In areas prone to flooding, let houses be built to float or built on stilts, elevate the electrical system, and interconnect the buildings with elevated walkways and elevated monorails.
Rome was not built in a day; it took some time and judicious urban planning. Now, take a look at Metro Manila, a booming metropolis. Tall buildings and condominiums rise to occupy empty lots and dot the skyline. Road works, repairs, and construction of flyovers and bridges appear at each street corner. Signs of progress can be seen everywhere, but do these address the perennial heavy traffic, lack of public transport, and constant flooding in the metro?
Architect and Urban Planner Felino A. Palafox, Jr. sheds light on the basics and purpose of urban planning.
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Founded in 1989, Palafox Associates is one of the country’s top architecture firms today. In 1999, it was the first Filipino architectural firm cited in the World’s Top 500 Architectural Firms of the London-based World Architecture magazine. Over the years, the firm has received more than 200 awards and recognitions. It has accomplished more than 1,510 projects in 40 countries, overseen the planning of 25 billion square meters of land, and designed the architecture of 12 million square meters of building floor area. Palafox himself has worked as Architect-Urban Planner with Ayala Corporation and Ayala Land, Inc. From 1977 to 1981, he was name-hired by Sultan Khalifa Al Habtoor of Dubai, UAE as Senior Urban Planner-Architect working in a multinational and interdisciplinary team. He was the only Southeast Asian and the youngest professional. “My best experience in urban planning was in Dubai. I was hired to help bring Dubai to the first world in less than 15 years,” Palafox says.
Urban planning is a weighty concept covering several aspects. It begins with determining land use, then conceptualizing the infrastructures and circulation routes necessary for transportation and utilities. The firm then proposes road transport corridors; that is, one-third of the road cross section should be designated for trees and landscaping, one-third for pedestrians and bicycles, and the remaining third as traffic lanes for vehicles. “It takes a minimum of 10 trees to recover the oxygen of the carbon monoxide per car. For larger vehicles like buses and SUVs, they should plant more trees per car,” Palafox points out. Apart from this, urban planning also involves housing for its residents and managing urban sprawl. It also touches on urban design concerning the aesthetics of architecture, landscapes, and open spaces. Another aspect involves healing the city through risk and disaster management. “It is 90% cheaper to address the hazards before they become disasters, aside from saving human lives and infrastructures. It is 10 times more expensive to do rehabilitation,” Palafox stresses. Urban planning also addresses economic development by taking care of jobs and businesses. Thus, it covers a wide range of disciplines.
The firm’s visionary practice covers comprehensive planning for 50 to 100 years. There is an immediate action program to address the first year or the next three years. Afterwards, the planning is staggered through short, medium, and long-term periods. “Planning must be comprehensive in terms of time, area coverage, and employing different professionals and disciplines like architects, engineers, urban planners, urban designers, interior designers, landscape architects and environmental planners, economists, business management experts, project managers, and so on,” Palafox summarizes.
“Everything we do, we think of the next generation, so we should be mentors of the next generation,” he adds. After the catastrophic 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, Palafox collaborated with the Taiwanese-based Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation to design schools and hospitals to last 1,000 years or for 40 generations. Likewise, in Dubai, urban planners plan for 50 years, and continue planning for the next 50. “Here in our country, when I talk about 100 years, people are very skeptical,” he says.
DRAWING FEASIBLE PLANS
Palafox Associates is currently doing consultative work for the Metropolitan Davao Urban Master Plan, the Tourism Master Plan of Siargao, Pampanga Megalopolis, and Clark Development Plan. The firm’s previous projects include Tourism Master Plan of Metro Ilocos, Tourism Master Plan of Panglao in Bohol, La Mesa Ecopark in Quezon City, Liloan Master Development Plan Study in Cebu, and the Conceptual Development Plan of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan. “By doing emerging cities outside the Metro, you are helping Metro Manila because we need urban growth centers as counter-magnet to the congested Metro,” Palafox says.
The plans drawn by Palafox Associates propose six kinds of infrastructure for a progressive nation. First, there is the progressive infrastructures, which are the international airports and seaports, international schools, international-standard hospitals and hotels; second, the heart infrastructures are the roads and utilities; third, the soft infrastructure is the easeof-doing business without corruption and red tape; fourth, green and sustainable architecture; fifth, digital infrastructures, which are ICT (information and communications technology) and artificial intelligence; and, sixth, the institutional infrastructures, which are the institutions that serve to implement the plan.
