Why not parks across the Pasig?

Imagine the Pasig River with parks and esplanades lining its banks stretching through some 25 kilometers from Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay, traversing five cities and a municipality. Imagine, on the other hand, an elevated Pasig River Expressway (PAREx) on columns along the banks through most of the river’s length. As a Metro Manila dweller or visitor, which would appeal more to you?

Mind you, both are actually planned and in the works, even as the two would appear to the average observer as totally incompatible. Fellow Inquirer columnist Joel Ruiz Butuyan believes the latter would “entomb the Pasig River in cement,” in stark contrast to Iloilo City’s beautiful nine-kilometer River Esplanade that is now a major part of that city’s newfound dynamism. A recent Inquirer editorial pushed to preserve the natural character of the Pasig, and consider PAREx “water under the bridge.”

My choice, hands down, would be the parks and esplanades. But I’d go well beyond that. I (and friends I’ve been talking to lately) would push for parks not only along the banks of the Pasig, but better still, across it! Consider this: there are 20 bridges crossing the Pasig River throughout its length, not counting three rail crossings. All but one were designed primarily for motor vehicles. Most are woefully unfriendly to pedestrians (with narrow and hazardous sidewalks), and some, especially newer ones, don’t even provide any way to cross the bridge on foot! It’s as if we are now planning our cities primarily for cars, and not for people.

I’ve written before of two outstanding people from opposite sides of the globe, both crusaders asserting that cities are for people, not for cars (“People over cars,” 8/16/11). Here at home, renowned lawyer and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Antonio Oposa invokes Executive Order No. 774 that declares “those who have less in wheels must have more in road,” and has fought for the 90 percent among us who don’t have cars. The Cebu City Council embraced his “Road Revolution” campaign to allot 30 percent of city roads to pedestrians, 30 percent to bike riders, 30 percent to collective transportation, and 10 percent to road gardens.

Former mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogota, Colombia, became a folk hero with crusaders working to make cities around the world more livable. He argued that infrastructure investments could be anti-poor if governments fail to recognize that only a small minority of the population own cars in most places in the world. He saw how building more roads in cities worldwide ultimately only led to more traffic jams, as building more roads just leads more people to buy cars. He thus argues that adding highways as a solution for traffic jams is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

In launching the P18-billion Pasig River Urban Development recently, the President envisioned “a living river” with “safe walkways and bikeways along its banks, green corridor, and a string of parks for communities nearby.” It would also feature urban gardens and rain-harvesting facilities, and showcase green technologies. But if we’re truly planning more with people, not cars, in mind, we would do well to build bridges exclusively for people as well. The new “Tulay Pangarap” in Sta. Ana is one such bridge (the first and only one), but I feel its spartan “erector set” design may evoke an inferior working-class feeling among those using it as if they didn’t deserve better—in the same way the token pedestrian-unfriendly sidewalks on many motorway bridges do.

But we deserve better. The footbridges my friends and I imagine would be much, much wider, artistically landscaped with ample greenery, and even incorporate cultural and historical elements similar to the rehabilitated Jones Bridge in Manila. They could feature al fresco cafés, benches, even lounge chairs. All these would make crossing the bridge—or lounging in it—a pleasing, stimulating, and uplifting experience. One of us posted concept photos of such “park bridges” (https://youtu.be/vyU9EibvVjE) and chimed: “The bridges must be designed for inclusivity—not starting in one exclusive high-end development and landing in another.” An architect in the group posted her concept designs (https://youtu.be/uYe5NJ7ThEM) for us to appreciate. The prospects are exciting. Someone suggested open design competitions for these bridges. Still another pushes for barangays to take responsibility for maintaining them, with authority to develop revenue-generating schemes to sustain maintenance costs. With big business conglomerates reportedly pitching in for the P18-billion price tag, one of us posted a challenge: “If these business leaders are serious about the Pasig River Esplanade, it makes sense that they consider river crossings for people”—indeed, parks not just along, but across the Pasig!