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Monday, April 22, 2024

Claiming back the city

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Metro Manila needs more public parks, green spaces

By Hector Zabala

Paulo Alcazaren, a noted urban planner and landscape architect, recently revealed to Manila Standard an anecdotal but extremely believable fact: “sales of properties at the edges of Metro Manila and beyond — past Muntinlupa and Bulacan — appear to have gone up during the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown.”

“Not surprising because from 2020 to 2022, the city was beginning to feel claustrophobic,” he explained. “Many families began looking for places outside the city. Laguna, for example, or Antipolo, were still close enough to Manila where many people work, but far removed from the heavy, gray reality of the city. These were just some examples.”

How green is my city. An aerial photo shows the severe lack of green spaces in Metro Manila.  Photo courtesy of Paulo Alcazaren

“Those who could afford it, moved out and stayed out of the metro,” Alcazaren claimed

He surmised that people simply grabbed the chance to take a deep breath. “There aren’t many green places in Metro Manila, and spots for fresh air aren’t easily accessible. At the end of the day, this calls to question the livability of Metro Manila,” he pointed out.

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Quality of life

What constitutes a livable city in the first place?

According to the UK based Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) global rankings, Metro Manila, which accounts for 32% of the country’s gross domestic product, ranks 109th out of 140 cities in terms of livability. In Global Finance’s rankings, Metro Manila is dead last out of 134 cities evaluated.

Five factors make a city livable and attractive, according to these global rating agencies,.

The first is a favorable urban sprawl. In other words, the prominence of parks, open spaces, and public recreational/cultural centers.

The second is inclusivity. Meaning, the city is made for all, not just a narrow elite. This manifests itself in the prioritization of public transportation over cars as well as the absence of gated villages and exclusive sports clubs (especially golf courses since they consume much land).

The third is sustainability. This refers to cities that are green, those that operate on a smaller carbon footprint and those that produce their own renewable power.

The fourth is resilience. This has to do with a city’s ability to cope and bounce back from natural disasters and black swan events like a pandemic. The fifth is being “smart.” Smart cities are those widely connected to the digital grid, those with efficient supply chain infrastructure (e.g., airports, seaports, cold chain warehouses, and the like) and those whose conditions are conducive to innovation.

25 k souls packed per square kilometer

Metro Manila is one of the densest cities in the world with 13.48 million permanent residents spread over 619.57 square kilometers. This amounts to some 22,277 people per square kilometer. This does not even count the 6 million transients that come from outside to work. For context, downtown Vancouver has a population density of only 5,400 people per square kilometer. As of the 2015 census, 57.4% of NCR’s residents live in condominiums, the average size of which is 50 sq.m., 27.2% live in single houses, and 14% live in duplexes. There are 2.5 million informal settlers.

Only 20% of the population use private cars for daily transport while the rest utilize public transportation. Yet, Metro Manila’s transport infrastructure is built for and around cars. Decent sidewalks and promenades are only accessible in private townships, not in public roads. This is the reason why street life, or commercial and cultural activities along main roads, are either non-existent, or poorly developed outside private townships.

As for open spaces, only 0.2% of Metro Manila’s land mass is green and open if the La Mesa dam watershed is factored-out. For context again, the United Nations recommends that there should be nine square meters of open space for every resident of a city. Metro Manila fails miserably in this respect.

LGU greed?

Why the scarcity of open spaces in Metro Manila? Greed is the culprit. Metro Manila’s Local Government Units decided to abandon Metro Manila’s zoning ordinance ratified in the 1990s. This allowed the mayors to sell public spaces to private entities to build gated communities and/or commercial developments. Even no-build zones in seismic fault lines and flood catchments areas were sold off.

Converting public open spaces into malls and high-rise towers proved catastrophic. Among its consequences is vehicular traffic. Studies show that a mall or 40-storey office tower can instigate vehicular traffic of 4,000 cars per day. Worse, selling off open spaces reduced our inventory of trees, all of which were chopped-down to make way for property developments. It takes 10 trees to overcome the carbon monoxide of a single car. Data from 2018 shows that there were 1.52 million cars registered in Metro Manila. This means that the city must have 15.2 million trees, at least, to maintain a status quo in air quality. The city falls short by a wide margin. This has accelerated the degradation of Metro Manila’s air quality.

