Farewell Manila

There are several primary sources, most of them foreign, describing how awesome and tantalizing Manila Bay is at first sight, from dawn to dusk, with emphasis on its incomparably dazzling sunset. Because it is so spectacular and strategic, Manila Bay has always been irresistible to people driven by all kinds of motives. At the beginning of the 20th century, the American colonial government hired their best architect, Daniel Burnham, to transform Manila into “City Beautiful”; land was reclaimed respecting the crescent-like contours of Manila Bay; subsequent reclamation projects have not been as reverential.

Possibly the most irreverent is the multi-billion project to reclaim more than 400 hectares from Manila Bay to build a “city within a city,” a  “Pearl City,” yet another commercial and tourism hub on three machine-made islands.  The reclamation will be funded by a consortium, which includes the UAA Kinming Development Corporation.  Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada approved it last November, 2017, after which he announced that he would run for a third and last term; his eldest is waiting in the wings.

Although that seems to be a done deal, it is vital that we at least discuss the pros and cons. The president of the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS), Atty Mark Evidente, sent me the HCS statement, which I want to share with you readers:

“The City of Manila deserves a genuine revitalization program, one that improves and provides basic infrastructure from sewage to streetlights, to housing for all social strata; a mix of commercial and residential that supports small businesses and local communities, provides amenities that improve the quality of living like parks and playgrounds, libraries and sports facilities, day care and senior facilities.

“All this must be achieved while keeping its spirit as the “Pearl of the Orient,” rooted in the greatness of Manila’s history and identity, it’s being the political and cultural center of the nation. Manila the old city has to be made more resilient to a changing climate, rising seas, earthquake risks and stronger typhoons.

“The proposed reclamation projects will succeed only in creating elite enclaves which will further exacerbatethe dire conditions of informal settler communities in the old city; it will magnify the chasm between the rich and the poor. It diverts attention from the real social, economic and developmental problems of Manila because theareas created by the reclamation project will occupy the interest and energy of the local government. The already neglected and poorly served areas of the old city will remain neglected and poorly served.

“Senior experts in their fields from the respected geologist, Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, to the eminent Filipino urban planner, Dr. Nathaniel von Einsiedel, have stated that these reclamation projects will not be climate resilient and will be exposed to higher risks from earthquakes and liquefaction, storm surges and typhoons.  Furthermore, the impact of these reclamation projects on the surrounding areas has not been fully assessed.

“These reclamation projects will change the flow and tides of Manila Bay and its rivers, thus magnifying flooding in certain areas, while denying communities access to water and open space. More crucially, what is the local government doing to make old Manila itself more climate resilient? What proposals does the local government have to make the city survive another typhoon “Ondoy” and recover afterwards? Or, is it ready to cope with sea level rise that will inundate the city?

“The solution to the problems of the City of Manila does not lie inthe reclamation of Manila Bay.  The solutions are found within Manila itself. There are numerous success stories around the world about the revitalization of old cities by providing affordable mass housing while attracting    the middle and upper classes who live in the suburbs to go back and settle within the old city.The key, however, is not in building high-rise condominiums and large shopping complexes but in restoring the “sense of place” of Manila that once made it unique among all other cities of the world.

“It is about preserving Manila’s identity by restoring and conserving its historical districts and heritage structures. Tourists look for a cultural experience, that is why they go to Manila. The local government should make Manila’s communities safe and walkable by maintaining broad tree-lined sidewalks, linear parks, and pedestrian paths. Properly designed and well-maintained streets, parks, and open spaces encourage people to go outdoors to experience the city they call home.

“The impending reclamation of more than 400 hectares of Manila Bay will not revitalize the City of Manila.Instead, it will allow the country’s historic and official capital to deteriorate and die. Great leaders strive to conserve and honor their old cities because these teach generations of citizens about their history, culture ,and their identity as a people. That is how nations become great.”