When Metro Manila Development Authority chair Francis Tolentino calls for building “another city that will be the new seat of the national government and cultural center of the country”—one that’s “world-class … intelligent, competitive, green, and inclusive,” a showcase to the world of “what Filipino talent can conceive and produce [and] an enduring legacy for future generations to cherish and build upon,” is he indulging in a pipe dream?
Not necessarily. Building a city from scratch has been done. Take Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Before 1956, the plateau west of the old capital of Rio de Janeiro was a barren place, with scarce water, vegetation and human habitation. When the government of Brazil decided to move from Rio to a place closer to the geographical center of the country, it planned the move with vision and panache. It held a contest for the design of the new capital; out of more than 5,000 entries submitted, Lucio Costa’s urban planning design won. He and a close friend, Oscar Niemeyer, became the chief developers of the city, with Niemeyer designing the monumental modernist architecture that eventually defined Brasilia’s public buildings and skyline.
Methodical planning and landscaping produced a city with well-zoned residential areas, commercial hubs, parks and gardens, vast public plazas and broad avenues, a highly efficient public transport system, even an artificial lake. Just 27 years after Brasilia became a spanking-new metropolis, Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site.
Closer to the Philippines, there’s Putrajaya in Malaysia, now the federal administrative hub of the country. While Kuala Lumpur remains its official capital, Malaysia transferred its seat of government to the new planned city in 1999, to the tune of an estimated $8.1 billion. On what used to be a swath of mostly forest and wetland in the state of Selangor rose a city of stately government buildings, wide boulevards (with surprisingly whimsical lampposts), bridges that are visual and engineering marvels, a high-speed rail system connecting the brand-new city to Kuala Lumpur and the international airport, and green spaces all around (about 38 percent of the area was left untouched to make Putrajaya a “green” city).
So, yes, building a new city that “must be attuned to the demands of a 21st-century Philippines—with a strong urban agenda, an infrastructure that is not under critical stress, with spatial growth that is not haphazard”—as Tolentino puts it, is not impossible. The rationale, too, is quite persuasive—that “Manila has reached its carrying capacity,” and besides, “previous plans for Manila and Greater Manila were not reflective of Filipino culture as the foundations for planning were predominantly colonial in nature.”
Tolentino has even identified two possible sites for his dream city: Tanay in Rizal province, and an area that straddles the municipalities of San Rafael, San Ildefonso and Doña Remedios Trinidad in Bulacan province. Done well, the nation’s new capital will not only be, at the very least, a place that offers a comfortable, ideal quality of life for its citizens, he says. More importantly, “the new city must be a grand showcase by Filipino architects, engineers and urban planners employing cutting-edge technology and producing culture-based but forward-looking design.”
Tolentino can actually do away with the “prestige” pretexts. Manila’s blight alone already begs for the kind of efficiently planned and intelligently designed urban alternative he envisions. The question is: Can we hack it?
Embarking on such a landmark project requires a complete overhaul of the Philippines’ public-works status quo: sound design, engineering and architecture free of scheming and interference by crummy politicians (no tacky lampposts, please!), fair and transparent bidding of projects, clean funding for top-grade materials and services. On the planning side, the usual ad hoc city growth must be ditched in favor of a thoughtful, well-enforced distribution of industry centers, human clusters and open spaces, supported throughout by a working public transport grid.
The growth of private industry-led projects such as Rockwell and The Fort shows the way toward creating better urban hubs through smart, bold vision. If only the government can replicate their example on a metrowide—and, crucially, more socially equitable—scale. And by the way, the Aquino administration has just lent the IMF $1 billion. Surely it has funds for the planning, and eventual groundbreaking, of the Philippines’ own Brasilia or Putrajaya?