FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno () - April 15, 2010 - 12:00am

It’s rarely called that anymore. But once upon a time, Manila was nicknamed Pearl of the Orient.

This was one of Asia’s most majestic cities. Its bustling port made Manila one of the major nodes of trade in the region.

Manila was the first Asian city to have its own zoo. The Lacson underpass was the first such infrastructure in all of Asia. The city, with its vibrant cultural life and cosmopolitan people, was the envy of the region.

I remember an ad ran by the Manila Hotel in international publications. Its copy went thus: There are a few places that must be seen in Asia; one of them is a hotel.

When it was a city of some influence, Manila was chosen headquarters for the Asian Development Bank. The city was frequently the site of international summit meetings.

There are many things that explain Manila’s decline. Decades of inward-looking economic policies hostile to trade diminished the importance of Manila’s port. As the port dwindled in importance, so did the city that grew out of it.

Then Manila’s suburbs outgrew their mother city. Makati became the center of business and finance. Quezon City, for a time, was appointed the nation’s capital. Other municipalities were simply well-managed by forward looking local executives.

Manila fell into the inner-city dynamic characteristic of many old urban centers. Its streets were too narrow. There was little land available for new developments. The city was configured for an old economy that had long passed.

As wealthier residents and large businesses fled its boundaries to resettle in the suburbs, the ability of the city to finance its redevelopment declined. The less endowed the local government, the less is it able to arrest the city’s deterioration. It is an unholy spiral.

The downward spiral, however, is not inevitable. With enough determination, enough imagination and enough energy, competent leadership could restore the city’s robustness.

Cities are economic organisms in themselves. Through neglect, they could become anemic. Through energetic leadership, their vigor could be restored.

There are enough things going for Manila, nevertheless, even if tourists do not come through the port anymore, and even if the city might seem congested and unhealthy.

The city remains the seat of our cultural heritage. Its core, Intramuros, and the gracious districts that many years ago grew outside the walled city could still recover their charm. That recovery, however, can only happen as an acute business proposition and not as a shallow decorative project. It is possible to reinvent modern urban living in a classical ambience. Property developers know that only too well.

The Pasig River, which bisects the city, has tremendous economic potential that could be harnessed both for transport and property development.

The bay frontage has been an underutilized asset of the city. There were sound efforts in the past to rehabilitate the bay frontage as anchor for the redevelopment of the Ermita and Malate districts as a quarter for fine dining and good entertainment. Those efforts were not sustained.

There are elegant waterways in the city that died with reckless urbanization. They need to be rehabilitated and transformed into lush public spaces. Many of the esteros may be cleared and cleaned and redeveloped into fashionable areas for people to enjoy.

The redevelopment of the old racetrack into a high-rise residential area gives us a glimpse into how a neighborhood can be dramatically transformed. The place is now brighter and commercial activity brisk.

If the oil depots are relocated to a safer place, possibly in the Baseco compound, the Pandacan area could be redeveloped into a strategically located residential complex. See how Makati benefited from the redevelopment of Rockwell, once the site of an obsolete power plant. The area now occupied by the oil depots is many times larger, with an equally commanding view of the river.

Escolta, which also runs alongside the river, may be revived as the fashionable strip it once was. It could be like the Ramblas, the lively center of the Barcelona where high-end shopping coexists with nooks for artists and artisans, book stores and curio shops.

One cannot redevelop a city simply by installing garish streetlamps. Nodes of new economic activity need to be strategically cultivated. Key property investments will reflect in improved property prices and draw in new commercial establishments.

A clear plan for urban redevelopment must be drawn up. It must be supported by the residents. In order to draw in the required investments, the plan for urban renewal must work on a clear timeline. The political mandate for it must be definite.

This is a good time to think hard about redeveloping our capital city. The financial climate is favorable for long-term investments in property development. Large-scale infrastructure projects — additional rail lines and a skyway skirting the city — should enhance Manila’s central location in a booming megalopolis.

There is a grand effort now underway to rehabilitate the Pasig River and an environmentalist consensus to recover the lost waterways that crisscross Manila. Entertainment City, along the bay, will bring new life to the boulevard.

Manila could yet recover its old status as one of Asia’s great cities.

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