Wanted: Livable spaces

SINGKIT - Doreen G. Yu - The Philippine Star

I was in Singapore the other week and what caught my attention, aside from the famously lush greenery (it’s just as hot there as it is here, so why isn’t a single plant or patch of grass dry and brown?), is how smooth the roads are. Not just the four-lane highway from the airport into town, but even the high-traffic city streets – like Orchard and Bukit Timah roads and inner city streets like New Bridge Road and Seah Street (the latter where that famous chicken rice place is located) – offer a cushioned ride. Of course it helps that their public transport, especially taxis, use new, well-maintained vehicles (one cab we took was a hybrid, so quiet and smooth).

Five days a week on my way to work I traverse a stretch of EDSA from Shaw/Mandaluyong to Tramo/Pasay City. That 8-kilometer stretch is a bumpy patchwork of different paving materials, a crazy quilt of asphalt patches on concrete, with an occasional metal sheet covering what could be a big hole or unfinished work. And this is the main thoroughfare of the metropolis. It’s a smooth drive once I get on the NAIAX at the new Tramo ramp, and fast too (60 kph is the limit), so I figure the P45 toll is worth the time and stress saved (I’ll not eat ice cream nalang to cover this additional expense).

Comparisons with Singapore are usually met with the rejoinder that the city state is so small (734.3 square kilometers) and contained in one compact island, with a population of only 5.6 million people. Metro Manila, by comparison, is actually smaller at 638.6 square kilometers but with a population of almost 15 million occupying 17 fiefdoms (16 cities and one municipality) under one authority – the MMDA – that is hard-pressed to enforce some kind of unified governance. Just think of the vehicle number coding system (who has window hours, who honors senior citizens, etc.) and just how long it took for the 17 mayors to agree on and implement the single ticketing system.

There was an article recently in The New York Times about Liu Thai Ker, the architect largely responsible for replacing Singapore’s once squalid slums they were also called squatters – with spacious, bright high-rise residence complexes that were not just livable but affordable for the average Singaporean (never mind that a few units have recently been sold for over S$1million).

Architect Liu, now 86, has an MA in city planning and used to work with the master IM Pei in New York. Realizing America didn’t need him – “they had way too many architects” – he returned to Singapore in 1969 and joined the Housing and Development Board. He was tasked by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to resettle everyone still living in slums by 1982; by 1985, practically every Singaporean had a home.

He created “new towns” – planned urban centers of self-sufficient neighborhoods with schools, shops, playgrounds, food stalls where residents – a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian – could mingle.

I would like to think – dream may be more like it – that such a formula could be applied to Metro Manila, and I’m not talking about the affluent township developments but affordable planned communities for the average Pinoy. I am encouraged by the recently inaugurated 4PH (Pambansang Pabahay para sa Pinoy) housing project in San Mateo, Rizal that has not just places to live (target is 4,000 condo-type units) but amenities like a clubhouse, basketball court (of course!), pool, etc.

Perhaps we’re finally getting the idea of creating real livable communities rather than unlivable “relocation sites” far from work and schools and hospitals, i.e., far from the rest of the world.

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