What we can learn from other Asian cities to save a decaying Manila
At 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2016, my 9-year old labrador retriever, Anya, suffered cardiac arrest as I was fixing breakfast. Panicking, my friend and I hurried to the nearest clinic a couple of kilometers away.
But we didn't account for the debilitating traffic jam that confronted us outside the gates of our village in southern Metro Manila. Desperate pleas to the traffic officers manning the intersection to proceed went ignored.
So a much-loved dog, whose life could have been saved, died in my arms while stuck in one of Manila's interminable traffic jams.
Later that day, sitting outside the crematorium, awaiting my dog's ashes, I told myself that I just couldn't live in Manila anymore. The traffic, the pollution, the decayed infrastructure and the equally low level of national discourse had become just too much for me to take—just as I know it is for so many millions of Manileños.
I did leave, and in May 2017, I joined the staff of a United States-headquartered, global infrastructure company, AECOM.
Over the past year and a half, I've been fortunate to work with an amazing group of people imagining and designing the next generation of the world's cities.
From our Southeast Asia regional headquarters in Singapore, I've extensively traveled across Asia. These trips have enabled me to undertake a deep dive into the issues confronting Asia's megacities.
For many Filipinos, any trip abroad is sobering. From the moment they land at the visited country's airport, they confront world-class infrastructure and technological connectivity and mobility.
Each visit is a reminder of how far the rest of the world is racing ahead, and how we will continue to be left behind.
What are Asia's cities doing right?
Singapore and Hong Kong are amazing models to study.
When I worked for a former employer in the 2000s, I would marvel at how efficiently I could go from Hong Kong International Airport to our office at Exchange Square within 30 minutes.
Today, when I land at Singapore's Changi Airport (currently ranked the world's best), I go through the automated immigration in about 10 seconds.
Singapore and Hong Kong are examples of how the challenges of high density, connectivity and mobility are being successfully addressed.
Jakarta in Indonesia is a megacity long plagued by massive traffic. But when the government made the decision to address infrastructure issues, the game changed.
In February, the Harvard Graduate School of Design and AECOM launched a national conversation about the future of Manila and other Philippine cities.
The city's first heavy-stock rail line is already on trial run, and the second line will open in just a few years. Soekarno-Hatta International Airport has been successfully expanded.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, investments have been made, from the expansive trains and sparkling stations of the Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit, to the River of Life Project, a multi-year project to regenerate the city's Klang and Gombok Rivers.
Not only has the project brought about the biological rebirth of the river, it has also reinvigorated Kuala Lumpur's once blighted downtown.
The delivery partner for this project has been AECOM, and I encourage you to visit the project in downtown Kuala Kumpu.
There are many examples in our literal backyard that we could—and should—draw from to reimagine a new trajectory for the future growth of our cities.
The common denominators I see across all these great cities is the general sense of purpose and civic discipline that national and local political leaders, businesses and residents share.
Much of my career in Asia has been invested in Philippine urbanization. In the early 2000s, I was in the management of Metro Pacific, the original proponent for Bonifacio Global City (BGC).
A new way
I still clearly recall my beloved former boss, Manny Pangilinan (now better known to the nation as "MVP"), relating how, when he was "the original OFW" building First Pacific in Hong Kong, how much he wanted to deliver a new way of urban living to Manila.
That drive is what led his consortia then to invest billions of dollars in the acquisition of the original BGC site, and deploy massive infrastructure investments.
BGC was a project that required incredible discipline to get off the ground. In the years since they took over the project, Ayala Corporation and Ayala Land have taken it to glittering new heights.
It's that kind of discipline that needs to be deployed today, but on a much larger scale and more complicated palette, if Manila is to be truly saved and improved for the future.
I propose a path for Metro Manila to move ahead.
First, decide that enough is enough! Filipinos need to decide that two-, three-, four-hour traffic jams, decrepit infrastructure, no public parks, blight and decay are completely unacceptable .
Today, when I drive across Metro Manila and see ambulances attempting to carve a path in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I pray for the passenger inside.
Second, we must agree that Metro Manila needs to become a city for all Filipinos. BGC, Rockwell, Alabang, Makati, Ortigas—Metro Manila will never progress if it continues to exist with fabulous pockets of extreme wealth and privilege, disconnected by tremendous swathes of urban blight and poverty.
In 1905, Daniel Burnham, the American designer and planner of Chicago, presented a plan for Manila that sought to create a grand and elegant capital city, with inner city trams, public parks and the attendant infrastructure to support an aspiring middle class. When creating that plan, he didn't perceive Philippine society to be divided between the privileged and the "masses."
Metro Manila can only be "saved" once we review the whole of the city. We must convince the leadership of the City of Manila, for example, that a more sustainable and value-creating future can only be created by urban regeneration, versus building isolated islands in Manila Bay.
The revitalization of the Pasig River, and gentrification of areas such as Baseco Compound or North Harbor, will in fact bring in higher earnings and leave a more lasting legacy.
Hong Kong's infrastructure is iconic and world-leading.
Third, to do this, government, business and civil society need to come together. In our charged local political environment, this may seem unrealistic. But if we don't want to lose any more competitiveness—or lives—it's absolutely necessary.
A national task force focused on fixing Metro Manila, examining the critical challenges our cities face, should be convened and empowered. And this task force should be given the resources to implement transformative solutions.
Fourth, infrastructure projects need to be approved faster and incentivized to be delivered on time. Recently, I was thrilled to traverse the portion of the completed connector road beyond Buendia in Makati. After about 20 seconds when the road ended, I was dismayed to find myself crawling again on South Super Highway.
In most of fast-growing emerging Asia, governments have established "coordinating ministries" that ensure red tape gets cut and projects are completed. It's a crime that the Philippines is paying fees today for projects we have failed to complete, and we need to fix this.
Fifth, all of this must be addressed via a real, comprehensive and long-term plan. Metro Manila is 16 independent cities and one municipality, each with its own unique governance. It can be saved only if we recognize that this system does not work anymore.
All of Metro Manila needs to be considered as one urban fabric. The strengths of one city can help improve the weaknesses of another.
Sixth, we must recognize that we need outside help. Across Asia, national and local governments are turning to global companies, think tanks, universities and other institutions and crafting uniquely local fixes. It is a not an adverse commentary on our nationalism to say that we need to bring in international ideas and expertise.
As it turns out, just like the Hotdog song, "I keep coming back to Manila." It is our home, and it needs urgent and comprehensive surgery if we are to save her, and prepare her for future generations.
On Sept. 27, visit "Manila: Future Habitations," a presentation by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (the world's premier school for architecture, urban planning and landscape design) and AECOM on proposed future solutions Manila could consider.
A public forum will be held from 2-4:30 p.m. at the Jesuit Mission House, corner Arzobispo and Anda Streets, Intramuros, Manila.
After the forum, an exhibit of proposed ideas by the students of the Harvard Graduate School of Design will be held from 4:30-6 p.m. at the adjacent San Ignacio Church Exhibition space.
Both events are open to the public. For registration, visit the Facebook page Manila Studio 2018, or e-mail [email protected].
This program is brought to Metro Manila in conjunction with the Intramuros Administration and the Department of Tourism. –CONTRIBUTED
The author led the external communications practice for AECOM across Asia. All the opinions, reflections and recommendations are his own and in no way reflect those of the Harvard Graduate School of Design or AECOM.