In line with this, Palafox’s firm designs “smart cities” towards the smart growth and development of urban areas. “Creating more compact development with mixed land uses; more walkable, more bikeable, integrated places to live, work, shop and dine, learn, and worship with 24-hour-cycle activity centers,” Palafox says. The following are the components of a smart city: smart manufacturing, smart government, mobility and WiFi, digital citizens, open data, smart health, smart farming, smart buildings, smart energy and utilities, and smart transportation.
Palafox once asked the American Institute of Architects, of which he is a member, “Why do you call it ‘smart?’ They answered that it was because, until the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil crisis in 1973, they have been doing ‘dumb growth.’” After the crisis, there were movements of new urbanism and smart growth to correct the mistakes of the past.
Palafox also proposes adaptive architecture towards saving and preserving localities. In Marawi, Palafox has suggested that the government build around the ruins of the city like in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The ruins brought on by the Battle of Marawi could instead become tourist attractions. In areas prone to flooding, he suggests, “Let houses be built to float or built on stilts. Elevate the electrical system. Interconnect the buildings with elevated walkways and elevated monorails.”
The firm has proposed to the city of San Juan the construction of three levels of access: the street-level sidewalk, the elevated walkways interconnecting all the buildings, and the elevated monorail to interconnect with MRT-EDSA and LRT-Aurora. Road expansions should also not affect existing landscapes such as century-old trees. “Instead, they should create an island of trees and place the widening on the other side of the trees,” Palafox states. He explains that the recreation value of a 50-year-old tree amounts to P9 million. This includes the oxygen it gave for 50 years, the rainwater harvested, the cooling effect it gave, the fertilizer made, and its natural beauty. “This is why we teach road engineers and public works because it is also an advocacy on our part to help preserve the environment.”
SURVEYING THE PRESENT STATE
Without a doubt, urban planning plays a key role towards the progress and development of local government units (LGUs). Because of its comprehensive scope, it guarantees the mechanisms of a city to run smoothly like a well-oiled machine. However, the challenges to urban planning remain to be corruption, red tape, and bad politics. The lack of implementation is also problematic, as well as short-term and opportunistic planning instead of long-term and visionary.
Having visited more than 2,000 cities, Palafox states, “The success formula of those more progressive cities and countries is visionary leadership, strong political will, appreciation of good urban planning and design, and good governance. This formula requires the city’s leader to be an intellectual with a vision for planning and design; a person of integrity with an understanding for good architecture and engineering, and capable of urban management.” President Rodrigo Duterte has strongly advocated the “Build, Build, Build” program. As a result, Palafox says the Philippines is catching up with the rest of Asia in terms of its urban planning. “In the ‘70s, we were ahead. We were the example for other Asian countries,” he recounts. “Consultants from Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam used to visit the Philippines and look at Highway 54 or EDSA, because it has the three landscaping islands–one in the middle and two at the sides, apart from the service road and sidewalks.”
In 1976, the World Bank funded the Metro Manila Transport Land Use Development Planning Project. One of the best metroplans in the world at the time, it was an inter-agency project with the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the then-Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), and several other government agencies. Palafox was Senior Planning Team Leader for Development Planning. “Had the plan been followed, Metro Manila would be like Singapore or Hong Kong today,” he says. In 1984, the Philippines had one of the best light rail transit (LRT) systems in Asia. Palafox was one of the first to propose a rail system that would have seen eight completed lines by 1992.
The success formula of those more progressive cities and countries is visionary leadership, strong political will, appreciation of good urban planning and design, and good governance. This formula requires the city’s leader to be an intellectual with a vision for planning and design; a person of integrity with an understanding for good architecture and engineering, and capable of urban management.
Palafox has also proposed 10 circumferential roads in Metro Manila, connecting Calabarzon with Central Luzon and Cavite to Bataan. The main corridor of EDSA functions as eight roads: (1) a major arterial road, (2) minor arterial road, (3) collector road, (4) residential access road, (5) shopping center access road, (6) military access road, (7) schools access road, and (8) cemetery access road. According to the master urban planner, EDSA needs eight more parallel roads to decongest it. He suggests opening up military camps and private subdivisions to allow access to the public and ease the traffic in EDSA.
