Building safer and more resilient cities in the Philippines

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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of integrating various considerations in urban planning, including infrastructure, environment, economic activities, and spaces to bring communities together in our cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of integrating various considerations in urban planning, including infrastructure, environment, economic activities, and spaces to bring communities together in our cities.

What struck me immediately upon moving to Manila eight months ago was the cultural diversity and the warmth of its citizens. As an urban planner, I could not help but think of the large opportunities but also unused potential the city offers in terms of jobs, education, access to welfare services, among others. Manila is a gateway for many people to improve their family’s quality of life. As vibrant and dynamic as it is, there is much the city could improve through better urban planning to address visible issues of congestion, lack of affordable housing, and more broadly, providing a livable and healthy urban environment so that citizens can thrive. Now more than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of integrating various considerations in urban planning,  including infrastructure, environment, economic activities, and spaces to bring communities together in our cities. 

COVID-19 is a pandemic and threatens all of us. Hotspots in one barangay increases the threat to the whole metropolitan area. This pandemic has highlighted the need for a more equitable management of our cities. Urban management is fundamental for efficient and effective service delivery, especially for ensuring that all citizens have equal access to quick and coordinated response efforts in times of crises and disasters.  

This pandemic and our experiences with the shutdown of megacities all over the globe compels us to revisit the basic tenets of urban planning and urban management. We must work collectively to make our cities more livable and designed around the health, safety, and well-being of all residents. What does this mean in practice? 

1. Equal service delivery for all 

There is a glaring disparity in level and quality of service delivery between informal mostly poor neighborhoods and wealthier areas. According to the 2017 World Bank report on Urbanization in the Philippines, close to 11% of Metro Manila’s population live in informal settlements. Not all informal settlers are income poor, but many are vulnerable to external shocks that can easily push them below the poverty line. Many families that live in informal settlements rely on minimum wage earnings and contractual work. These incomes are seasonal with no job security, no social protection measures such as paid sick leave or family leave benefits. Those engaged in small businesses suffer from unsteady levels of income. Many of them have limited savings that are exhausted in the event of any external shocks. Their situation is exacerbated by poor living conditions including a lack in reliable water supply and sanitation, overcrowding in living tenements, and weak healthcare systems. Under these circumstances, how can social distancing be practiced? How can households afford basic services like water supply and sanitation to follow protective hygiene practices like handwashing? Or even afford a doctor visit? Local governments are best placed to step-up through increased coordination across jurisdictions and meet the promise of inclusive high-quality services for all but this requires proactive approach to urban management that spans beyond election cycles.

2. Urban transportation matters

When Metro Manila was placed under Enhanced Community Quarantine, public transportation grounded to a halt. Jeepneys, tricycles, buses and trains were prohibited from operating. Commuters and even essential medical personnel walked long distances or borrowed bikes to get to the hospital. Public transport could not restart because social distancing measures present a serious challenge, especially for small public operators like jeepneys. The lack of mobility options impacts vulnerable sections of society like the poor, elderly and disabled. 
Weak urban transport is hampering the economic productivity of the cities as people’s choice of mobility is very limited in Philippines. For example, the development of urban transport directly competes with the increase of private cars in Manila’s congested road network. With COVID-19, it is time to rethink urban mobility solutions. In the short-term, the focus would be on demand management including social distancing measures, fleet sanitation, enforcement of safety protocols in informal modes of transport and management of public’s travel expectations. In the medium-term, there needs to be a focus on public transport reform including interjurisdictional coordination of public transit and better management of informal transport providers. This can be achieved by bringing in multi-modal solutions such as mass transit systems like Metro and, Bus Rapid Transit and start thinking of non-motorized solutions like bicycles, e-vehicles alongside main corridors to offer diverse mobility solutions for people.
3. Redesigning our cities

Cities across the world are rethinking urban design, from hardscapes of concrete and glass to more green solutions such as vertical gardens. Public parks are being designed to serve as multipurpose infrastructure, for example using a watershed approach to capture storm water during the rainy season and simultaneously use if for recreational purpose. Similarly, iconic design in open spaces allow for people of all ages to enjoy amenities like we see in Medellin, Colombia, where libraries are being designed as safe spaces for people without the fear of drugs or crime. Future planning will also need to take into account access to health services during epidemics and integrate it with mobility solutions. We are advancing rapidly with digital solutions like internet of things or artificial intelligence for evidence-based planning. As part of its COVID economic recovery efforts, greater emphasis could be given to use of geospatial tools for planning and implementation of infrastructure. This a fantastic opportunity for cities in the Philippines to interconnect with the rest of its peers and also use these solutions in proactive urban planning. 

Cities attract talent, innovation and creativity. As people are pulled into increasingly dense and dynamic urban centers around the world, a secure high-quality life and sustainable environment is becoming imperative in the planning discourse. COVID-19 has reminded us of the urgency to accelerate and adapt our cities to an emerging pandemic.  With mayors and local governments who are at the frontline of response and recovery, it is a stark reality that our cities will no longer remain the same.   


Madhu Raghunath

Sector Leader, Sustainable Development

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