Who Do We Blame For Untrammeled Mega-Urbanization In Manila?

[The following piece was written by Kenneth Cardenas. It is being re-posted in the Philippines Funwall from his Facebook notes.]

We need to bring public scrutiny to bear on the big, if hard-to-answer, issues of unsustainable urbanization and land use planning.

It comes as no surprise that public anger in the aftermath of the Ondoy disaster has focused on corruption and incompetence among government officials: on how Arroyo’s Le Cirque dinner could have paid for disaster response equipment, how her son was spotted stocking up on booze even as people were dying in the rising floodwaters, and how unscrupulous politicians were taking advantage of the situation by plastering their grinning mugs all over relief goods. It is, after all, easier to lay responsibilities on names and faces rather than on structural causes.

There is, however, a critical aspect of the issue that evades easy association with names and faces, and is consequently not addressed by the public debate: the problem of untrammeled, private sector-led urbanization.

Whose face do we associate, for example, with the following problems?

1.) As Felino Palafox pointed out, large areas of the east bank of the Marikina River—the exact same areas that were subjected to a 2-meter flash flood—should not have been settled in the first place. Plans that have been drawn up in 1970 called for limits on construction in these areas and public works designed to withstand even the once-in-a-century flooding we saw last weekend.

2.) The west bank of the Marikina River, which should have been preserved as a watershed, was paved over as exclusive subdivisions (such as La Vista, Loyola Grand Villas, and Ayala Heights), schools (Ateneo de Manila and Miriam College) or settled as slums. In fact, the 1941 Frost Plan for Quezon City identified a protected area on the west bank that stretched from the La Mesa Reservoir in the north down to Libis in the south. (See figs. 1 and 2)

Fig. 1. The 1941 Frost Plan for Quezon City side-by-side with a satellite image of actual land use. Note the green protected area stretching from the Batasan area (military academy on the plan) all the way to Libis.
Fig. 2. Actual land use northeast of the UP Diliman campus. Note that in the original Frost Plan, this would have been protected parkland. Instead, it has been transformed into private subdivisions, a golf course, and slums.

Ideally, a forested catchment basin would have prevented flash flooding by maintaining soils with a high absorptive capacity, but as these slopes were graded and paved over for subdivisions, their ability of the soil to retain rainwater was severely compromised.

It is definitely no coincidence that these were perhaps the worst-hit areas in all of Quezon City, where mansions built on slopes unsuitable for residential areas collapsed and entire slums drowned in floodwaters.

3.) Further upstream in the Marikina River system, this process of paving over watersheds is being repeated by new suburban developments in the Sierra Madre foothills of Rizal. Interestingly, at least two presidential aspirants are heavily invested in this process.

I’ll leave it up to you to guess who.

4.) Last but not the least, an altogether more complex problem: a well-meaning policy requires that real estate developers allocate 20% of their “horizontal” house-and-lot developments to socialized housing. However, no such requirement exists for “vertical” condominium developments.

Since urban land prices are ridiculously high for our level of wealth, and since newly freed-up parcels (like Fort Bonifacio, Camp Bago Bantay and North Triangle) are typically privatized to the highest bidder, the tendency is for real estate developers to build condominiums for the low-risk, high-return markets of high income demographics.

There is absolutely no incentive to develop high-rise residences in the urban core for the majority of the population, effectively denying them, through pricing, the right to legitimate settlement in the urban core.

This has two consequences for how Mega Manila grows, how it is built, and how it was affected by tropical storm Ondoy.

The first is the growth of slums in core areas. Social groups that are so poor that they are not served even by socialized housing, but nonetheless depend on the city for employment, have no choice but to live in slums. As the events of the past weekend show, slums are disproportionately vulnerable to natural disasters, as they are often built on marginal land and have high population densities.

Systematically abandoned by the state and shunned by the market, a disproportionate number of poor Filipinos therefore have to live in slums. While we have roughly the same GDP/capita as Indonesia (Ph: 3,510; Id: 3,975) (PPP$, 2006), fully 44% of urban Filipinos live in slums, compared to 23% of urban Indonesians.

The second consequence is sprawl: the city grows out, rather than up. To tap demographics that are priced out of core urban lands, as well as to meet the government’s 20% socialized housing requirement, developers opt to build house-and-lot subdivisions in the urban periphery, where land is still relatively cheap, and where old landlords are eager to dispose of properties about to be subjected to agrarian reform. Thus, within the past two decades, Manila’s metropolitan area (as defined by a population density of at least 1,000 persons per square kilometer) has grown to become a 3,105 sq. km. monstrosity, with much of this growth occurring as encroachment on prime agricultural land in Bulacan, Cavite, and Laguna.

This worsened the extent of this weekend’s disaster by expanding the land areas that were affected. With a larger land area to cover, transportation and communications for the relief effort was more difficult than it should have been, and the need to coordinate between different local governments prevented a quicker response.

More importantly, most of the growth occurs in suburban and peri-urban areas that do not have the infrastructure, manpower, and equipment to address these sorts of disasters. Keep in mind that some of the most hard-hit areas, such as Marilao in Bulacan, Biñan in Laguna, and San Mateo, Rodriguez and Cainta in Rizal fit this description perfectly: suburban areas that have seen explosive urbanization but did not see a corresponding improvement in infrastructure and local government capacity.

We therefore end up with a city that is more prone to natural disasters than it should be, in a century that will likely see an out-of-whack ecosystem throwing stronger typhoons and unpredictable monsoons at us.

Now, the hard questions: given our propensity to heap public anger on Jaque Bermejos and UglyYuBins, to publicly shame Mikey Arroyos and Manny Villars, and to present Gloria’s resignation as the solution to what is most definitely a persistent, structural problem, how do we, as a public, come to terms with this situation?

If it’s a matter of laying blame, shouldn’t we also be lining up the Ayalas, the Solivens, and hell, even the Jesuits for developing on lands that should have been preserved as watersheds? If we do, how would it solve these problems?

Or if it’s a matter of pinning hopes on our politicians: would a different president, a different NDCC, a different MMDA chair, and different mayors translate to substantial changes in how we build our city?

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