Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Never Ending Plans of Manila

Last December of 2008, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Manila, Philippines. Prior to our trip we had a few preparatory classes to learn of the history and culture of the Philippines. I also learned of Daniel Burnham and the connection between Chicago and Manila. He was a prestigious architect who designed the city plans for Chicago and Manila, as well as other cities. A recurring theme on his plans was the use of open spaces that he had designed for everyone in the city to enjoy. In Chicago and in Manila, I have been able to experience the benefits of the cities’ open spaces. There are however distinct differences that make each experience quite unique from each other. The sights that we see in Manila are far different from those that we see in Chicago. One of the factors that mark the differences is the degree of urban poverty experienced in Manila. The city on the Pacific that Burnham planned is crippled by poor economic development, deficient social facilities and poor physical planning (Marcelo 2008).

I took a walk on Jose Rizal Boulevard along the water. I wanted to experience what Daniel Burnham had envisioned for Manila’s water front. It was a warm and humid day, typical around this time in Manila. The air was thick, polluted and difficult to breath. The water in the bay had a brownish, murky color and it gave off an unpleasant odor. There were vendors and children begging for money. Between the bushes in and other shaded areas, there were individuals and families sleeping, hiding from the sun. We continued our walk along the bay, when suddenly the vendors and the swarm of begging children thinned as soon as we reached a building with tall white walls that blocked our view of the bay. The tall white walls enclose the grounds of the U.S. Embassy, which stands tall and grand in the middle of the boulevard.
As I continue my walk in Manila, I think of how different the scenery is from that of Chicago. In the windy city, there are no begging children and there are not any families living under any shaded areas. With this I’m not implying that there aren not any poor individuals roaming the city parks, there are. The difference is the degree of poverty, we do not see entire families living in the parks, or swarms of children begging for money or food. Instead, we have families enjoying the facilities that the city has to offer, well-manicured lawns, a glistening water front, impressive architecture, and a metal bean. And unlike in Manila, where the U.S. Embassy stands in the middle of Manila’s water front, the general consulate of the Philippines stands on Michigan Avenue, unguarded and surrounded by retail shops and fast food restaurants. I continued to walk, and pondered on the differences and similarities that both cities have and think if Burnham ever envisioned the disparities between the two cities that he planned.

In the beginning of the 1900’s, Burnham was invited to manila to design a plan that would alleviate the city from the problems that stemmed from industrialization and the large influx of rural settlers who were looking for a better opportunity in the city. Burnham was inspired by the urban improvements that had taken place in Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Barcelona and Madrid. According to Mr. Paolo Alcazaren, an important Filipino architect and write for the Philstar.com, Manila is still dealing with the same problems as it did back when Burnham first visited the city; crowded tenements, pollution, traffic, and squatters (Marcelo 2008). After Burnham’s plan for Manila, many more followed, in total there have been 12 plans designed for Manila and none of them has been fully realized. The reasons for what one could perceive as the causes for Burnham’s plan to fail, as well as the many other plans that followed after, were not due to their quality, but to the changes in governance, economic shortages and war (Marcelo 2008).

Burnham’s plan of Manila did not fail. His plan never failed because it was never carried out to its entirety. Any future city plan for Manila has to address the social problems that this city has been facing for over a century. A new sewage system must be built, because a deficient sewage creates health hazards to its citizens, mainly the poor. Traffic has to be re-routed in order to alleviate the dense traffic and the strong fuel emissions polluting the city. Housing with access to transportation must be made available, this is especially necessary to help the many families that live in the relocated areas, like Cabuyao, Laguna. More importantly, as Mr. Alcazaren has previously suggested, the next plan for Manila must be carried out in its entirety in order to work.

Photograph, courtesy of Mar P. Bustamante, 2008

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