Trees In The City
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - June 14, 2003 - 12:00am
I received a lot of feedback from last Saturday’s piece on the trees of Katipunan. Most of them were concerned about the impending loss while recognizing the monstrous traffic problem on Katipunan Avenue and the rest of the metropolis. The logic put forward by authorities identifying trees as contributing to traffic and floods just does not hold water for most folks.

Trees are an important element of any humane cityscape. They are not to be relegated to parks and plazas but should be utilized in the metropolis’ roads, streets and boulevards. They provide shade for vehicles and pedestrians alike. Trees and planting verges provide safety buffers between fast traffic and slow pedestrians.

We all know that they do help clean the air – each one with the strength of several air-conditioners. Trees and general landscaping mitigate glare and the heat of the sun as well as (contrary to what some officials say) help manage storm water. Tree-filled cities are cooler by several degrees than cities that lack them; that’s why Singapore is cooler than Manila despite being closer to the equator than us.

Trees serve these utilitarian needs as well as an aesthetic function. Who can deny the fact that they help beautify our surroundings by covering ugly architecture, oppressive billboards and tangled power lines? Studies have proven time and again that greenery directly contributes to the reduction of stress in people by providing visual and psychic relief.

Trees help provide a sense of place and seasonal variance in a constantly drab urban environment. They serve to give human scale to streets overwhelmed with inhumanly scaled or cold modern architecture. Trees and local planting materials serve to give distinctiveness and geologic specificity to places – helping us appreciate our connectivity with a natural environment already threatened by disasters and our own irresponsible neglect.

When I started this column four years ago, I cited a book prepared by the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. The book –The Tropical Garden City: Its Creation and Maintenance was printed in 1990 and is a great "how to" reference for tropical cities like Manila for any urban greening project. The book cites the success Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have had in creating clean and green cities without having to compromise traffic or flood-control programs (both cities have extremely well-maintained and clear drainage canals and flood-control systems).

What I showed readers then – and what is reproduced here again – was the frontispiece of the book, which featured two pictures: One of a well-landscaped, tree-filled city and the other, an ugly mess devoid of any greenery or sense of order. The upper picture was a shot of modern Kuala Lumpur while the other, though unnamed, was obviously Manila. How can we achieve this environmental quality with just more and more concrete? The solution to drainage and traffic surely must be more than just an engineering one.

Manila, in fact, tried to follow suit. In 1993, the Manila Metropolitan Authority (the immediate precursor of the MMDA) came up with a set of guidelines for landscape development in Metro Manila. A modest green pamphlet was prepared with the assistance of the DENR, the Philippine Association of Landscape Architects, UP Los Baños’ Forest Development Council and the Jurong Environmental Engineering Company of Singapore.

The foreword to the book was written by then First Lady Amelita Ramos who cited that "... the greening of Metro Manila has become more urgent than ever. The proper planting and maintenance of street trees and other greenery are necessary not just to beautify our surroundings but more importantly, to create an urban setting that is orderly and environmentally beneficial." Mrs. Ramos pointed out that three decades of uncoordinated attempts at greening the city have failed up to that point and she hoped that this book could provide the technical information to achieve what our neighbors have in shorter time than that.

The guidelines cover all types of street tree-planting situations and give a list of preferred species along with recommended spacing and maintenance guidelines. The book also explains in detail the proper approaches to the greening of campuses, underpasses, parking lots, flyovers, pedestrian overhead bridges and other infrastructure. Finally, it also presents the complete and proper procedure for transplanting trees.

On the other hand, the MMDA does not seem to advocate the same strategies for greening now. It does not also seem to follow its own guidelines for transplanting trees. The said guidelines specify that between three and five weeks’ preparation time is needed before trees can be properly moved. According to experts, when transplanting trees, the mortality rates rise with the age of the trees. It’s a 50-50 change for large or mature trees and even less if the trees are as old as the ones on Katipunan.

There is clearly something wrong with the overall picture now. What kind of message are we giving our children if we prioritize concrete over nature, cars over people, the exigencies of traffic over a proper way to plan a city? Options, say authorities, were discussed with stakeholders like the Ateneo, Miriam and UP. No solutions were reached. The whole process seems to have been lacking in openness or general public debate. Surely, some strategy could have been arrived at to meet everyone’s requirements.

This strategy should be coordinated within a larger one of traffic management. Traffic is one of the most difficult urban problems and the solution found by our neighbors like Singapore points to reducing or strictly controlling the growth of the car population and the use of cars in critical zones. It is a management strategy, not one predicated mainly on the building of more and more roads. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have a well-coordinated policy of urban growth supported by mass-transport and traffic management that even western cities like London are studying and adopting.

I believe it would help if we all pitched in. The chairman of the MMDA can only rely on solutions he probably feels are the quickest, most straightforward way to address a problem. This can work if the problem is just trying to get from A to B in the shortest possible time. The solutions to modern urban problems are far more complex than that. For sure, the draconian settings of Singapore (and partly Malaysia) are neither replicable nor wanted here. We have to find a way to bring out true citizenship in everyone without resorting once again to martial rule.

We find great difficulty in relating to issues of our larger communities. Part of the difficulty lies in the physical dysfunction of our city. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation. We do not feel connected enough to our neighbors. The disorder of our streets and urban districts force all of us inward to our gated subdivisions, educational institutions, and walled-up houses. We should break down these barriers and open up to the city and our neighbors.

True community can only prosper if we relate to one another, discuss alternatives and decide on strategies that are sustainable. We need to plant rather than uproot, plan better rather than patch-up for the meantime, persist with our goals of creating a better life rather than give in fatalistically to a life of cyclical disaster.
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