Delightful Davao

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - March 3, 2007 - 12:00am
My jaunts to the south are getting more fre-quent and why not? There’s much to dis-cover and write about. My latest trip was to Davao City, the capital for fruit, flow-ers and fun by the sea. Davao is also a booming metropolis with all its attendant problems of sustaining urban growth without negating its cultural charms and sense of community.

The trip was under the auspices of the Holcim Corporation — in line with its support of sustainable construction and a worldwide competition it is launching this year for the best examples of sustainable construction and design in the world (two entries from the Philippines made it to the Asian round of the contest).

I gave a talk at the Ateneo de Davao University. Located right smack in the middle of the city, the campus is a spanking new building attached to an older complex that defines an inner campus quadrangle — the soul of the school’s student life and right adjacent to a fascinating stained glass-filled chapel and food court. The complex also relates well to the city’s urban fabric with its commercial arcade on two sides.

Two speakers from academe and the environmental NGO network gave talks on sustainable development and design to 300 enthusiastic students of the school’s architecture and engineering programs. There seemed to be a genuine interest in environmental concerns and the kids stayed all the way through the lectures.

With me were fellow professor at the UP College of Architecture Joven Ignacio and Dr. Olivia Lao Castillo. Dean Randell Espina gave a reaction and exhorted the students to pursue environmental concerns in their studies. Fr Antonio Samson SJ, head of the University, graced the event, too (along with Starweek editor Doreen Yu).

I gave a historical insight into how Philippine cities evolved and devolved into the mess they are all in right now. I showed that Davao, like Manila, actually had a rational city plan that was prepared by William Parsons early in the American colonial period. The plan, like Manila’s and Cebu’s, was the basis for the initial city improvements but, of course, because of the government’s perennial lack of funds, the war, and our subsequent loss of planning memory, what resulted was suburban sprawl and the erosion of the city’s historic and cultural cores.

Not all is lost, however. Davao City is a center for tertiary education with increasing enrollment in engineering, architecture and… nursing. Korean English schools are also on the rise (as they are almost everywhere I go in this country). The city’s amenities are increasing, with great food (seafood, of course) and the usual southern offering of grilled everything, kinilaw and wonderful music.

Crime is also low in Davao. It is the city with the least number of cellphone snatchers in the country. Not everyone agrees with how peace and order is kept… but it is kept. There’s also a ban on smoking in the city and air pollution seems to be kept to a minimum, although I noticed the usual growing number of diesel-fueled PUJs, FXs and the ubiquitous polluting and noisy tricycles. (All cities should switch to LPG!)

While there, I managed to roam around the city and its main park, in particular — Magsaysay Park. Situated on the city’s eastern waterfront, the park is a medium-sized green space that is popular with the locals. It boasts children’s playgrounds, a skating rink, an esplanade and a formal plaza with a central focus of a ’50s-era monument to the late President Ramon Magsaysay.

The park used to be managed by the Philippine Tourism Authority. People were charged entry fees and this did not augur well for the locals. Eventually the park was returned to the city. This seems to be a recurring theme with the PTA’s apparent mismanagement of the country’s tourism destinations. Calling Secretary Ace Durano! What’s happening to the PTA? Is it another overstaffed and underperforming burden to the taxpayer?

The park is in a state of disrepair but will soon be renovated by the city’s indefatigable Mayor Duterte. It has a lovely waterfront that should be kept free of any extraneous buildings (unlike Rizal Park’s monstrous additions behind the Quirino grandstand).

Mayor Duterte should keep it simple — just clean up the place, re-plant the shrubs and provide clean toilets. He should avoid the pressure to use gaudy lighting poles like the ones Cebu copied from Manila. He should also hire professional landscape architects, who are trained to design public parks.

I walked around the park and found it filled with kids of all ages. On the lawn was a group of girls and boys playing soccer, supervised by someone I thought was their teacher. He turned out to be a soccer coach and the motley band of kids was his team for the annual Muslim youth soccer league. Watching the team practice were clusters of yayas with their wards. The park is extremely accessible from the city’s residential district and is blessed with adequate parking. It should soon be one of the city’s key public and tourism attractions.

The rest of the city faces the same problems of most Philippine urban areas. Strip commercial development is the default mode of expansion. Zoning seems to be ad hoc. The city’s old center seems to be losing its hold as suburban expansion proceeds non-stop. Malls, schools and other institutions don’t seem to be located in a thoughtfully planned manner to take advantage of proper infrastructure. Billboards are sprouting and blight is creeping in. The airport is new but roadways leading from it lack enough shade trees or flowering shrubs. Road signs and tourism directions are few and the city is un-navigable unless you are in a tour group or with a local.

Having said all that, Davao City still has its charms. The air is still fairly clean and views of the surrounding countryside are still mostly intact. I’d go back to visit for sure. Nope, not for the durian (although many people swear by this fruit), but for the resorts (I wanted to try their Eden Resort up in the hills nearby — as cool as Baguio), Mount Apo and the food.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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