Selling off public spaces worsens income inequality, especially when land is used for a mall or commercial strip. The few families that own malls in prime areas of Metro Manila eventually control the commerce in that locality. As rent-seekers and takers of a percentage-of-sales of every transaction, their economic power over the regular citizen is strengthened in each passing day. Worse, the presence of malls in a community has proven to drive micro, small and medium sized enterprises out of business in their localities.

Gated communities

Gated communities are another problem. They consume large chunks of land yet provide residence to only a select few. They emphasize income inequality in this regard. Further, they hog access to roads and make the city less walkable. Gated communities exacerbate problems which is why the Singaporean government banned them in the 1970s.

Traffic is a consequence of gated communities. Since inner road networks of Magallanes, Dasmariñas, Forbes, and Corinthian Garden are inaccessible for public use, EDSA has become a major artery, a minor artery, a major collector road, a minor collector road, and an access road leading to commercial centers, all in one. This is why the average car speed on EDSA is just about 15 kilometers per hour, typically.

Gated communities jack-up land prices to a point where housing becomes unaffordable for medium to low-income families. This pushed the working class to live in far flung areas in Cavite, Rizal, Laguna, and Bulacan. A one-way two-hour commute or a two-way four-hour commute has become “normal” for the medium to low level worker, which is criminal in better governed countries. A four-hour commute across 6 million people translates to lost productivity of P120 million a day.

Even the city’s airspace is used for profit by the narrow elite at the expense of the public. Billboards serve no one’s interest except the mayors and their officials, the rich owners of outdoor advertising companies, the landowners, the advertisers. They inundate our highways with ugly tarpaulin making the city even more dense and disorderly.

Green spaces crucial to people’s health

There’s more to green open spaces than simply keeping people’s mental well-being in check. Parks, as it turns out, can also  help in improving people’s physical health. Even just exposure to green and natural environments, studies say, can help reduce incidents of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity. Proximity to nature also encourages healthier behavior and exercise.

Green open spaces are so important to people’s health that the World Health Organization has set a target of nine square meters of green per person. In fact, having parks within a 10 minute walking distance is said to be the  most ideal.

Unfortunately, this is far from the case for the residents of Metro Manila.

With only Rizal Park and Paco Park in Manila, Quezon City’s University of the Philippines Diliman Campus greenery, the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, the Quezon Memorial Circle, and La Mesa Ecopark, which hardly counts because that’s more a watershed than a green open space, residents of the National Capital Region would need to travel far to access a park. 

And there is not nearly enough of them, with Metro Manila  “at 1 square meter per person, and that’s being generous,” Alcazaren said.

It’s a startling realization, especially when the bleak reality is made visual. On his Facebook page, Alcazaren posted an aerial shot of a portion of Metro Manila, choking with so much concrete.

“We need over a thousand hectares of park and open space for our current population,” he said.

Wanted, green spaces

The air situation in Metro Manila is dire. In parts of NCR, in fact, residents should have been wearing a mask even before the pandemic because of poor air quality. In Valenzuela City, the air quality index (AQI) had already reached a dangerous 176 in 2019. The United States Environmental Protection agency pegs  healthy AQI value  at less than 100.

Enough green spaces can help solve a city’s air pollution problem two ways. First, trees are natural air filters. In its lifetime, a single tree can absorb carbon from 42,000 vehicles.

Foliage also encourages active transport, which means that, to some extent, green spaces could help lower carbon emission in a city. While green open spaces alone won’t convince motorists to swap their cars for bikes, having ample natural factors in the city can most certainly help promote it.

According to Alcazaren, “wide sidewalks and streetscapes with trees are green in terms of the physical umbrella they provide, as well as in terms of encouraging biking and walking as an alternative to our problematic transport system.”

