Modern Living

The new Filipino city

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren -
Last week, I spent an interesting morning chatting over a cup of coffee with Nathaniel von Einsiedel. Von Einsiedel is an architect and town planner, currently the regional coordinator for Asia-Pacific of the United Nations Urban Management Programme (UMP), a global technical assistance facility helping cities in developing countries to improve their policies and management systems. He set up UMP’s operations in Asia in 1992 and is responsible for coordinating its activities in 21 cities across 11 countries. In short, he and his office help cities find ways to fix their problems.

Dinky, as he is known to those in the profession, is Filipino. If his name is familiar, it is because he was chief planner of Metro Manila in the Seventies. He had helped set up the first metro-scaled integrated master plan for Greater Manila, a project that looked at rationalizing land use and seeking efficiencies of urban services delivery to cope with an expanding city (then a much less complex place than it is today). He pitched a heady vision of a human-centered metropolis to the powers-that-were then. The plan was logical and could have worked but his bosses had other priorities.

He then lent his expertise to the UN and had been, like myself, an expatriate for the last dozen years or so. I found out that he is planning to move back to Manila and hopes to contribute to the efforts of citizens, like you and me, to help find real solutions to very real problems of fixing our city.

Von Einsiedel offered the article below to be featured in this column. I could not trim it down or work it into a piece I wanted to do on feedback from my "sidewalk" series. It is best presented whole – which we do below for readers to gain the most from its important message.
Reinventing the Filipino city
The Filipino dream of an urban lifestyle is an evolving image and the Filipino city is its everchanging reflection. The two feed one another in a complex, interactive cycle. At one point, a dream moves us to a new vision of the city and community. At another, the reflection of our city’s current conditions transforms that dream into a nightmare with harsh realities of congestion, traffic, pollution, and social problems. As the Philippines moves towards being fully urban, we are locked in a process of transformation and the two – city and dream – are changing together.

The existing model of our city today, especially its physical expression, is now stressed beyond its capacity. The urban population has increased rapidly while our communities have become more complex and diverse, and the urban landscape has grown more demanding and less accessible. The need for change is blatant, with urban growth reaching alarming levels and communities fracturing into enclaves. Clearly, we need a new vision of the Filipino city and a new image of the Filipino urban dream.

The old urban model is increasingly out of sync with today’s demands. Our household activities have changed dramatically, the workplace and workforce have been transformed, average family wealth is shrinking, and serious social and environmental concerns have surfaced. But we continue to build our cities as if members of extended families still lived together and have only one breadwinner, as if jobs were all downtown, as if land was endless, as if energy sources were inexhaustible, and as if another road project would end traffic congestion.

Over the last 20 years, these patterns of growth have become more and more dysfunctional. They have come to produce environments which often frustrate rather than enhance everyday life. Urban sprawl increases pollution, undermines inner-city development, and generates enormous costs – costs which ultimately must be paid by taxpayers, consumers, businesses and the environment. The problems of our cities cannot be solved by building more of the same. They must be resolved by rethinking the nature and quality of growth itself, in every aspect.

With over a million people being added to our urban areas every year, we need to map out a new direction for growth of the Filipino city. We need to seek out a paradigm that combines the utopian ideal of an integrated community with the realities of our time – the imperatives of affordability, equity, sustainability, ecology, technology, security, and the relentless force of inertia. We need to assert that our communities must be designed to reestablish and reinforce the public domain, that our districts must be human-scaled, and that our neighborhoods must be diverse in use. And that the form and identity of our cities must integrate historic context, unique ecologies, and a comprehensive regional structure. But most of all, we need to start creating communities rather than subdivisions; urban places rather than isolated projects; and diverse neighborhoods rather than segregated master plans.

Settlement patterns are the physical foundation of our society and, like our society, they are becoming more and more fractured. Our developments and zoning laws segregate land uses as well as income groups. They isolate people and activities in an inefficient network of congestion and pollution. Our faith in government and the fundamental sense of commonality are seeping away in new developments designed more for cars than for people, more for market segments than communities. Cause-oriented groups have now replaced citizens in the political landscape, just as gated subdivisions have replaced communities.

It is time to redefine the Filipino city. We must make it more accessible to our diverse population: Singles, working parents, the elderly, and the urban poor who particularly cannot afford much of what is offered on the housing market. Certain traditional values – bayanihan (mutual help), pakikisama (cooperation), pagtitipid (frugality), kapitbahay (neighborliness) – should be the foundation of this new direction. These values are not a retreat to nostalgia, but a recognition that certain Filipino qualities of culture and community are timeless and that these must be married to the modern condition in new ways.

