By Cathy Rose A. Garcia, Managing Editor

THE PANDEMIC has exposed the vulnerabilities of mega-cities like Metro Manila, but it also offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct urban planning mistakes, a top urban planner said.

Palafox Associates Founder and Principal Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox, Jr. said the pandemic is forcing cities around the world to rethink urban development for the “new normal.”

“I think cities will bounce back and bounce forward… We must learn from it. In fact with this pandemic. We are revisiting plans and programs that were not implemented. Even cities like Milan, the center of the pandemic, they are now changing urban development,” he said during a fireside chat at the BusinessWorld Virtual Economic Forum on Nov. 25.

In April, Milan unveiled the Strade Aperte plan which aimed to reduce car use by introducing bicycle lanes, wider pavements, and pedestrian and cyclist-priority streets.

“Other cities in the past, every time there is a pandemic, they improve. when there was cholera in Paris and London, they fixed their sewerage system so there was clean water and sanitation. In the US, when there was a cholera epidemic, they created Central Park and more open spaces,” Mr. Palafox said.

Mr. Palafox lamented the lack of public parks and open spaces in Metro Manila, saying cities should be more walkable and bikeable.

“Open spaces are the lungs of the city. What we are pushing for is the 15-minute city… Neighborhoods where one can work, live, dine, shop and learn with healthcare and wellness centers should be within the 15-minute walk or ride,” he said.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo earlier this year proposed the “ville du quart d’heure” — the quarter-hour city — where offices, shops, health facilities, and parks will just be a 15-minute walk or bike ride away. She also proposed creating bike lanes and removing parking spaces for cars.

Mr. Palafox believes Metro Manila can still implement similar measures to ease congestion. Several mayors in Metro Manila have implemented bike lanes in their cities during the lockdown.

“I’ve also been proposing for our congested cities to have elevated walkways and bike lanes in EDSA or congested areas that do not have wide sidewalks… This will have vendors in the area, so that all hours of the day, you feel safe. With vendors, there are more eyes on the public realm, so you feel safer,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Palafox said the pandemic also gives the Philippine government an opportunity to balance national development.

“The primacy of Metro Manila is wrong. A primate city is more than 10 times the second largest city… Makati, Ortigas and Fort Bonifacio, these are areas with big concentrations of jobs and economic activity but they are surrounded by low-density, gated communities. So the employees of these job centers are edged out of the housing stock around the centers. We can correct that and maybe these CBDs, after this pandemic, should build more affordable housing for workers so they become part of the city,” he said.

It would be ideal to have more integrated, mixed-use developments within the cities, Mr. Palafox added.

Climate change is another problem being faced by cities, especially in the Philippines. Two super typhoons (Rolly and Ulysses) caused heavy flooding in parts of Luzon island.

“Metro Manila used to be the Pearl of the Orient Seas, now it is an example of how not to develop a city, how not to do it,” Mr. Palafox said.

“Zoning should be changed so the projects face the waterfront. Waterfront is an amenity, and our country has the fifth longest coastline in the world… Unfortunately in our country, we treat the waterfront, our waterways as the garbage and sewerage system.”

The Philippines has a total coastline of 36,289 kilometers, according to the Environment department.

Mr. Palafox said the government should make preparations to address potential disasters, since it is “90% cheaper, less expensive to address the hazards before they become disasters rather than post-disaster rehabilitation.”

“This crisis, we can get inspired by the best practices in the world and we can correct the mistakes we made,” Mr. Palafox said.