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Friday, January 31, 2014

Erap and Isko, Reviving Manila (Part One)

January 31, 2014
by Paul Farol
Manila is the core city of the National Capital Region and despite the many attempts to restore it to its “old glory”, it is still pretty much rotting away and there seems to be no way of stopping its decay.
Polluted, crowded, crime infested, unbearably hot during the summer months, chronically flooded during the rainy season, and jammed with traffic throughout the year.
Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and Vice Mayor Isko Moreno leading Chinese New Year Eve Festivities. (Photo from Liz Villasenor, Head of the Manila City Tourism Office)
Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and Vice Mayor Isko Moreno leading Chinese New Year Eve Festivities.
(Photo from Liz Villasenor, Head of the Manila City Tourism Office)
Not to discount the efforts of former President now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and Vice Mayor Isko Moreno to spruce up the city and shake it up a bit in a good way, but I think reviving Manila will require something more substantial and strategic.
And I think they have quite a good grasp about the kinds of substantial and strategic change that needs to be implemented to get the city out of the crippling stagnation it is in.
Although discounted many times over during the span of their careers for being “artistas”, Erap and Isko have proven their capability as leaders on the local level.  This is something that, taken together the good impression I have of Batangas Governor Vilma Santos’ performance, seems to fly in the face of the knee-jerk derision that artista-politicians are subjected to — it should remind those of us who think they’ve got highly tuned, critical minds not to fall for the trap of sweeping generalizations.
Erap, for one, had the right mind about a number of things when he was President and some say he is now showing quite a bit of brilliance as mayor.  Isko on the other hand, thanks to his good use of social media and genuine action on the ground as traffic czar as well as the leader of the city council, is really revealing himself to be highly capable of running the city.
The two have scored quite a lot of “quick wins” (cleaning up a number of places in Manila, solving traffic problems, etcetera) within the first half of their first year in office together and it is easy to understand how this tactic can work towards building confidence in their administration.  The thing about quick wins, however, is that it builds up expectations and soon enough, people will begin expecting big wins.
One big win in the offing is the actual implementation of plans to revive and revitalize Manila.
I’m not talking about just the restoration of parks and preservation of historic sites (although any kind of urban revival should include this) or the installation of streetlamps and re-paving of sidewalks.  I’m talking about something more holistic that will help reduce the problems of living (and working/doing business) in Manila as well as laying the ground-work for it’s future growth — yes, you read that right.
It’s painfully obvious, and has been for the last 50 years, that there is hardly any “open space” within Manila and whatever open space there is may be something that people may want to keep open.
Vertical expansion would seem to be the right solution to creating “new space” for offices and residences, but there are some serious considerations.  One is that it will increase population density (more people living per square kilometer) and with that, you’ll have a host of issues which includes: more traffic (more people going to or from one place), higher demand for power and water as well as food which can lead to inflation, and yes, ground subsidence or the sinking of the ground, which has been cited as one of the factors contributing to flooding in Manila.
UP’s Dr. Kevin Rodolfo made a big deal about the “alarming rate” of ground subsidence in Manila last year.  But what was largely left out of his findings is the fact that it is the huge excavations for the foundations of high rise buildings that causes the rapid, massive displacement of ground water in Manila.  What Rodolfo didn’t emphasize is that water extraction by companies in Manila that market filtered and purified water may only partially account for the rapid decline of ground water – forgetting, perhaps, that Manila sources most its water needs from surface water.
There’s probably a reason for why Dr. Rodolfo’s studies were presented in the way it was and it could be that high-rise building developers want to keep that fact hush-hush — the same way that developers will want to muffle any noise about the Marikina Valley Fault.
Moreover, using up all the available open space within Manila will contribute to even more flooding as it covers up the remaining areas which may have natural sinks that either absorb surface water or contain fissures that lead to natural underground aquifers.  These natural sinks usually suck up rainwater and keep it from running above ground, thereby causing flooding in low lying areas.
The loss of these natural sinks, clogging of already inadequate flood ways, and ground subsidence coupled with the denudation of forests and development of subdivisions in the uplands north east of Manila (the Siera Madres) are the main factors that contribute to massive flooding in Manila.
Another option, and a costly one at that, is for the city to finance the renewal and revival of sections of the city — as other cities in other parts of the world have done.  I’m still researching right now about how much it will actually cost Manila’s tax payers and the city government.  Given Mayor Eraps statement at the start of his term saying that the city was hard-pressed to pay a debt of about Php 3.5 Billion, however, I’d assume that the Manila city government might not be in a good position to undertake what could be a multi-billion project.
Then again, that doesn’t mean that the private sector shouldn’t be brought in to undertake urban renewal and while it may look like a great deal (private money funding a project that will benefit the public at large), the government won’t be getting a free ride on it.
Just consider, for instance a case where the urban area to be revitalized it involves a large enough piece of land which may be inhabited by informal settlers and figure out the financial cost of relocating them — not to mention the political blow-back it will surely have.
Thing is, that’s what is already happening at Quezon City’s north triangle area and it’s a good thing that the developers (Ayala Land Inc.) have the strong backing of the Aquino Administration, otherwise leftist elements in the urban poor groups protesting the North Triangle Development might have put a stop to it.
This underscores just how crucial strong political will is when it comes to undertaking huge land development projects, especially granting that it will run against the interests of “the poor” who:
(1) comprise the larger part of the country’s voting population;
(2) and are largely the prime justification for a lot of government projects/programs which end up as milking cows for corrupt bureaucrats and politicians.
So, as far as I can see it, there may be just one last option that seems like a win-win solution and that is the reclamation of land in Manila Bay.
Compared to the options cited in the preceding paragraphs, the reclamation of land from Manila Bay presents advantages in areas where other options have problems.
The option of utilizing available open space within Manila which can:
- increase population density and strain the city’s resources even more
- contribute to more flooding by (1) plugging up natural water sinks and (2) accelerating ground subsidence by displacing more ground water by the construction of its foundations
- run into political and legal complications because of the necessity of relocating informal settlers
On the other hand, land reclamation provides the following benefits:
- expands Manila’s land area, thereby decreasing population density
- become a barrier to storm surges and keep seawater from flooding coastal areas of Manila because it will act like a dike or breakwater
- can be built without legal and political complications posed by informal settlers — at least, in the case of one proposed reclamation project
With regard to the last item, while there may be no substantial legal or political complications from informal settlers, the flak hurled at reclamation is coming from real estate owners and developers who may have substantial land holdings in Manila.
It’s easy enough to understand why when you consider that land is an economic resource.  It is generally held that its value will continue to appreciate mainly because its supply is limited while demand for it grows as population grows.  The reclamation of land poses a threat to the value of land owned by Manila real estate owners and developers because it INCREASES THE SUPPLY OF LAND, thereby potentially decreasing the demand for their properties hence perhaps lowering the lease or sale price.
While those going against reclamation of land in Manila Bay claim they are fighting for the welfare of the urban poor, for the preservation of the environment, and protection of historical heritage, it’s easy enough to find out who is backing them and it will lead you to a who’s who of huge real estate owners and property developers who are just out to protect their own interests.

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