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‘Hardening of the heart’

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Philippine cities are bursting at their seams. So are other cities in Asia and “in other faraway places with strange-sounding names.” Will most spiral into “cities of despair”? How  many will emerge as “greener” capitals with a future?

There were 143 Philippine cities as of September 2012, up from 60 in 1991. Some were “shell cities.” Their stunting “prevents them from generating their own resources,” the World Bank and Asian Development Bank cautioned.

Naga in Cebu and Batac in Ilocos Sur, plus 14 others, flunked minimum criteria of income, population and area. “Flip-flops” by Arroyo Supreme Court justices got the 16 in, through the backdoor. Expect more “sneak-in” bids in the 16th Congress.

Migrants and kids from a stalled “demographic transition” cascade into Olongapo, Malaybalay, Zamboanga and other ill-prepared cities. Half of the population today is urban—and rising. Demographers clocked cities’ population surge at 2.3 percent annually. Few notice or heed these “faceless” men and women.

Headlines swivel toward high-visibility news, from the Atimonan massacre to the renewed harassment of Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada, who blew the whistle on the NBN-ZTE scam of the Arroyo administration. Add to that press tattle on bachelor President Aquino’s “Valentine.”

A significant report is about congressional fund  sclerocordia: “Hardening of the heart” bugged legislators who exempted themselves from audit to gorge on congressional funds. “Are your hearts hardened?” an exasperated Master from Nazareth told disciples who bickered over failing to bring bread.

Prime-time TV news, whether on  British Broadcasting Corp., NHK of Japan or NBC in the United States, never lead with or air  police-blotter pickings. In contrast, raw footage of petty crime is culled from a few surveillance cameras in Manila, then spewed in national  broadcasts. Onli  in  da  Pilipins?

Asian cities took in more than a billion people from 1980 to 2010, the ADB notes. “The equivalent of almost five new cities, the size of Beijing, are added, every 12 months.”

The historical pattern, however, differs. In Europe and North America, urbanization played out over centuries. That “elbow room” allowed factories and incomes to outpace births. “In the developing world, however, this is compressed in two or three generations,” the United Nations notes.

More than half of the world’s megacities—metropolitan areas with over 10 million inhabitants—are in this region. Eleven of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in Asia. Air pollution contributes to the premature death of half a million Asians each year. Outbreaks of leptospirosis and watery diarrhea in Metro Manila slums after Tropical Storm “Ondoy” underscore this threat, according to the World Health Organization.

How many of us Filipinos are there now? Depends on who you ask. The 2010 census pegged it at 92.3 million. Some embassies estimate that at 103.7 million. Most agree we’re now the world’s 12th most populated nation.

The on-the-ground reality is “a nightmare for governance: sprawling, degraded cities with large, impoverished  populations who are socially excluded.” Over 10 million today are jobless or underemployed. Another 1.1 million are added on, every year, to the labor force. Most are young, with libidos on overdrive.

To survive, millions of slum dwellers grow their own food on every strip of available land: backyards, along rivers, roads, and under power lines. In low-income barrios of Managua, Caracas and Bogotá, for example, “UPH” is thriving.

UPH—what? Urban and peri-urban horticulture is the cultivation of food crops within cities. The urban poor feed themselves better by bringing farms into cities. End of January, scientists from all over the world met  at Linkoping University in Sweden for the Urban Agriculture Summit. “Is this the beginning of another agricultural revolution?” asks Wall Street Journal. Other scientists are not too sure.

Quezon City implements a “Joy of Urban Farming Program.” In New York, a commercial organic farm is located on the roof of a 6-story block in the shadow of the Empire State Building. “Cultiva Ciudad” grows food crops on building roofs that may yet disprove novelist Carlos Fuentes’ wisecrack about polluted “Makesicko” City. Over 130 million urban Africans and 230 million in Latin America engage in UPH.

Will UPH impact on towns and cities here? Before Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stepped down, “there was no statistically significant change in the poverty situation of 61 percent of cities and towns,” says Romulo Virola, former secretary general of the National Statistical Coordination Board. “Is this the result of distorted aspirations, or of failure of governance? Whatever, it urgently calls for innovative ideas from our municipal and city mayors.”

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of,” Confucius wrote in the Analects. “But in a country badly  governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”

Development is not a larger IRA (internal revenue allocation) begging bowl. Rather, it is empowering people to enlarge their choices, enabling them to rise to more humane standards of living. City and town officials must apply limited resources to funding health, water, sanitation and job training, plus tightening up on revenue collection.

A crucial first step is the shattering of local official mindsets—which the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo did so well. Robredo demonstrated that the future need not be one of shortchanging our grandchildren.

Continued squandering of local government funds through “15-30 political sinecures” or building waiting sheds that no one uses is “hardening of the heart.”

* * *

E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com


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Tags: ADB , Asia , cities , Juan L. Mercado , opinion , Urban Planning , Viewpoint , world bank



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