Urban resilience

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - March 5, 2021 - 12:00am

Our country is known as a laboratory for the study of natural disasters and risk. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction cite the Philippines as fourth, just behind China, the United States and India, among the countries in the world in terms of the human cost of disasters. The hazards we experience are largely due to extreme weather and are linked to climate change.

Disaster risk is generated when and where hazards, people, and the supporting environments are found. In the Philippines, it helps to think about how two transects collide, namely: the constructed rural-urban transect and the natural ridge-river-reef transect. Nowhere is this collision more evident than in the cities we have built and continue to expand.

A reflection of who is in harm’s way today cannot, however, be complete without a deeper consideration given the impact of inequities in our built environment on the dangers posed by biological hazards such as COVID-19.  How, where, and for whom we build determines who will survive and thrive in our hazard-prone country, and who will not.

This is the context of the recent webinar, “Engineering Equitable Resilience: Opportunities for Transformation in Muntinlupa City”. Co-organized by the National Resilience Council and the Ateneo de Manila’ Coastal Cities at Risk Project, the discussion was led by two urban design professors who presented their work on achieving disaster and climate resilience through integrated urban design.

Muntinlupa is a coastal city by virtue of it being beside Laguna de Bay. Many rivers and floodways empty into it and is also subject to tidal influence by Manila Bay. It is, therefore, prone to overflowing its banks whenever there is heavy rainfall and so flooding occurs readily and frequently, and takes a long time to recede.

The urban poor are the most vulnerable to flooding. The majority of ISFs (informal settler families), which comprise 23 percent of the urban population in Metro Manila, live in inferior dwellings along the banks of waterways or by the coast that suffer from flooding due to annual typhoons/monsoon rains. They endure this situation because first, that is all they can afford, and secondly, that is near their source of livelihood. For them, flooding is an inconvenience, a nuisance that they are willing to put up with.

The national government and the LGUs have attempted to address this situation by resettling ISFs in areas away from the city. However, this has had limited success because it has taken ISFs away from their source of livelihood, services, and social networks. Many of them eventually return to the city.

More recently, LGUs have focused on in-city resettlement to address these issues from off-city resettlement. This solution, however, faces huge resource challenges: the availability of land, the costs of building dwellings, and providing support infrastructure – both hard and soft. And even if these are made available, affordability is an insurmountable challenge for many.

The innovative solution discussed at the webinar, one developed and articulated by the leading lights in the field – Stephen Grey of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Mary Anne Ocampo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and their collaborators – calls for integrating the elements of urban design with resiliency and inclusion – to respond to the resource constraints of in-city resettlement.  Designing cities that integrate low-income urban dwellers into the socio-economic mainstream and the urban landscape improves not only their quality of life, but also recognizes their contributions to the economic well-being of the rest of the urban population. Given this convergence of people, environment and development in urban design, their vulnerability to multiple hazards due to the inequities associated with the lack of space, services and social protection may be reduced. As a pilot, the MIT Urban studio developed a plan for how the coastal areas of Muntinlupa can be developed, with the intent of providing new strategies for ISFs, flood mitigation, and urban development

Implementation of this solution, however, will not take place overnight. Unenforced and uncontrolled zoning and development patterns, and uncoordinated public agencies and decision-making over the years has built layers upon layers of urban sprawl and structure with little regard for disaster resiliency and inclusion. To undo this will require a comprehensive policy framework that all stakeholders must follow to avoid inconsistencies or redundancies. Elements might include land use, financing to make it affordable, and incentivizing the private sector to participate. How will it be initiated at the national level?  Do we have the institutional capacity to implement this? LGUs also need to play a bigger role and citizens must be fully involved.

Public, private and non-profit sector collaboration is key to adopting and implementing this innovative solution as this will require massive investments. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has strained the coffers of both the public and private sector. Multinational donors have also had to refocus their efforts to respond to the pandemic. The hope is that our economic recovery will happen sooner than later, but that in turn depends on how soon we can open up the economy without risking a surge in infection. I cannot over emphasize the importance of vaccine deployment.

There are also political challenges that must be overcome. Restoring Laguna de Bay to being an effective catchment for excess rainwater requires national, regional, and local government working effectively together. The solution is beyond just the city of Muntinlupa to resolve.

Muntinlupa Mayor Fresnedi has been open to solutions to the perennial problem that the city has had to endure during the rainy season. He realizes that a well-planned urban development that fosters inclusive growth and is resilient to natural disasters will not happen overnight. It will have a long gestation period. However, our political system is not conducive to long term planning. How do we overcome that?

With the consequences of climate change increasing in frequency and magnitude, coupled with rising urban population, the problem will magnify exponentially unless addressed. This is an existential threat for which there is no vaccine.

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