How a pandemic exposed the cracks of Philippine urban planning — or lack thereof

Let’s all agree: This is the longest, most excruciating period of our lives spent in forced confinement, made all the more fragile by an unprecedented medical threat never seen nor felt by today’s generation. This egregious health crisis has brought the best and the worst in the human spirit and collective psyche of our humanity. The small wins we’ve seen over the afflictions that engulfed us have to be celebrated. On the other hand, we have to mull over the fair share of disheartening stories and injustices that magnified how acute and perverse inequality is during these extraordinary times.

We’ve all seen and heard the grim news and social media narratives in the midst of this pestilence — cities upon cities imposing their intensified lockdown, borders and non-essential movement being restricted, supply chains being throttled, healthcare system being overwhelmed, local and national economies being hamstrung, and the most vulnerable populace being left to fend for themselves, among other surreal scenarios we used to relegate in apocalyptic movies and literature. Despite the precautionary (or stopgap) measures enforced by the national government to stem the tide of local transmission, public outrage, discontent and rising anxiety over the effectiveness of these measures, the competence and reliability of the leaders during the times of crises, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, are pervading the national discourse. Man-on-the-street sentiments are rife with plight and pleas for succor, and demand for accountability and clear-cut guidelines from the government abound.

Mandatory checkpoints dotted the borders and strategic roads in Metro Manila during the enhanced community quarantine. (Source: Neil Daza)

As Metro Manila, a highly dense urban agglomeration of close to 14 million people, reached an inevitable standstill due to a region-wide community quarantine, it was as though the Pandora’s box had been pried open. Mass transportation had been shuttered, leaving behind stranded essential healthcare and skeletal workforce who cannot discharge their important functions anymore. Workaday and informal laborers were swept to one side, constricting their chance to survive as they cannot earn their day’s hard work crucial to their short-term sustenance. Homeless people on the streets were rounded up on grounds of violating stay-at-home measures. Markets, despite remaining open, are all full to the brim with people buying their day-to-day sustenance, thus transgressing upon the prescribed ‘social distancing’ orders. Students and professionals were advised to shift to distance learning and online working, but there was no substantial internet backbone in place that can facilitate compliance to such tall order. Evolving health advisories point to keeping one’s health in tiptop shape, but access to nutritious food is close to impossible when the supply of food produce is hampered, and stocks on the grocery shelves will take time to get replenished.

At the very center of these troubles, a question needs to be begged: Do our lives necessarily need to undergo disruption in times of outbreaks (i.e. the CoViD-19 pandemic), or could we have done it differently and fool-proofed our urban societies into outbreak-responsive cities? A quick overview of our human history shows how highly virulent epidemics have raged on and claimed millions of lives. Our built environment (i.e. our cities, and the homes we hole up in) have responded, in recent memory, to the proliferation of deadly outbreaks. But to date, have we gleaned the hard lessons from the past so we can make a better, more proactive choice, most especially when it comes to planning our cities?

Or did we let our guard down?

Containing the cholera epidemic in Farola District, Tondo, Manila, 1902 (Source: Arkitekturang Filipino)

The Informal Workforce & Urban Slums

Why can’t just the informal workforce, those who live as far off as Dasmarinas City, Cavite, or Bocaue, Bulacan, to suspend their travel, forego their work, and while away their time at the comfort of their homes, while the highly contagious virus dissipates? What they typically earn is exhausted to their immediate expenses, rendering them unable to save for a rainy day. Also, the dearth of decent jobs in their respective hometown is aggravating their economic situation. This can be further explained by the dynamics of large cities and urban areas, where the clustering of economic activities and human footprint becomes more concentrated while the steady generation of competitive jobs serves as an attractor to the migration of (usually) young, productive workforce who can make do with measly remuneration. Also, large, economically productive cities engender rural-urban corridors where human capital becomes commodified. As cities become more expensive, less developed areas along the rural-urban corridors that radiate from the thriving business centers usually become suitable for unplanned, haphazard growth (urban slums, mass housing, suburbanization.) Urban theorists and economists such as Anthony Burgess, Homer Hoyt, David Ricardo and J.H. von Thunen, have observed these polarizing effects of urban centers, and visualized their spatial manifestations.

The Concentric Zone Model, one of the well-known urban models, developed by Burgess

Too Much Centralization and Sprawl

There’s a consensus among experts that Metro Manila, being a cohesive administrative region, has grown as much twice its size, cannibalizing geopolitical units around it, and forming an organic, built-up megalopolis composed of highly urbanized cities and municipalities in the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, Bulacan, and Batangas. The resulting sprawl came about due to the centralization (and congestion) of opportunities and services, and inevitably created a north-south urban expansion. Considering how unwieldy the urban agglomeration of Metro Manila has become, what used to be prime agricultural lands that can augment, if not provide, the food requirements of a highly-dense urban region, has become a thing of the past, as human settlements, commercial and industrial estates were prioritized over land use that favors food production. What does this kind of development entail? That instead of establishing food baskets closer to our homes, we are promoting an unsustainable food supply vulnerable to volatile logistical issues and disasters caused by anthropogenic climate change, when our food practically needs to travel by kilometers, before they even reach our plates.

