Modern Living

Once there was a ‘Central Park’ in Zamboanga

ARANGKADA - Paulo Alcazaren - The Philippine Star
Once there was a âCentral Parkâ in Zamboanga
Zamboanga City’s Rizal Plaza defines the center of this fast-changing city.

This week we continue our series on Philippine plazas and parks with another Mindanao city, Zamboanga. The city of just under a million people has had a colorful history shaped by two colonial powers’ need to have a military presence in the region. Today it is one of the leading cities of the region that hopes to expand its economic influence.

Zamboanga’s urban form developed, as many Spanish colonial era towns did, from the original native settlement being replaced by a fort and surrounded by a formal grid pattern of streets. The settlement was small until the 1900s because this was the edge of  Spanish political and military control in the islands.

The first Spanish initiative was in 1569. Pirates and threats from the English led them to abandon the settlement in 1599. They returned a few decades later to establish a more permanent settlement and a stronger military presence, housed in Fort Pilar, which stands to this day.

The fort and settlement became contested ground between the locals and Spaniards all through the 16th to 18th centuries. This eased up enough in the mid-18th century as trade was opened up with Southeast Asia, Europe and the rest of the world. A customs house was established by the Spanish to support the opening up of the region. Despite this, the town’s population was small and would only increase in the American period.

When the Americans took over, they also made Zamboanga their base of operations.

General John J. Pershing made it his headquarters from 1909-1914. Improvements to the fort, the port and urban districts surrounding it were implemented. A capitol building was constructed in 1905, since Zamboanga was the Moro Province’s capital until 1920. It was turned into the town hall and eventually the city hall after Zamboanga was made a chartered city in 1936.


The distinctive Zambaonga City Hall, inspired by local forms, formed the base of a series of plaza and open spaces extending from it to the NorthEast. The first is Plaza Rizal, a thousand square-meter-linear space with the cursory monument and statue of the National Hero at its center. Aside from the city hall another colonial structure, the neo-classic Chartered bank of India, Australia and China, defined its Eastern edge. It was built in 1928.

At the farthest end of Plaza Rizal is Plaza Pershing, named after the governor of the province. The plaza is approximately 3,000 sq.m. triangle of green, which formed the center of American expat life in the first few decades of the 20th century. It contained a gazebo and fronted the American Protestant church. Many postcards and pictures of the era show these spaces as a verdant, tree-lined, and well maintained.

Three other smaller green spaces near these first two plazas were also constructed and still exist today.

In 1912 a larger open space for a park was designated by General Pershing and located north of the town. Pasonanca Park was reportedly designed by Thomas Hanley, reportedly a “parksman” — a parks designer or builder —  as many city parks were being built in the United States. Hanley provided the standard green and forested elements of a Central Park-like amenity, along with campsites, a swimming pool and an amphitheater.

Pasonanca was called Zamboanga’s Little Baguio since it was located up the cool hills north of the city. It became the traditional refuge of residents. In 1960 it was improved to include two more pools, a treehouse, a butterfly sanctuary. Later an aviary was added and now features different bird species, along with the Philippine Monkey Eating Eagle.

The city survived the Second World War but it was to see more conflict and tension in the following five decades. The population has grown quickly as Zamboanga edges towards becoming a metropolis. Wharf and port reclamation have also led to a new open space, the Paseo del Mar, which opened in 2009. It rivals Dumaguete’s as a popular attraction for locals and visitors.

The original plazas remain despite ups and downs in maintenance regimens that saw Pershing Plaza’s deterioration into an undesirable corner of the city. Since a decade ago it has undergone several renovations, the last one being in 2012 at the reported cost of seven million pesos. The renovated plaza was opened by then Mayor Celso Lobregat and Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr.

Pasonanca Park has also undergone cycles of deterioration and renewal in the last few decades. A modern extension is the Mayor Climaco Freedom Park, which hosts additional swimming pools, a campsite for scouts, WWII memorials, a shrine to Ninoy Aquino, and the resting place of Mayor Climaco himself (something like the Quezon Memorial Circle).

I rate Zamboanga’s inner city plazas and parks an 8 out of 10. I rate Pasonanca a 7 out of 10. Better urban design and landscape architecture could enhance all of these spaces. The urban spaces could also be better linked with each other with better standards of trees and sidewalks. Pasonanca Park needs a makeover to revive both green and built elements of the park.

Mindanao continues to be a land of promise. Zamboanga is one of many urban centers that are gifted with heritage, civic spaces and expansive green that would serve an expanded urban population and development density well. The key is to learn from Metro Manila’s mistakes, conserve what they have, improve amenities, and ensure continuing maintenance. The goal should be that the public continues to have access to open space, recreation and lush landscapes to balance the detrimental effects of modern and rapidly changing urban life.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at [email protected]. Image of McDonald’s courtesy of architect Edwin Uy. Image of Rizal Plaza courtesy of Make It Ciudad de Zamboanga FB page.


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