fate. Of course, our people do not deserve this hardship from our leaders. There is a solution to every problem. Only if our leaders will have the determined will, strong leadership, and create the resources & not “squander” these but to enhance our country’s assets, in order to achieve a better quality of life and future for the Filipino people.

    Roger Alama, PE, CE, SE
    New York City