Fighting urban blight

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

The return of the Marcoses to Malacañang was due, not in small part, to the shortcomings of the post EDSA movement. While governments since 1986 have successfully re-established our democracy and laissez faire economy, they fell short in many aspects of governance. Among them is the equitable distribution of wealth, the failure to devolve political power and curb political dynasties and to reverse the culture of corruption. Make no mistake, the Marcos administration will be judged by the degree in which it corrects post-EDSA deficiencies.

Although not often discussed, a significant failure of the post EDSA movement is the livability of our cities. Densely populated cities like Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Baguio have fallen to urban blight and decay. Like frogs sitting in a pot of slowly boiling water, our people are made to live in squalor, congestion and the indignity of living in grime as if it were normal. Most citizens don’t complain since they have bigger problems to deal with – but this does not negate the seriousness of the problem.

Let’s talk about Metro Manila. The mordant truth is that the nation’s capital has become the ugly neighbor to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, all of whom offer better living conditions. Save for a few townships professionally managed by the private sector like BGC and Alabang, the rest of our cities are plagued with degeneration and disorder.

Our cities have ceased to become a reflection of our values, aspirations and achievements as a nation. Rather, they are a morbid metaphor of how our leaders failed to provide a decent quality of life for our people. It mirrors government’s incompetence, corruption, lack of vision and penchant for making exceptions to the law, whether for expediency or personal interest.

The world agrees. Backpacker.com named Manila as the worst Asian city to visit. Waze named it the worst city for motorists and the Asian Correspondent named it the least sustainable city in Asia.

It was not always like this. From the 50’s to the 70’s, Manila was known as being the cleanest, most progressive city in Asia. Not only was it the first to adopt vanguard infrastructure like the North and South Expressways and the Metro Manila Transit System, it also offered open spaces, parks and public facilities like the planetarium. Back then, our cities were clean, green, organized and transport-friendly.

Things took a turn for the worse in 1991 with the enactment of the ill-conceived Local Government Code. The law led to the dissolution of the Metro Manila Commission, the superbody that planned, managed and maintained the nation’s capital. In its place, powers were devolved to the local governments, all of whom adopted their own laws, ordinances and development plans. This explains the disjointed development of Metro Manila.

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) was created but only as a coordinating body. Its role is limited to aligning plans and ordinances among LGUs, not to enforce them. It is in charge of city services like flood control and waste landfills.

The national government has a say only on certain aspects of the Metro’s management, like the issuance of bus franchises and operations of railway, among others. Some government agencies carry out their mandates better than others.

The Department of Public Works and Highways of the past administration is an example. For those unaware, the DPWH is mandated to enforce the building code in public spaces. Yet, it issued permits to thousands of billboards and LED signs even if they are in blatant violation of the building code. Just notice how many billboards are within striking distance of high tension wires, how many are closer than 100 meters apart and how many are installed across public thoroughfares. Billboards and LED signs are the primary cause of urban blight. They obstruct the natural view of the landscape, distract motorists from traffic signs or defile the aesthetics of the city.

To appreciate the grotesque outcome of DPWH’s permissive negligence, one need not look further than the stretch of EDSA, especially between Makati to Ortigas. We hope that Secretary Manuel Bonoan does a better job in controlling the unrestrained proliferation of billboards.

Our flawed administrative framework for city management makes it conducive (and convenient) for the national government and LGUs to engage in a frenzy of finger pointing when things go awry. No one is accountable. No one takes responsibility.

This is what I hope the Marcos government will correct. The challenge is to tweak the administrative framework of city management without railroading the local government code, which unfortunately is enshrined in law.

To this, I recommend that areas of common interest be put under administrative powers of the MMDA and its equivalents in other metropolitan areas. This includes highways and avenues that traverse cities, historical monuments and national parks. Roles shall reverse whereby the MMDA dictates (not recommends) the policies relating to these common areas while the LGUs play the implementing role.

The scope of an empowered MMDA shall encompass the following: Planning, engineering, infrastructure & maintenance, enforcement of engineering codes, traffic management & mobility, landscape & recreation, environmental protection and licensing. These are the same powers of the former Metro Manila Commission, albeit with a limited scope of responsibility.

Having a centralized agency manage the affairs of large cities is more efficient than having it administered by numerous LGUs. It reduces spending redundancies, reduces manpower, prevents corruption and leads to uniform implementation of rules. Decisions are not made independently at a local level with a local perspective but at a macro level. More significantly, it allows for greater accountability.

Admittedly, our cities were best managed under the Marcos administration, circa 1960’s and 1970’s. We hope that under the new Marcos administration, the livability of our cities will be restored and urban blight will be reversed.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @aj_masigan


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