Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Planning the Poor In

A few hours before departure from Manila found me hurtling through streets, retracing my path from the night before in a rush to get to the Solidaridad Bookstore. While my body jumped puddles and navigated curbs my mind daydreamed of authors. This diet of rush and calm sustained me until I turned a corner into a street where parked cars were pinched between buildings and the roadway. Opting to squeeze between the cars and buildings I almost stepped into human excrement. The movement, never fully executed, prompted my mind to flash to the night before. There in the same spot I had attempted the same behavior, differing only in that the night before I had nearly stepped on a sleeping person. Within this anecdote lies a sobering reality of what it means to be poor, that is, to be forgotten.
While estimates of the number of informal settlers or settlements is not available on the Philippines National Housing Authority’s (NHA)website, I was able to find varying reports attributed to government estimates. The United Nations Development Program in a mid-term evaluation of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals reported that the 2004 government estimate of informal settler families nationwide was 675,000 families with 146,000 families residing in the National Capital Region (NCR). This number does not seem to be congruent with the 2002 NHA estimate of 1,408,492 informal settler families nationwide of which 726,908 families were from Metro Manila as reported in an article by Emma Porio and Christine Crisol. In any case, even the more conservative estimate depicts Manila (NCR) as home for 21% of the nation’s informal settler families. Industrial globalization and the subsequent shift of workers from rural areas to urban areas is a reasonable explanation for the higher rates of informal settler families in Manila (NCR). However, questions of why the problem exists and what is being done about it remain.
Rapid development, an increase in population and rising land costs, among other factors, have been attributed to the gap in access to affordable housing both in Manila and across the world. These factors, perhaps dressed differently as a result of globalization, are not new to urban settlements and cannot be held fully responsible for the lack of housing for the urban poor. In the article “Burnham before Chicago: The Birth of Modern American Urban Planning” author John W. Reps notes that Robinson – a city designer whom Reps argues most influenced Burnham- approved of beautification plans which moved workers and factories outside city limits. This approach was apparently not isolated to Robinson as Reps makes a point of highlighting the Brummer and Carrere design of Grand Rapids, Michigan describing the plan as “otherwise unremarkable [it] is worth noting because it at least recognized the problem of housing for middle and lower income families”. Whether Burnham was directly influenced by Robinson’s call to move workers away from city centers or by his contemporaries attempt to acknowledge the need for affordable housing is unclear. What does come to the surface is a historical foundation for what Shatkin argues is the intentional forgetting of urban poor settlements by urban planners and policy makers.
Among the solutions for easing the housing concerns of the urban poor are calls to formalize settlements, grant property rights, implement subsidized housing standards and integrate urban upgrading. As necessary as having a varied approach followed through to completion is an intentional ‘remembering’ that every individual – poor or rich- is of equal value. That being said, this assertion is not a new one. It flows down from history through the actions of individuals such as St. Vincent DePaul waiting simply to be practiced.

[Photo taken in Metro Manila by Nicole Meeuwse, 12/2008]

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