The Center Cannot Hold

All roads lead to Manila but they should also lead out

MAGNASANTI, a virtual city created by Filipino architecture student Vincent Ocasla on the Sim City 3000 video game, has 6 million residents living in relative stability for 50,000 years. There is no crime, no congestion, and no pollution.

There is also not much life. Citizens live in a police state, have a life expectancy of 50 years, and hardly ever leave home. There is no point because anywhere in Magnasanti is like everywhere else for maximum efficiency. It took Ocasla three years of math and sketches to create his virtual city and beat an unbeatable game.

In contrast, the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) has given the country six years to do something just as daunting: keep Metro Manila from collapsing on itself.

Metro Manila, composed of 16 interlocking cities and municipalities, had an already unmanageable population of 11.6 million in 2007. At a presentation at the Shanghai World Expo in April, the Philippine delegation said that urbanization has spread to create a Mega Manila, an area that will encompass the provinces of Pampanga, Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, and Batangas. HUDCC estimates that by 2050, 117 million Filipinos—84% of the population—will be living in Mega Manila and smaller urban centers around the country.

But what sort of life would that be? According to the HUDCC’s National Urban Development and Housing Framework (NUDHF) 2009-2016 published last year, Metro Manila lacks some 500,000 new housing units. To fill that need, Metro Manila has to find 3,000 hectares of land assuming each house is a detached unit. HUDCC suggests, however, that because of a lack of space, housing projects should be built upwards like Singapore and Hong Kong have done.

That’s just Metro Manila. The housing need—a total of the housing backlog and the number of new households every year—for the whole country is some 3.7 million.

While government has public housing projects, the National Housing Authority (NHA) that builds them only gets around 3.5 billion pesos of an estimated 125 billion pesos a year that the HUDCC says is needed to fill the backlog. Those that the NHA does build are usually given to relocated informal settlers and victims of calamities. But without access to basic services and reliable transportation, residents of these housing projects are soon back in the slums of Manila.

Or, more precisely, to the slums around Metro Manila. There is no more space to build in Manila, so settlers are now building on the periphery. Urban planner Arturo Corpuz, president of the Philippine Economic Society, reported at the Shanghai World Expo that population growth at the center of Metro Manila is falling but the growth at the edges of the urban sprawl has been rising.

This results in a phenomenon called desakota, from the Bahasa Indonesian words for ‘country’ and ‘city’, an area that is both urban and rural. Rice paddies and agricultural plots are converted into shanty towns and residential subdivisions as the urban sprawl spreads. Already, areas of Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan, and Rizal have turned into housing developments, paving over ricelands and obliterating waterways. In 2005, scientists from the Tokyo Institute and UP Los Baños studied the urbanization of an area in Pateros, a component municipality of Metro Manila, and found that residential development made the area more likely to flood during the rainy season. This phenomenon may have contributed to the floods that submerged large areas of Manila in 2009.

Spread The Wealth

The obvious solution is for people not to come to Manila. But to do that, they need to have some other place to go. This is why Corpuz has been advocating urban competitiveness—developing other urban centers outside Manila. As things stand, economic density is concentrated in Manila, with small pockets of economic activity in Metro Cebu and Metro Davao.

But spreading development does not mean government should pour money into every city and municipality. The HUDCC, in a sobering note, says their urban development plan is “premised on the assumption that resources for urban development are limited.”

In fact, the housing council says, spreading government projects around has contributed to the infrastructure backlog. Local government units have their own (if limited) budgets for priority projects, resulting in local roads and basketball courts that “often have no concrete and reliable connections to national sectoral policy.”

Although the answer doesn’t lie in stronger centralized planning, local infrastructure projects must be in line with the national government’s infrastructure policies. HUDCC also urges LGUs to wean themselves away from their Internal Revenue Allotments—the portion of the national budget given to local governments—and find their own sources of income.