This unfettered concentration of growth has led to the primacy of the urban region, which is shockingly disproportionate to the rest of metropolitan cities across the Philippines. The crowding and clustering of workforce, developments, governance, economic outputs, and sadly, regional elitism, led to the appalling moniker it earned — the “Imperial Manila.” Being just a narrow strip of land, Metro Manila whoppingly contributes to around a third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Wealth is being captured within this diminutive geographic space, leaving a widening poverty gap across the country, while the imbalance and concentration of wealth ultimately leads to a disparity of opportunities and outcomes in less developed areas.

Trend of urban growth in Metro Manila. (Sources: German Remote Sensing Data Center & German Aerospace Center)

To densify, or not to densify?

Falling prey to our obnoxious obsession to build, build, and build, we made our cities suffer from a horror vacui where open spaces and land use are practically sacrificed at the altar of compact, high-density development. What does this signify, when there is nothing to be gained by overcrowding? Felt at once, problematic issues in social infrastructure have surfaced and reared their ugly heads during the abrupt imposition of the lockdown.

One of the prescribed measures during the outbreak is ‘social distancing,’ calling for people to observe at least 1 meter of distance from one another, in order to bog down possible human-to-human transition that can happen through close contact. Any call to properly carry out ‘social distancing’ would sound hollow, especially in packed neighborhoods and pockets of urban poverty.

Without a doubt, ‘social distancing’ undermines its viability when urban poor families of five or seven are forced to inhabit closed, makeshift quarters where they have been living in for years now. Multiply these households into tens and hundreds, and stacking them on top of one another, and you get a ‘perfect storm’ for a contagion.

CoViD-19 Cases, Poverty and Points of Interests in Quezon City. (Source: PCIJ)

On the other hand, middle class households who live in condominiums and subdivisions are also prone to the spread of any disease, given the constraints in habitation present in urban centers, but they are nevertheless insulated by a layer of comfort and protection that comes with their social class. Their proximity to lifeline amenities, open spaces, and permeable road networks increase their chances of survival amidst this pandemic.

Without a doubt, the price to pay for the high human density of our cities will be congestion, inefficiency, and acute inequality. Cheek by jowl, we have to endure physical closeness in order to avail of the basic services and inadequate amenities offered by our cities. Our public servants — teachers, policemen, nurses, and doctors — instead of attending to an ideal demographic proportion, have to be spread too thinly.

Infographic on Social Distancing in Metro Manila Homes. (Source: IBON Foundation)

The Criticality of Civic Buildings and Open Spaces

Public and open spaces that cater to the public realm such as parks, recreational areas, and nature reserves, are robust, irreplaceable assets that drive real estate values and promote resilient urban ecosystems. The most common categorization of open spaces is that they are the “breathing lungs” of the cities that provide us a breather from the pollution that smother all of us. Aside from this, the essence of open spaces in the field of disaster risk management is central in ensuring emergency preparedness, precluding risks from and impacts of hazards, and facilitating relief and long-term recovery. Highlighted during the surge of this pandemic, we have seen how civic structures and the few remaining sprawling grounds we have, are flexibly converted into emergency quarantine facilities.

Philsports Arena in Pasig City converted into an emergency quarantine facility. (Source: Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo)

These ephemeral structures are mostly built indoors, as setting up field hospitals may be deemed challenging, given that our cities are practically deprived of open spaces. To show how grave the situation is, Filipinos have to make do with a meager 5 square-meter of open space, a far cry from the ideal 9 square meters. In addition, open spaces, mostly in the form of green, vegetated areas, are linked to respiratory wellness and good mental health in adults who grew up close to them. To think that a sizable number of our population has been denied of access to green spaces, and they are at great risk to be hit hard by the complications caused by the virus.

LEFT: Population Density of Metro Manila, RIGHT: Tree Cover and Green Spaces in Metro Manila (Sources: BARacoMap & DATOS Project

Moving forward

With things being in a frantic flux, it’s going to be hard to say how we are going to fare post-CoViD-19. But one thing is for sure, the previous status quo has been demolished by force majeure, and it’s high time we take collective action to address our failures, negligence, and apathy which all brought us to this deadlock to begin with. It stands to reason that our way of life needs to be recalibrated. Further, our cities need to be reshaped in a way that future outbreaks will be staved off, and inequities be extinguished — for good.

Strictly speaking, cities have been quintessential drivers of innovation. Different vicissitudes have compelled the form, shape, and size of cities to be modified to a more palatable version where humans can thrive and emerge better than ever. Our cities — and their flawed blueprints — must strive to become sanctuaries, and not as petri dish for contagions that can decimate humanity.

Presently, various disciplines are already envisioning our society that has overcome the aftermath of the pandemic. We will be seeing radical alteration to our built environment (this is going to be a topic for a separate entry!) and obsolete mental models as soon as this global crisis deescalates. Driven by data and backed up by science, we are going to see tangible changes in the realms of housing, mobility, health, wellness, information flow, food supply, energy, governance, and economy, among others.

The battle has not been won yet on all major fronts. Let’s all bear in mind that we all have a shared, collective responsibility to make things work and win this battle, as we are all waves from the same sea, leaves of the same tree, and flowers of the same garden.



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Rodelon Ramos

Rodelon Ramos is a Filipino architect/urban practitioner. He likes to write about public interest design & social impact architecture.