A tale of 2 cities
No, I will not talk about London and Paris, which are the settings of Charles Dickens’ classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities.” I will focus instead on the neighboring cities of Marikina and Manila, and the contrast in their development as human settlements. To borrow the novel’s famous opening sentence, I can say it is the best of times for Marikina and it is the worst of times for Manila.
In September last year, Manila was listed by Zipjet as one of the 10 most stressful cities in the world. In October, London’s The Economist magazine rated Manila as one of the most unsafe cities in the world to live in. This state of affairs again surfaced in the limelight in November, when the city itself rounded up dozens of homeless people on Roxas Boulevard ahead of the 31st Asean Summit. Despite these obvious indications of urban malfunction, Mayor Joseph Estrada’s reaction was simply to dismiss Zipjet’s findings as “fake news” and to continue with his merry way of running Manila according to a management style called “muddling through,” or simply dealing with the problems as they come without the use of a guiding plan.
It’s really incomprehensible how Manila’s mayors have failed to notice the laudable example provided by nearby Marikina in urban planning and management when it is just 21 kilometers away. Manila has failed to live up in varying degrees to the public interest determinants of good land use planning as prescribed by F. Stuart Chapin. These desirable features include livability, safety and health, convenience, economy and amenity. For instance, a cursory look at part of Manila’s central business district (CBD) on Quezon Boulevard in Quiapo shows narrow sidewalks blocked by hawkers and beggars, littered with trash, and reeking of a foul odor from a poor sewerage system. Many parts of esteros near the area still show squatters living in shanties jutting out of riverbanks and using the waterways as convenient dumps for excreta and garbage.
The contrast to the sordid sight of Manila’s CBD can be seen in Marikina by just passing through A. Bonifacio Avenue. There you immediately sense an air of order, safety and livability. The sidewalks are free of vendors and are actually reserved for pedestrians and not for the commerce of men. This was the principle imposed by Bayani Fernando during his incumbency as city mayor. He built an orderly marketplace for the peddlers, who enjoy even bigger earnings now. To improve the circulation system, he widened the streets by removing the islands and creatively formulating an ordinance that requires buildings either to be built or renovated to provide a parking easement of 5 meters. Marikina also has a long, 52-kilometer system of interconnected bike lanes.
Then, passing by the Marikina River, you see the Marikina River Park which has been cleared of squatters and maintains a river easement not only of 3 meters as required by law for urban areas, but of as much as 96 meters with the aim of cleaning and beautifying the waterway and ensuring the safety of informal settlers. Today, these settlers live in respectable shelters in in-city relocation sites. These determined efforts of Fernando and his wife Marides have earned for the river a Hall of Fame award as the “cleanest inland body of water in the Philippines.”
These are just some of the urban renewal features of Marikina that are worth emulating by Manila. As shown in Marikina, the key to transforming Manila is strict governance. But how long will the governance of Manila remain callous to the onslaught of painful criticisms? How can it bear to see the continuing degradation of the seat of our national civilization? This season should be a time of soul-searching for Mayor Estrada and thereafter for him to make the hoped-for New Year’s resolution. In his twilight years, this could be a rare chance to redeem himself and to leave a lasting legacy for himself and his family.
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Meliton B. Juanico, a retired professor of geography at the University of the Philippines Diliman, is a licensed environmental planner and is active in consultancy work in urban and regional planning.
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