Building the cities of tomorrow

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By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

QUEZON CITY, the largest and the most populated city in Metro Manila, is now 75, and to mark the occasion, it held a forum that looked into the past and the future of cities like itself. “Future Perfect: Cities at the Forefront of Change and Development,” held on Oct. 8 and 9, is one of several events held in celebration of Quezon City’s Diamond Jubilee.

Whether a city is old or new, “shouldn’t we be good at [building and developing] it by now?” asked urban planner Benjamin de la Peña at the forum. Apparently, people aren’t good in city planning, said Mr. De la Peña, an advocate for growth and development of cities, who has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from Harvard University.

For most people, the quintessential image of a city is a skyline filled with towering skyscrapers. Yet one of the most famous cities of the world, New York, is not at the top of the list when it comes to cities having the most number of buildings, said Dr. Peter J. Marcotullio, director of the Institute for Sustainable Cities of the City University of New York. Despite the iconic Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, he pointed out that North America only has 2,826 skyscrapers. Europe has only 662 skyscrapers. Asia, on the other hand, has a whopping 5,720 skyscrapers as of 2014, including the famed Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Tokyo Tower in Japan, Petronas Towers in Malaysia, and the Bird’s Nest stadium in China.

(According to  the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a “skyscraper” is a building that is over 150 meters tall.)

Cities around the world, but most especially in Asia, are currently faced with a slew of problems: traffic, famine, overpopulation, floods, garbage, and natural disasters like typhoons, tsunamis, and earthquakes.

“Asian countries have the densest and most populated cities in the world,” said Dr. Marcotullio, at the forum. Citing the reports from the World Bank and the United Nations (UN), he pointed out that there was only one megacity in Asia in 1950 — Tokyo in Japan. A city is considered “mega” if it has 10 million or more residents. In 2010, there were 13 megacities in Asia. And by 2030, it is estimated that there will be 24 Asian megacities.

The UN expects the Philippines to have a population of 190 million people by 2100, and they are expected to be living in cities. “Cities attract the poor,” said Mr. De la Peña, “because there are opportunities.”

With great development comes great consequences. “The speed of urbanization has created social and environmental hazards,” said Dr. Marcotullio.

Asian cities, including the Philippines’, are considered the most vulnerable to climate change and the natural disasters that arises from it, he noted. According to a UN report in 2011, the cities of Tokyo, Manila, Seoul, Hong Kong, Delhi, Shanghai, Taipei, and Guangzhou, among others, are susceptible to tropical cyclones, drought, floods, and landslides.


A “future-perfect” city boils down to having “urban resilience, increase in adaptive capacity, strong political will, and increased adaptation efforts,” said Dr. Marcotullio. “Meaningful adaptation actions are happening, but not at the rate or scale needed to address current and future climate change risks.” Still, cities around the world are taking actions in preparation for tomorrow.

Take the case of Quezon City.

President Manuel L. Quezon imagined it as “a capital city that politically shall be the seat of the national government; aesthetically, the showplace of the nation.” He began in the 1930s with housing projects for the masses, situated around the area that was originally planned to be the national seat of power — what is now the Quezon City Memorial Circle. But with the advent of World War II, construction was put on hold. Soon, what started as a vision of “city of dreams” was replaced with rapid urban sprawl.

While Quezon City today is far different than the president’s utopian dream city, it still aspires to be better. It is working to being a livable, sustainable city.

Quezon City is the most populous city in Metro Manila. The latest data said it has nearly three million residents, 40% of whom below 20-years old. It has 60,000 business establishments, 66 hospitals, and is home to the world’s fifth largest mall in terms of lease area, SM North EDSA.

Over the last decade, the local government has been trying to address problems on sustainability amid its increasing population and development.

