It’s urban planning…

The urban planner in the family, my daughter Fatimah, has always said that the only way to make tourism sustainable is to have good and proper urban planning at the national level, none of those pathetically piecemeal attempts will ever work.  She is of the opinion that governments and tourism stakeholders tend to concentrate on a few beautiful spots which they promote with aggressively creative marketing plans to lure hordes of tourists, but when they do come, things go awry.

Because everyone concerned wants handsome profits from that beautiful tourism destination, rules and norms of urban planning are insidiously, if not purposefully, set aside, always with disastrous results. That is why the world’s most beautiful beach (Boracay, according to Conde Nast) became a cesspool, and no less than the President had to invoke his police powers, fragment the Supreme Court, and nick the Constitution to save it.

There was a time when urban planning was primordial in Manila. I am not referring to the 16th century Laws of the Indies (Leyes de las Indias) which Spain implemented in her colonies, including the Philippines. Those laws were so thorough there were regulations about the width of streets in areas with  sunny  tropical weather. Remnants of the cuadriciula that medieval grill pattern for towns and cities, are still evident in this archipelago from Bucay, Abra, to Intramuros to Zamboanga.

When Manila was hailed as the “Pearl of the Orient” at the turn of the 20th century, it was a must-see destination for European travellers, scientists, opera singers, etc. Foreign painters and photographers were enthralled by its lush tropical landscape as well as its lovely urban settings. Judging from vintage lithographs, Manila Bay was a sight to behold.

There was a network of canals that connected with the Pasig River, an excellent water highway that promoted easy travel and inter-provincial trade and commerce. (If we revive that, it might work wonders for the current transport crisis.) Travel books of that era proclaimed Manila as the “Venice of Asia” or the “Paris of Asia,” aside from its being the “Pearl of the Orient.” Today, unfortunately, you try to avoid Manila, if you can.  A trip from Manila’s International Airport to Intramuros which is a distance of 11.6 kilometers can take you as long as 3 hours, when it should only be a 30-minute ride.  To be caught in Manila’s horrendous traffic is a tourist’s nightmare.

One of the undeniable benefits of American colonization was urban planning, at least for Manila and Baguio. Arch. Daniel Burnham was sent here early on and even if he stayed for less than a month, he drew up a “city beautiful” plan for the Manila outside the enclosure of Intramuros.  There was no Department of Tourism when Manila was the “Pearl of the Orient” but there was urban-planning at the official level and a Bureau of Public Works that adhered to civilized norms while laying out a national network of streets, highways, and bridges that connected towns and cities.  There were designated commercial and residential districts, government centers with parks and plazas for public enjoyment.

Moreover, an Architecture office manned by the first batch of Filipino architects and engineers, graduates of universities in the USA, worked closely with the urban planners.  They built schoohouses that were so well-designed these have survived a century of wars and monsoons and are now objects of sentimental interest for domestic tourists. The commercial, government  and residential edifices designed by those Filipino architects comprise our inventory of Neo-classical architecture, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and Bauhaus, some of which have been declared National Cultural Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. Samples of this precious architectural heritage are found all over the archipelago, specially in Luzon and the Visayas. Lamentably, many have succumbed to so-called progress. In Manila, a few outstanding examples have been saved, like the Metropolitan Theater, Rizal Memorial Stadium, and vintage buildings on Escolta and some other streets in Binondo and Quiapo.

The street-cleaning and clearing rage spearheaded by Manila Mayor Isko Moreno has, unwittingly perhaps, spilled out of the capital city’s borders. It has awakened the Department of the Interior and Local Government which has suddenly remembered it is their task to monitor mayors, councillors, and barangay officials. At this writing, said department has “report cards” for performance and/or non-performance of  local government officials. After a vigorous program of street cleaning and clearing at the local government level, I hope lawmakers realize that what we urgently need is a 25-year national plan based on the knowledge and experience of Filipino urban planners. If and when that is accomplished, we may not have to worry about the sustainability of tourism.