Solving the riddle of Manila

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By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran
Special Features Writer

AS of the 2015 census, there are over 12.8 million people living in the 619.57 square kilometers of the Philippines’ National Capital Region alone, making the capital one of the most populous and densely populated in the world. And as this urban region continues to expand, spurred by the barreling growth of the national economy, it becomes increasingly harder to ignore its flaws.

Global infrastructure giant AECOM — the company behind the master plans of Filinvest and Old Oak in northwest London among others — has taken note, and working with the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, last week launched “Manila: Future Habitations”, the final part in a three-year design series on Southeast Asian megacities following Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

The program brought together a group of students and experts from various fields — from urban planning to architecture — with an aim of proposing solutions to a central question: How can all of Manila’s existing constraints — its overpopulation, informal settlements, pollution, and hours-long traffic jams — become opportunities for something better? Is a lasting solution that will resonate and unify its residents possible?

“Contemporary Greater Metro Manila, with a population of more than 25 million, is by far the largest city in our three-year series on Southeast Asia, and arguably the most complex, with vast extremes of economic and social strata, and yet universal challenges for its citizens, such as mobility, improved ecology, and connectivity,” Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Alexander and Victoria Wiley professor of design, said.

“Manila’s fascinating history and unique characteristics have created an urban scenario among the most challenging, and yet promising, anywhere in the world. This makes for truly fascinating and exciting study area,” he said.

The six-month academic exploration, named the Manila Studio 2018, will focus on the Central Manila Port Areas; the adjacent neighborhood of Baseco, which is one of the most economically disadvantaged; the disconnected mercantile communities of Binondo and Tondo on the north side of the Pasig River; and on the south side of the river, Manila’s ancient historic heart, the Spanish walled citadel of Intramuros. Taken together, the areas form a microcosm representative of the extreme conditions faced throughout Greater Metro Manila.

This is no small task. Mr. Mostafavi told the media that the program merely seeks to begin the process of collaborating with the Philippine government, the academe, businesses, the press, civic and community stakeholders to propose new solutions towards lasting change.

“Essentially, this is really the academy acting as the instigator of new forms of research,” he said. “This research, we’re very keen for it to be in the public realm and for it to be utilized for engaging with a much broader audience. We don’t see this thing as a kind of single solution, but merely the beginning of a conversation which can then be taken up by others.”

Thirteen Harvard students — split into four groups — are working on proposals that will revitalize the port area, the Baseco compound, Pasig River’s waterfront, and Intramuros. The students are expected to return to Manila in September to discuss the developments of their respective proposals with the government and private developers.

Sean Chiao, AECOM president for the Asia Pacific, told a briefing: “This study is a combination of different disciplines. There are architects, landscape architects, and urban designers. Our city is becoming more and more complex. You cannot simply just rely on a single profession or discipline to resolve these complex issues. It’s about an integrated, holistic, multi-disciplinary solution, and that’s very fundamental for our future.”

To bring Manila to the future, many factors need to be studied. These include the resiliency of its population and infrastructure; the connectivity between its physical regions and in the digital space; productivity and efficiency; and the authenticity of cultures and communities. Mr. Chiao believes that only through a united effort can these issues be truly addressed.

“Manila’s challenges may seem substantial, but the most critical building blocks of opportunity are present in the form of a strong economy which has been among the world’s highest performing for close to a decade; and the yearning that citizens share for a better quality of urban life,” he said.

“Our collaboration with Harvard Graduate School of Design to expose its top students and stakeholders in some of the region’s most dynamic cities to each other, is rooted in the belief that what we imagine together, we can deliver together,” he added. — with report from M.A.P. Soliman