Filipinos deprived of livable cities

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan - The Philippine Star

When we are surrounded by disorder, clutter and chaos, we become desensitized by them. Such is the case for residents of Metro Manila and cities around the country.

The uncomfortable truth is that Metro Manila is considered among least livable cities in the world, according to Expat City Rankings, The Economist, Forbes, Backpacker.com, etc. Anyone who looks at Metro Manila with fresh, unbiased eyes will see what outsiders see. Chaotic streets populated with decrepit jeepneys; the indignity of pedestrians; the absence of open spaces and recreational amenities; the rarity of museums and cultural facilities; historical sites allowed to fall to blight; a disrespect for building easements; and the lack of greeneries. What is true in Metro Manila is true in cities around the country.

All these are made worse by the proliferation of billboards, both tarpaulined and electric. Billboards are visual trash that litter our roads and airspace, worsening chaos and clutter. They are advertising junk mail force-fed to us. After their useful life, tarpaulin billboards are discarded and burnt in our landfills. They produce noxious gases that we inevitably breathe.

Unknown to most, the greater majority of billboards are in violation of the National Building Code. Insider sources informed me that billboards are allowed to operate on the back of “revenue shares” (bribes) paid to officials of a certain government department and local government officials. This lucrative scheme is the reason why billboards continue to proliferate by the tens of thousands, without control, even if they defy the building code. We should all recognize billboards as a manifestation of corruption. They enrich a small group at the expense of public.

For decades, our leaders peddled the idea that since we are a financially challenged nation, we must be content with poor living conditions. This is a statement laced with malice. It is malicious since it sets the bar of expectations to the barest minimum. It increases our tolerance for incompetence, corruption and poor governance. It gives license to our leaders to maintain the inferior status quo and quashes our hopes for better living conditions.

As a result, no one raises a howl. No one demands for more. We were programmed to believe that poorly managed cities are what we deserve.

Our leaders, both on the national and local levels, aspire low and deliver low. Almost no one benchmarks against international standards since doing so eliminates opportunities for corruption and commits them to conform to the highest criterion of productivity and ethics.

Managing cities in a manner that gives dignity to its citizens has less to do with finances as it does good governance. Cities like Hanoi and Da Nang in Vietnam operate with less financial resources but are far better managed than Metro Manila. They are shaping up nicely in terms of cleanliness, safety, walkability, public spaces and cultural features.

A key reason for our poorly managed cities is the ill-conceived Local Government Code of 1991, authored by former senator Aquilino Pimentel. The law called for the dissolution of the Metro Manila Commission (later on changed to the Metro Manila Authority), the super body that was responsible for long-term city planning and management of the capital. In its place, powers were devolved to the local governments of Metro Manila’s 16 cities and one municipality, all of whom adopted their own laws, ordinances and development plans.

The local government code created political dynasties that treated their cities like mini-fiefdoms. Mayors looked inward, concerned only with the development of their respective domains. This explains why Metro Manila’s growth has been disorganized, disjointed and bereft of a long-term vision.

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) was created but its role is limited to aligning plans and ordinances among LGUs, not to enforce them. It is in charge of city services like trash collection and flood control, which it does with moderate success. It also embarked on a token greening of EDSA.

The flawed local government code has made it convenient for the national government and LGUs to point fingers at each other when things go awry. No one takes responsibility.

One will argue that there are pockets within Metro Manila that are managed like first-world cities. Among them are Bonifacio Global City, the Makati CBD, ASEANA City and Filinvest Corporate City. These curated districts, called “townships,” are owned and managed by private corporations. They are centrally planned according to international standards, hence, they are highly livable and highly desirable.

Unfortunately, no city or barangay, managed by a local government unit, can match the standards of privately owned townships. Of course, some cities are better managed than others. The city of Manila and Quezon City have greatly improved in the last few years.

A study by urban economist Albert Sainz, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made a correlation between livable cities and key growth indicators. Livable cities are able to attract young, highly educated residents who contribute positively to the workforce. They increase a city’s capability for innovation. Desirable cities translate to higher housing prices and greater property appreciation. It leads to a higher tourist intake, which further enriches the city. As for its citizens, living in well-managed cities gives them dignity, pride and contribute to their quality of life.

After years of disjointed development, Metro Manila has ceased to be a reflection of our values, aspirations and achievements as a people. Rather, it is a morbid metaphor of how our leaders have failed to provide a decent quality of life for our people. It mirrors government’s incompetence, corruption and lack of vision.

Metro Manila cannot continue to develop in today’s fragmented manner. Development must be made more coherent if it is to match the standards of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. That said, the jurisdiction of the MMDA must expand to include NCR-Plus master planning; inter-city public works; sanitation and environment; disaster resiliency; traffic, transportation and drainage; and culture and sports development.

This will require tremendous political will since legislation must be passed to recalibrate the mandates of the MMDA in relation to LGUs.

But I do not lose hope. Public policy starts and ends with whoever sits in Malacañang. That is how Philippine politics works. If our next president calls for an urban renewal program extensive enough to make Metro Manila and key cities truly world class, then it will be done.

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