Iloilo, for instance, with its protected bike lanes, interconnected networks, and the famous 9km Esplanade — incidentally designed by Alcazaren’s firm PGAA Creative Design — boasts of a strong cycling culture among its residents. It was most recently named the Most Bikeable City in the Visayas region, as well as the entire country in the recent Mobility Awards.

Aside from air quality, green open spaces can also help mitigate heat, especially during summer. During the strictest lockdowns, with people having no access to malls and their air-conditioning, many NCR residents were forced to feel the summer heat in its full unforgiving glory.

In the city, it becomes even more punishing thanks to the Urban Heat Island Effect, which leads to elevated temperature as the urban landscape trades in natural elements like trees and soil for cement, asphalt, and concrete. 

Unlike soil that allows heat to escape, pavements, roads, and buildings absorb and retain heat, which then lead to more uncomfortable temperatures. More incidents of heat strokes and dehydration can be expected.

Apart from the soil’s ability to release heat and the relief that tree shades provide, plants also have a natural cooling effect, a result of what experts call the evaporative cooling process.

In a documentary about  Arroceros Forest Park, the last lung of Manila, journalist Howie Severino demonstrated this cooling effect by placing a thermometer inside the forest park, and another thermometer just outside.

Inside the forest park, the temperature was two degrees cooler than outside the forest park.

The cooling relief provided by green open spaces are not just welcome, it’s almost necessary given rapid urbanization and infrastructure agenda of the government that nearly assures urban heat island.

Parks don’t just address extreme summer heat. During rainy season, green open spaces can also address flooding, thanks to soil that can absorb rainfall.

“So long as cities have green open spaces, they can act as a sponge and absorb and delay the runoff before flushing it out,” Alcazaren said.

Flooding in Metro Manila

In recent years, and even from just short bursts of rain, motorists and commuters have experienced flooding in portions of Metro Manila.

Pools of stormwater runoff emerge at overpass landings, sporadic splashes of water from flyovers surprise motorists at ground level, and even pedestrians are not spared from flooded walkways even when elevated.

According to Dr. Marla Redillas, Division Head of Hydraulics and Water Resources of the Department of Civil Engineering of De La Salle University, Metro Manila is so developed, it’s become too impervious: no more infiltration happens.

Infiltration is when stormwater runoff is absorbed by soil. It is part of the natural water cycle: When it rains, storm water runoff gets absorbed by the soil and infiltrates the ground, either to percolate and recharge the aquifers beneath it, or to travel laterally toward rivers in a motion that’s called interflow.

But in the city, where there is hardly any soil, the natural water cycle is disrupted.

When rain touches any kind of surface, it is called storm water runoff. Storm water runoff that does not go through infiltration — that isn’t absorbed by soil — is called surface runoff, otherwise known as  baha.  When everything is covered with concrete, the surface runoff increases.

In the natural water cycle, surface runoff only makes up 10% of the total rain, with 50% going into infiltration, and 40% into evaporation.

But because of urban development, the figures have changed. “Instead of the normal 10%, surface runoff has become 50%,” Redillas said.

What this disruption has done is short-circuit the natural water cycle. And short-circuiting the natural cycle can lead to many more and graver problems — among them contributing to sea level rise and a worsening flood situation.

Redillas says going back to the natural way of things is next to impossible, especially in the city, where concrete has all but replaced soil. Fortunately, something can still be done.

‘Repurposing’ old infrastructure

Alcazaren said repurposing old infrastructure is a possible solution to meet the rising need of green spaces in Metro Manila. “The cemeteries can be reconfigured as parks if we can improve infrastructure, to allow people to use them, and not just informal settlers living between the tombs,” Alcazaren said.

There are also old unused spaces that can be turned into parks, not unlike New York City’s High Line, an old abandoned rail trail that already had vegetation growing. “We’re already doing that,” Alcazaren said, pointing to the BGC Greenway. “It’s the old Meralco easement, between Manila Golf and the condos, that was unused. We turned it into a 2km green jogging path, although the masterplan was closer to 4km,” he said.