In 2008, the city pioneered a biogas emission-reduction project in Payatas, the giant dumpsite notorious for the garbage landslide that engulfed the ironically named shanty-filled barangay, Lupang Pangako, in 2000. The Italy-based company Pangea Green Energy, through the Clean Development Mechanism, piloted the Payatas project. It was the first of its kind in the Southeast Asia when it started. Today the program converts biogas — the result of decaying organic matter — into electricity while also reducing the dump’s greenhouse gas emissions. On average, the project reduces an annual average of 116,000 tons of carbon dioxide. According to the report “What Makes a City Sustainable” from the World Bank, “Quezon City became the first Philippine local government unit to earn carbon credits from waste management initiatives.”

In 2009, the city passed its Green Building Ordinance, which requires the construction, design, and retrofitting of buildings to meet standards of green infrastructure. The features of a green building include rooftop gardens, water-saving toilets, light-emitting diode (LED) light fixtures, and green surroundings, among others. Among the city’s green buildings and developments are the UP Technohub, Eastwood, Robinson’s Land Tera Tower, and Quezon City Hall, among others.

In 2010, the city pioneered an urban farming campaign. Today, inside Quezon Memorial Circle one finds rows of vegetables planted in a 1,500 square-meter area.

“Quezon City is lucky in that places, especially in Fairview and Novaliches, still have a province-like ambiance. We have organic piggeries and chicken farms. As long as you’re not near streets, even if you’re at the slums, you can grow organic produce,” Quezon City Vice-Mayor Maria Josefina “Joy” Belmonte told BusinessWorld at the Organic Market Fiesta in July.

She said the urban farming campaign is the best funded of all of her projects “because I believe in it.”

Traffic congestion is one of the major problems of a metropolitan area. Trying to put a positive spin on the worsening traffic situation, President Benigno S. C. Aquino III recently said that this was a sign of progress, arguing that today many people can afford to buy their own cars. But urban designer Mr. De la Peña pointed out that people are what are important in cities, not cars or buildings. “Pay attention to the living things — and not the cars and the buildings. Pay attention to humans when developing a city,” he said.

Most cities here and abroad are planned the other way around, he said. Engineers, businesses, and local government units plan buildings and car passages first before considering the welfare of the people who will live in the city.

He said more road construction does not necessarily address the problem of congestion. “The more roads you make, the more cars you attract,” he said. The tendency when there are more roads is for people to buy new cars.

He pointed to Paris and Seoul — two cities whose population densities are among the top in the world and which also have traffic problems, yet, they remain people-friendly. There are bike lanes in Paris and Seoul (which few places in Metro Manila have), there are parks (those which exist in Metro Manila are, with few exeptions, occupied by informal settlers), and safe alleys and side streets (not safe in Metro Manila).

Mr. De la Peña added that long, monotonous rows of buildings and walls only stress people. “We like seeing other people walk,” he said.

While today the focus in on the perennial problem of traffic, the convention also looked into what would be a much bigger problem — a massive earthquake. Experts say the West Valley Fault, which passes through Quezon City, Marikina City, Taguig City, Pasig City, Muntinlupa City, and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite, and Laguna, is ripe for a major shake.

They are calling it The Big One, expecting a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that could collapse the cities in an instant. There are reportedly 1,184 structures (homes, offices, factories) in Taguig alone on the fault line.

According to Quezon City Head of Public Order and Safety General Elmo San Diego, there are 1,000 informal dwellings and 600 structures on top of the fault line in Quezon City.

“For obvious reasons, hindi mo sila mapapaalis (you cannot shoo them away). There is resistance,” he said. But the local government does capacity training while and keeping the residents in the affected area informed, he added.

On July 30, Metro Manila had a metro-wide earthquake drill with wide participation by both the pubic and private sectors.

Mr. San Diego told BusinessWorld that the best approach in dealing with disasters in cities starts with the local government empowering the community level, with a “bottom-up approach,” he said. Initiatives should start with the individual. “We should start helping ourselves first,” he said.

American journalist Ben Paynter said it best: “Urbanization has lured more people to bustling metropolises, but precious little thought has been given to what happens when these cities fail.”

And the failure of a city is what we don’t want to happen.