Public Lives

The right to the city

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On A day like this, at the beginning of what threatens to be a long hot summer, Metro Manila’s residents search desperately for outdoor places where they can spread a mat, read a book, take a nap, or laze around with the children in the cool shade of big trees. Alas, outside of the UP Diliman campus which becomes a public park when it closes its tree-lined oval to vehicular traffic on Sundays, there are hardly any other accessible green parks left. The green sheltering metropolis is long gone.

Free time is nowadays inevitably captured by any of the gigantic air-conditioned shopping malls that dot the city. One is almost tempted to say that the natural environment has been deliberately degraded in order to force the city’s inhabitants to find refuge in the enclosed world of the shopping mall.

There is no conspiracy here, I am sure. It is just what happens when space is indiscriminately privatized, public officials forget their responsibilities, and owners fail to see beyond the narrow prism of private profit. Nowhere is this stark reality more visible than in the ongoing struggle between Baguio residents who are trying to save the few remaining pine trees of their city and those who want to uproot them to make way for more parking space for SM shoppers.

The political geographer, Edward Soja, sums it all up in the term “spatial injustice.” Soja argues that justice has a spatial dimension that is not as well recognized as legal justice or economic justice. Spatial injustice is evident in the way the geography of the city is configured to favor its wealthy residents, often to the detriment of its poor communities.

While the city deteriorates as a result of mindless planning and neglect, its privileged residents retreat into their gated enclaves where streets are safe and clean, sidewalks exist, and churches are less noisy and crowded. These exclusive villages have been carved out of city space as if they belonged to another country. In lieu of a visa, you must surrender a driver’s license to enter them if you are not a homeowner.

That this misplaced territoriality can be carried to absurdity may be seen in the way residents in these subdivisions sometimes close and fence off entire streets from their adjoining neighborhoods. Under the auspices of what seems like an urban tribalism, our city streets are thereby transformed from means of access to walls of exclusivity. That today we can talk of inclusive development without irony attests to the blind spots that occlude our vision of a just society.

Look around us and see what kind of city has resulted from the collusion between our public officials and private developers. It is a place that is patently inhospitable to open spaces. Instead of green parks, we have grey parking spaces. Instead of wooded walks, we have golf courses. Our landscape is a collage of billboards. We are choking in the fumes of motor vehicles. Behind the long shadows cast by high-rise condos are the squatter shanties put up by construction workers and their families.  The city they inhabit exists as shared space only in a fictional sense. Barriers everywhere, maintained by ubiquitous security guards, set the rich and the poor apart.

Despite its own worsening income disparities, a country like Singapore has managed to create a city that is not just all shopping malls, condos, and office blocks. In such a small place, one would think parks were the last thing they would think of. Yet everywhere one turns, there is a park. The long avenue stretching from Changi airport to the city center is one of the most beautiful in the world; even from inside a moving vehicle one is treated to the soothing experience of going through a flower garden.

On a recent visit to Singapore, I got a glimpse of this neighboring city-state that I do not get when I stay in a downtown hotel. My wife and I stayed in a small hotel in the Katong area, close enough to Fort Road where our daughter who had just given birth lives. This is a traditional Peranakan (a blend of Chinese and Malay) neighborhood that is just starting to witness the rise of new condo buildings. Outside the hotel was a thriving community served by small shops and eating places. Every day, we would go down to any of the shops run by old women to have a quick breakfast of thick coffee, kaya toast, and soft-boiled eggs. Then we would drop by a small bakery across the hotel that sells fresh croissants and baguettes, and loaves of bread filled with walnuts and figs. In the evening, we would take one of the sidewalk tables at a busy restaurant that serves a superb version of the Singaporean signature dish, Hainanese chicken. This ambience is a stark contrast to the globalist setting of Orchard Road.

Still, my friend, the renowned Singaporean architect and urban planner William Lim, is not totally pleased by what he sees. He thinks that the government can do much more to democratize Singapore’s public space. He worries that traditional neighborhoods that embody his country’s heritage may not be able to withstand the incursions from builders of high-rise housing. He is pushing the quest for spatial justice beyond the call for heritage conservation and green zones. He wants city roads to be made safe for commuters on bicycles. He seeks the conversion of choice public spaces like those in the financial district into venues for art activities and recreation—at least on weekends when they become empty zones.

Protest need not be the sole language of a movement to “occupy” the city. Thousands of Filipino maids are asserting their right to the city in a more enduring way by occupying prime sites in downtown Singapore during weekends.

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