Alcazaren added it was possible to still make it better, but alas, “it wasn’t a priority.”

Lining the streets with trees is also possible, but that takes more work than it looks. “It’s not as simple as digging a hole, planting a tree, and hoping for it to grow,” Alcazaren said, as he recalled how his firm greenified the Makati Central Business in the last 20 years.

“I had to explain that all the trees, we had to dig the tree pit and replace soil. We chose native trees and it’s now doing very well,” he said proudly.

Redillas agrees. “When you plant a tree, it still has needs, for instance you’ll need to water it,” she starts, saying a program of street trees will fare much better and be more efficient if we lean on low impact development (LID) and nature-based solutions.

LID brings together engineering practices and natural elements to make cities safer for people and friendlier to the environment. Instead of requiring massive space like parks, what LID needs is something that Metro Manila could still be able to provide: depth. 

“The good thing about nature-based solutions and LID, you don’t really need that much space,” said Redillas, who finished her doctorate studies on nature-based solutions, low impact development, and storm water management in Korea.

Instead of looking for space to build parks and bring back soil, Redillas suggests building nature-based solutions like rain gardens and bioswales: landscaped depressions that features plants and trees, design to hold surface runoff.

In planting street trees, meanwhile, LID will involve planting these on box filters with holes in the ground. Those holes will allow surface runoff to enter, which then can be used to water the tree, or even be treated before it’s led down to the pipes that are connected to the drainage system.

These tree box filters can not only help in managing flood during the rainy season, they can also help in managing what experts call the first flush phenomenon, the dark floodwaters which is the result of the first 30 minutes of rain bringing in all the pollution and sediments that have accumulated on the ground during dry days.

In Metro Manila, Redillas imagines building LID parkways by the highways, innocent-looking carpets of green punctuated by trees. These can mitigate heat island effect, help bring back infiltration in the city, treat runoff water from its first flush, and with filter strips by the side, help mitigate flood. This way, the city is able to get back some of the greens it’s lost. And while applying nature-based solutions and LID to Metro Manila isn’t enough, it’s a good start.

“These are micro efforts that we build where the problem is,” she said.

Shifting away from gray infrastructure

For Alcazaren, green remains key. “Government really needs to shift away from gray infrastructure that’s all concrete to green infrastructure that embeds urban design and landscape architecture into the picture,” he said.

There are some reasons for hope. Alcazaren reports a better “consciousness from developers about the importance of green spaces.”

Suburbia hemmed in. An urban triangle north of Manila is seeing skyscrapers and malls multiplying like rabbits. This large area and its neighbor up to East Avenue, made up the Diliman Triangle, a 200-hectare site designed in the 1950s by government planner and landscape architect Anselmo Alquijnto to be a national park. Photo courtesy of Paulo Alcazaren

“Previously, developers didn’t prioritize green open spaces because it’s lost income,” he said. “But now, there is more consciousness for these spaces and a number of developers are using this to push their properties. There are parks, proximity to these is given more weight than previously.”

But it still remains an uphill climb when talking to other stakeholders, in particular, those from the government.

Recalling his experience with the Iloilo Esplanade, the urban planner said people in government are still very car-oriented. It took a while for officials “to understand how to design for people rather than for cars.”

“Their metric is still car-oriented,” Alcazaren said. “It’s all road-widening projects. It’s not sidewalks, it’s not connectivity. It’s still car-centric. That’s the problem.”

And then of course, there’s the valid concern about money, “because it’s not free,” he said. Building parks has its costs, maintaining them brings with it another set of new ones. The common thinking, of course, is how to at least recover these costs.

But for Alcazaren, those in charge could not afford to think that way. “You can’t make a park a profit center. You don’t have any direct value capture or profit generation,” he said. “It’s the quality of life provided for the people — that’s the investment.”

The pandemic has already shown that green open spaces aren’t just nice things to have. And with the effects of climate change already knocking at our door, it is about time the government finally makes the investment and the commitment to not just raise the quality of life in the city but to protect it.

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