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Sunday, July 14, 2024

No to reclamation, yes to decongestion

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Renew the decongested urban landscape of our cities.



We have a national treasure in Manila Bay, but we have allowed it to rot through years and years of neglect and wanton disregard.  Now we have a President who wants it cleaned up and restored to old glory.

That is not an easy task.  In fact, if seriously pursued, it will take not just the remaining years of this administration; it will require maybe two or three more presidencies with the same political will and determination to sustain whatever gains the process of rehabilitation will require.

But just as the clean-up efforts (the easiest part of the massive rehabilitation required) have begun, we hear once more about several reclamation projects to be located in the bay. It’s not strictly reclamation, but the building of artificial islands in the bay itself, connected to the present shoreline.

One of the major causes of the degradation of our Manila Bay is over-population, and the corresponding inability of both national agencies and local governments to control the discharge of the collective effluents and detritus of residential, commercial, industrial and even informal settlers through decades.

If Boracay was despoiled by an excess of population, whether transient or permanent, far above its carrying capacity, Manila Bay is in worse state.  

Boracay serves only the tourism industry.  Manila Bay serves every economic aspect of our lives.

We have seen the degradation of Boracay’s waters only for a generation, starting from when tourists other than Ferdinand Marcos and his friends “discovered” it in the late eighties.  The national government, under the leadership of FVR and Erap, began to take measures to control the coliform level in the waters facing the fabled white beach and around the 1,100 hectare island, but local government negligence laced with greed rendered these attempts useless.

Duterte took charge, and after six months of frenzied efforts and a total closure, Boracay’s waters have been restored, hopefully to be sustained.

Now Duterte wants to replicate the success in Boracay to a bay that is thousands of times dirtier and which involves not only most of Metro Manila but the surrounding territories of Bataan, Cavite, Batangas, Bulacan and Pampanga as well.

It is a legacy that will enshrine him in the hearts and minds of future generations, but only, repeat, only, if the efforts succeed and are sustained.  Those are two different endeavors, and both are Herculean in scope and complexity.

Metro Manila, particularly the cities facing the bay, are all congested.  It shows in the failure of public transport systems to service the ever-increasing number of passengers.  It shows in the urban squalor and decay that characterize these cities.  And it shows in the putrid environment of Manila Bay, over which one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world is a spectacle to cherish.

Senior citizens will remember when Roxas, then Dewey, Boulevard was a beautiful stretch from the US Embassy by the bay all the way to the coast of Las Pinas.   Then Harry Stonehill reclaimed the bayfront from the Philippine Navy headquarters and the Manila Yacht Club in the boundary of Manila and Pasay up to EDSA.  That was where Imelda Romualdez Marcos built the Cultural Center, later the Philippine International Convention Center – and thank her for the vision and the saving grace of these cultural treasures.

FVR later expanded the reclamation effort all the way to the Paranaque area, and that is where the Entertainment City and SM’s Mall of Asia now sit, both magnets of tourism and consumer spending. 

Should these not be enough?

 These two reclamation projects injected a stream of migrants from all over the country, first as brawn-power of construction, later to stay for good in the metropolis where jobs abound in contrast to the countryside from where they came.

Administrations, one after another, have always mouthed the need for decongesting the nation’s premiere metropolis and developing the countryside.  But by and large, that has been more talk and less action.  We convert our farmlands to house the middle class.  And if we allow more reclamation instead of decongesting the capital region, forget Manila Bay.

 First, we will rob the ordinary man of the fabled sunset, and make it a come-on for rich people, mostly foreigners, to enjoy the same from the balconies of their expensive condominium units.  The reclamation, actually the creation of large artificial islands, will obliterate views of the bay from Roxas Boulevard. The construction work will, on the other hand, draw in thousands upon thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled workers from the provinces, leaving our farms without workers to grow our food.

And after the artificial islands are created, and the gleaming skyscrapers of steel and glass are completed, where do you suppose these legions of workers will stay?  In the now inner cities, in its warrens of congestion and poverty, its slums.

And yet, just beyond the hills of Antipolo and Tanay, there are thousands of hectares of agriculturally unproductive land which can be used to relocate present informal settlers.  Create townships complete with the basics of decent living, and connect them to the metropolis through efficient public transport. That is where taxpayer’s money should be devoted.

Bataan, Bulacan, even Pampanga beyond Clark and Subic, are quite near.  Imagine making Norzagaray and Remedios Trinidad more accessible, with new townships equipped with schools, hospitals and parks. 

But the first step ought to be a comprehensive program of transferring the national government and all its agencies elsewhere, Clark with its inherited and yet-to-be-built additional infrastructure being the logical site.

Thus, we decongest Metro Manila, leaving it as the financial, commercial and even cultural center, enhancing it with parks and pockets of green to make Upon the other hand, reclamation projects will only attract the rich, mostly foreigners.  We keep aping what we see in Hong Kong, or the Emirates like Dubai, creating more and more enclaves for the rich, and forgetting the rest of humanity now residing in our capital.  But these are cities where habitable land is scarce and the demand for habitat quite high. Aside from which, they are centers of wealth.

The better models would be Putrajaya in Malaysia, Ankara in Turkey, Canberra in Australia, Ottawa in Canada, Brasilia in Brazil, even Washington D.C. in the US of A.  

Decongest Manila. Renew the decongested urban landscape of its cities. And forbid any further reclamation in Manila Bay.


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