One way of doing this is identifying cities and towns outside Manila as centers for new urban clusters. These cities, given proper infrastructure, can become industrial centers that firms, particularly from the IT and BPO industries where we have an advantage over neighboring countries, can invest in.

Philippine National Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon, when he was a senator in the 14th Congress, suggested developing along the North Luzon Expressway all the way to the Bataan Economic Zone in Mariveles, Bataan. He proposed offering companies tax breaks to put up factories along the highway. This would raise incomes along the route, and create more developed communities. Giving schools and hospitals similar incentives to set up in the growing communities will also give residents less reasons to go to Manila.

San Pedro, Sta. Rosa, and Calamba in Laguna are shedding their provincial airs because of nearby industrial parks and upscale residential subdivisions. Metro Cebu and Metro Davao are growing as centers of industry, and so is Angeles City in Pampanga because of Clark Freeport and the nearby Diosdado Macapagal International Airport. Farther north, Baguio City has also become a home for BPO firms.

Tourism can also create centers of commerce that will provide jobs and markets for towns in the area. With a network of roll-on/roll-off ports scattered across the country, second and third-tier cities like Calapan in Mindoro Oriental are also starting to grow. So much so that property development firm Globe Asiatique has invested in Xevera Neo Calapan, an enclave community with its own school and hospital. Xevera Neo Calapan’s developers also claim that the new ‘city’ will house 39 government agencies to form a hub for government services in the province.

Connect The Dots

But simply designating a city as the center of a new urban cluster will be pointless unless it is connected to the national road network. As things stand, moving products between regions can be more expensive than shipping them overseas.

HUDCC notes that “the effective urban-industrial heartland of Luzon has remained essentially unchanged since the late 1970s, confined to the Angeles-Metro Manila-Batangas corridor.”

This does not only raise prices and discourage competitiveness, it also contributes to urban sprawl. Because it is difficult to get in and out of Manila, plots of land are turned into residential areas regardless of sustainability.

The Philippines needs more roads and must expand its road network beyond the north-south corridor of Luzon. Senator Edgardo Angara from Baler, Aurora has been batting for the development of roads that traverse east to west, saying that despite efforts to promote his home province, the lack of good roads has made it difficult to attract all but the hardiest tourists.

Manila Is Still King

Manila’s primacy as the center of commerce and the show window to the Philippines will not change with the development of new urban centers, HUDCC says. In fact, the development of Metro Manila is vital to the creation of new urban zones. After all, if a country cannot even keep its capital running, no investor will take a chance on its smaller cities.

“Closing the loop,” connecting Manila’s light rail train lines, one of former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s infrastucture projects has helped decongest traffic, but the MRT and LRT lines are packed during rush hour. In some stops, like the Ayala station in Makati, rail authorities often have to close the gates because there are too many people waiting for rides.

The answer could lie in a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that the Metro Manila Development Authority has been trying to implement. With a dedicated lane for buses on major roads, buses can substitute for train coaches. Although there already are ‘fast lane’ buses that skip certain stops, the BRT is still largely just an idea. Even with bus lanes in place, lack of road discipline means they are little more than suggestions. Private vehicles often swerve onto the bus lanes and buses don’t stay on them either.

Like the rest of the country, Manila needs more roads too. There have been few new major roads built in Manila since the 1990s and that means motorists take the same routes and get stuck on the same roads. Things have been getting better, though. Many roads in Manila have been widened. Old Balara Road in Quezon City, for example, is changing from a two-lane side road to an extension of the C-5 road that will connect the expressways to the north and south of Manila.

It will take more infrastructure projects to decongest Manila, make transportaion within the city more efficient, and as the HUDCC says, “to demonstrate that the city works.” More importantly, it will take steely determination to change the practice of giving local governments paltry budgets that result in piecemeal development. There is no other way, though. Unlike in Sim City 3000, there is no option to just start a new game.

(Published in the August 2010 issue of China Business Philippines)

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