The Philippines currently follows an outdated automobile-oriented urban planning similar to Los Angeles—where the work district and residences are miles apart—unlike the walkable and compact development of New York and Hong Kong. “It might have been better for the Philippines to have been inspired by the top cities of the world, even Asian cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Tokyo, instead of copying Los Angeles erroneously,” Palafox says.
After designing Rockwell Center in Makati, the firm conducted a survey and found that locals only walk as far as 400 meters due to dangerous sidewalks, and ‘stop-anywhere’ tricycles, jeepneys, buses, and vehicles. Traffic signals are also a problem because it used to be 99 seconds for the automobile and nine seconds for the pedestrian. “If you are in high heels, you’ll never make it,” he jokes. In good urban planning, pedestrians should be able to walk a distance of five to 10 kilometers safely like in New York, Boston, and Singapore.
In 1991, Palafox worked with the European Economic Community for the planning of Boracay. “We said, do not build on the sand because once you put concrete, it becomes mud. You also block wind direction. It might have taken thousands—if not millions—of years to make that fine sand,” he says. In 2006, Palafox worked with the Philippine Tourism Authority to create the Boracay Integrated Master Plan. He recommended the construction of sewerage treatment plants and sewer interceptors around the island. The firm also gave their recommendations to
address the “uglification” of Boracay—removing the overhead wires, posts, and signage—and not just the rehabilitation of the island.
The country’s flood control system is also only designed for 25 years of flooding and typhoons.
Instead, it should be designed for a hundred years since typhoons and heavy rains are now a common occurrence. In the ’70s, the proposal for the Manggahan Floodway and Parañaque Spillway was conceptualized, but only the former was constructed. “Laguna Lake is like a toilet without a flush. It’s like a big bathtub with 23 faucets without a drain; 22 rivers and the Manggahan Floodway all draining into Laguna Lake,” Palafox says. “During Typhoon Ondoy, the floodwaters from the mountains reached around 5,000 cubic meters per second, but the capacity of the Pasig River is only around 600 cubic meters per second. Where did the rest go? It flooded the 80,000 hectares of urban land in Metro Manila.”
Palafox believes the surrounding areas of Laguna Lake can become smart cities. The lake can be dredged to deepen it; anything dredged can be used for reclamation as additional real estate, open spaces, and wave breakers for tsunamis and storm surges. “At the right place and right time, reclamation can be used,” he cites. Furthermore, a circumferential linear park can be created around Laguna Lake, and an airport can be constructed to relieve congestion in NAIA. More housing can be made for urban development with 30% units for the urban poor like in Boston, Massachusetts. Through socialized housing provided by the government, the rising number of informal settlers will also be addressed not only around Laguna Lake but also in Metro Manila. Palafox recommends relocations to be the last option. Instead, there should be urban renewals on-site before near-site relocations. Should relocations be done, it should include transfer of livelihood, schools, and hospitals; and in places not prone to flooding or landslides.
In sum, the Philippines has many outdated and obsolete practices in urban planning. “But there are good examples in the world. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; they are already there. That’s why I write about revolutionary ideas and global best practices in architecture, urban planning, and real estate development,” the master urban planner says.
CONCEPTUALIZING VISIONARY PLANS
“Manila is a fragmented metropolis,” says Palafox. “We have a long way to go towards a more progressive nation that efficiently employs urban planning,” he adds. The LGUs need more qualified and expert consultants for their urban planning and design contracts, which undergo competition and bidding. These conceptual development plans should also be implemented properly, looking forward towards sustaining the future generations and the world changes to
As the buildings rise and the roads are paved, the Philippines likewise continues to progress as a nation. “Under this administration, there is still opportunity for urban planning. They seem to be more serious with it,” Palafox notes. Changing paradigms and envisioning smart growth is part of the all-encompassing field of urban planning, architecture, design, and engineering. It requires plenty of inexhaustible vision and audacious optimism to change the aesthetic, structures, and blueprints of cities. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. — MAIELLE MONTAYRE