Counting attendance

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2015 - 12:00am

Much has been made of the number of people who attended the papal Mass at Rizal Park last Sunday. News reports varied from four million, to as many as six million who came to the mass. Even the BBC and other international news gathering organizations reported the large number who attended despite the bad weather.

Attendance at events like this is of more than academic concern to professionals like myself, who are planners, urban designers or landscape architects. One of the most important aspects of designing public spaces — plazas, parks, and streets — is their “carrying capacity.” This term means the ability of these spaces to hold large groups of people and their activities.

Vibrant public life is the hallmark of a healthy city. Large metropolises like Metro Manila need proportionately big spaces for events projected to draw millions. The Rizal Park, or the Luneta as it was known since the 19th century, has been the venue of choice for large national events ever since the turn of the previous century.

The Luneta and its extension in the early 1900s was the site for the annual Manila Carnival and the 1937 Eucharistic Congress. These regularly brought Manilans and other visitors in the tens of thousands. As the city grew in population, events in the ’60s like the visits of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and General McArthur attracted hundreds of thousands. From the 1970s, papal visits, charismatic religious, and political rallies started to set the number higher and higher, until news reports began to report crowds of a million or over.

Just how many can the Rizal Park accommodate? This was one of the aspects of the park’s function I looked at when my firm was commissioned to update the park master plan a few years ago. The official area park area is listed at 58 hectares. Only about 30 percent of the park is green area devoted to lawns, shrubs and ground cover. Seventy percent is hard paving or areas occupied by buildings, fountains, ponds, roads and monuments of course (there are over 50 statues, not just Rizal’s).

The actual area from this figure that can be used to view anything at the Quirino Grandstand is about half of the total area. We can assume about 30 hectares at the most. This translates to 300,000 square meters. Most crowd estimates use four people to a square meter as a peg. By this standard, the maximum that the Rizal Park can accommodate is 1.2 million.

This figure does not include the capacity of the roads around the park to hold people, which could yield another two to three hundred thousand. In once-in-a-lifetime events such as a papal visit, the surrounding boulevards and streets leading to Rizal Park can yield another million or so people. The total theoretical number would then be between two and a half to three million who went out to view the event, even though not all were able to physically be in the park itself.

To compare attendance in similar spaces, we can look at the number of people who attended Barrack Obama’s. Reports had the number at between 1.2 and 1.8 million. The event was held at Washington DC’s National Mall. The comparison is appropriate since this space was designed by the same architect/planner as our Rizal Park. Daniel Burnham laid out his big plans for the US capital four years before coming to Manila and replicating the same template for what was to be our central civic space.

Both the US National Mall and our Luneta are about 80 to 90 meters wide in the central open space fringed by the trees. Both are between 230 and 280 meters wide including the buildings lots that border them (museums and such civic structures). The difference is that the US National Mall is over twice the length of the Rizal Park.



In any case, the events held at the US Mall are either in the half that is between the capitol building and the Washington Monument, or the half that is between that monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The 1.2-1.8 million reported numbers then jives with out own space and estimates of people attending these events.

The design of public spaces must take into account large gatherings like these and incorporate facilities, either temporary or permanent, to make then possible. With crowds getting bigger, the matter of toilets, first aid, security and bad weather options become important in any space’s renovation or upgrading.

The National Parks Development Committee is shackled by lack of funds to completely crowd-proof the Rizal Park permanently. Funds are released for special events but damage to park landscaping and facilities are inevitable.

We had estimated a cost of one billion pesos for Rizal Park’s complete and necessary makeover but less than a third, I believe, was given. By comparison, Singapore just spent over 30 times that amount for their new Gardens by the Bay Park. 

The reported budget for the adjacent golf course around Intramuros is larger per square meter than the park’s yet it services the recreational needs of a few hundred golfers only. The Rizal Park has to service the open space requirements of 12 million people.

Clearly, there is a need to reprioritize funding for general public space, parks, and public amenities. Filipinos like to gather in crowds, it’s in our DNA to celebrate with as many people as we can gather. Such gatherings are good for us for democratic expression, religious outpouring, or just plain fun. The total number is not so important but it would not hurt to make sure that we have enough green, open public space for our metropolis and its growing population.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.


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