The alternative to our outmoded settlement patterns is simple: Neighborhoods of housing, parks and community amenities placed within walking distance of shops, jobs, schools, civic services and public transport. In other words, a modern version of the traditional Filipino town. The convenience of the car and the opportunity to walk or use public transport can be blended in an environment with local access to all the daily needs of a diverse community. It is a strategy which could preserve open space, support public transport, reduce auto traffic, and create affordable neighborhoods.

Applied at a metropolitan or regional scale, a network of such mixed-use neighborhoods could create order in our increasingly balkanized metropolis. It could balance inner-city development with suburban investments by organizing growth around a public transport system and setting defensible urban limits and greenbelts. The increments of growth in each neighborhood would be small, but the aggregate could accommodate regional growth with minimal environmental impact; less land consumed, less traffic generated, less pollution produced .

Such neighborhoods ultimately could be affordable for working families, environmentally responsible, and cost-effective for business and government. But, such a growth strategy will mean fundamentally changing our preconceptions and regulatory priorities, as well as redesigning the government policies and programs that shape our cities.

At the core of this alternative, philosophically and practically, is the pedestrian. Pedestrians are the catalysts which make the essential qualities of communities meaningful. They create the place and the time for casual encounters and the practical integration of diverse places and people. Without the pedestrian, a community’s common ground – its parks, sidewalks and plazas – become useless obstructions to the car. Pedestrians are the lost measures of a community. They set the scale for both center and edge of our neighborhoods. Without pedestrians, an area’s focus can be easily lost; commerce and civic uses are easily decentralized into distant shopping destinations and government centers; and homes and jobs are isolated in subdivisions and office parks.

Although pedestrians will not displace the car anytime soon, their absence in our thinking and planning is a fundamental source of failure in our new developments. To plan as if there were pedestrians may be a self-fulfilling act: It will give people more autonomy, the elderly basic access, and others the choice to walk again. To plan as if there were pedestrians. This new planning approach will turn suburbs into towns, projects into neighborhoods, and subdivisions into communities.

If we are now to reinvest in our cities, careful consideration should be given to what kind of cities we want to create. Our investments in affordable housing should place families in neighborhoods where they can save money by using cars less. Our investments in public transport must be supported by land use patterns which put riders and jobs within an easy walk of stations. Our investments in open space should reinforce regional greenbelts and urban limit lines. Our investments in highways should not unwittingly support sprawl, inner-city disinvestment, or random job decentralization. Our investment in inner-cities and urban businesses ought to be linked by public transport to the larger region, not isolated by traffic gridlock. Our planning and zoning codes should help create communities, not sprawl.

Is such a transformation possible? Filipinos love privacy and independence; we prefer to live with our own "kind" and, given the sad state of public transport, we would rather use our cars. The goal of community planning for the pedestrian is not to eliminate the car, but to balance it. It is possible to accommodate the car and still free pedestrians. Similarly, the goals of privacy and independence do not have to be abandoned in the interest of developing communities with vital urban centers and neighborly streets. The scale of our institutions may no longer fit the human-scale proportion of an old village, but with careful design they could be integrated into mixed-use communities.

This new balance calls for the integration of seemingly opposing forces – community and privacy, cars and pedestrians, large institutions and small businesses, suburban and urban. These are the poles that must be fused into a new pattern of growth. The design imperatives of reinventing our cities are complex and challenging. They call for developing a regional growth strategy which integrates social diversity, environmental protection, and public transport; creating an architecture that reinforces the public domain without sacrificing the variety and character of individual buildings; advancing a planning approach that reestablishes the pedestrian in mixed-use, livable communities; and evolving a design philosophy that is based on timeless qualities of our culture and capable of accommodating modern institutions without sacrificing human scale and memorable places.

In the ultimate analysis, it is about recreating our urban communities where we can feel a sense of belonging and a sense of place – a place which we can be secure in and be proud of.
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Longing And Belonging
I cannot but agree a hundred percent with Von Einsiedel’s views. It would be great if other planners like him shared their perspective on current urban issues. Better still if the whole process of planning and shaping our cities were a more transparent and accessible process for everyone. The most ideal situation, of course, was if government would listen and take responsibility for their immense non-performance on the job.

We sometimes cannot help but lose any feeling for this place we call Metro Manila. Our sense of belonging may soon be replaced by longing for escape; our pride of place by the humbling experience of queuing up for placement overseas. The vision we need for a better city is often blurred by the noise of politics and the desperation each day brings.

This makes it all the more imperative that we actively seek solutions. It takes effort, but if we look hard enough, we will rediscover that vision that Von Einsiedel talks about. We definitely must open our eyes and our minds to the many new possibilities of building our cities and our communities. This is our only hope.
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Feedback is welcome. E-mail citysense [email protected]











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