The Philippine Star
Ten reasons why Metro Manila is losing its soul
The last two co lumns have been about the perennial problems of ßooding and traffic in the metropolis. Both of these aspects, and many more deficiencies, do nothing but make Metro Manila a living hell for most of us.
Dan Brown appears to be right about this place, but what did we do to deserve all this suffering? Did we sell our souls to the devil to buy pockets of pleasure in Manila in exchange for a future of eternal damnation and suffering (hence Eternal Damnation and Suffering Avenue Ñ or EDSA)? Have we bartered green open spaces for air-conditioned boxes meant for spending our money, not quality time, in? Is the metropolis now bereft of places with no sense or pride of place?
Here are 10 reasons why Manila is losing or has lost its soul, its center, and its distinctive essence as the nationÕs premier metropolis:
1. In exchange for a soul, instead we have sprawl. Urbanization has made metro Manila spread outwards to a radius of over 50 kilometers in every direction. Productive agricultural land, which used to help feed the metropolis is now ÒdevelopedÓ into hundreds of Ômaster-planned communities, Òfew of which relate to each other or are supported by an infrastructure of rational roads, mass transport, drainage, waste disposal, police or Þre protection. Our carbon footprint as a metropolis is sinfully spread out and compromises all the surrounding regions.
2. Metro Manila lost its way and strayed from the straight path because it failed to follow the roadway to urban redemption via the 12 or so master plans that were prepared for it since the late Spanish era. Very little of each master plan was implemented due to the vagaries of fate, revolutions, wars and eventually the ultimate weapon of mass destruction Ñ politics.
3. Metro Manila has no center, partly because of reasons no. 1 and 2, but also because of its devolution into 16 cities and
one town. Until the 1960s. Central Manila was the historical core of Intramuros, the business district of Binondo, the entertainment district of Sta Cruz and the residential and educational districts of Sampaloc, Ermita and Malate. The failure of government to revive Manila after the war or to build the promised capital of Quezon City led to private business-led initiative in a freemarket environment that saw speculative development emerge over rational metropolitan planning. Today, the metropolis is described as multi-centered, with private enclaves within them, competing as business, residential, cultural or mixed-use districts. These divisions fracture our sense of belonging, so we feel little attachment to any place, be it public or private. We strive to build our sense of community or centeredness through social media, family or the brotherhood of organizations (note that membership in business clubs like Rotary or Lions is not strictly based on place of individual residence or business anymore).
4. Manila has no soul because it is losing its architectural heritage. Manila was
Does Metro Manila still have a soul? Unless we look inside the emptiness and
placeless-ness, unless we question what we see, then what we had as our essence may have disappeared; replaced by
something even overrated fictionists will find difficulty to adequately describe.
intended to be as beautiful as Paris and many of its districts and buildings were as elegant as any in European capitals. We had or still have marvellous examples of several architectural styles from the Spanish-era revivalist and vernacular like the Tutuban Station, to the formal American-era neo-classic like the post ofÞce, to the Commonwealth-period ritzy art-deco of the Jai Alai, to post-war modernism in buildings like the Philamlife complex. We have and are continually losing these buildings at an alarming rate. Their loss and replacement by non-descript boxes of commerce, call centers or residential warrens with little amenity has led to the erasure of communal place-based memory, an essential element in shaping urban identity and cultural speciÞcity.
5. Manila is losing its soul because its landscapes and open spaces are disappearing. A cityÕs physical being is as much its buildings as its open spaces. No city can be great or soulful without a balance of structures and landmarks countered by open civic spaces, pubic parks and plazas. The voids are as important as solids in a city. They are the yin and yang urban combination that creates physical and aesthetic harmony. In the 21st century the loss of public and open green space also compromises a metropolisÕ ability to deal with climate change. For Manila this means less capacity to absorb storm water and mitigate ßooding. Manila and Quezon City also had close to two thousand hectares of open green space, parks and parkways. The Manila parks, plazas and playgrounds were settings for childhood fun, the expression of political community, and the settings for historic spectacle and ceremony. Losing all these means losing any ties to what others before us have experienced, enjoyed and celebrated. We are becoming a city with no history save that provided by the wrecking ball, breaking bonds to generations that built the city before us.
6. ManilaÕs essence is draining because we are losing our links to the water, which deÞned our existence for eons. Manila Bay, the Pasig River, our Venicelike esteros of old are being reclaimed, built-over, turned into concrete culverts now clogged with the detritus of urban blight. We have lost or are quickly losing any chance to be like any of the worldÕs great waterside citiesÑSan Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, Venice, or Paris. We treat our waterways as garbage dumps or sewers.
7. ManilaÕs soul reminds me of my catechism textbook. It had a picture of a young boyÕs soul speckled with ÒsinÓ as literal black spots. The more you sinned, the blacker your soul got. I got nightmares as a child with this in my head all the time. Manila is the same, but what blackens it, are all the millions of wires and cables strung about. The amount of this pasta negra increases every year. Add to these the soot-blackened utility poles and the nightmare web of steel supporting giant billboards that blot out the sky and the sun. Metro Manila has a soul as black as night since we have committed the sin of allowing her to succumb to the molestations of all those who treat her as a vehicle for proÞt rather than a venue that adds value to our individual, family and communal lives.
8. Manila has no sole Ð you cannot walk it. Sidewalks are effectively non-existent in the metropolis. Either they are too narrow for the volume of pedestrians or they are usurped by utility poles (see reason no. 7), used as parking spaces or made into tiangges,
carinderias or karaoke joints. ManilaÕs streets seem to have the sole purpose of providing a sewer for trafÞc and vehicles. The pedestrian realm is a Þgment of plannerÕs imagination in any but those private Ômaster-plannedÕ enclaves like Bonifacio Global City, the Makati Business District, and similar exclusive islands of plenty surrounded by a sea of want. Even if you wanted to walk in the metropolis, you can only do so by risking your lives, as there are few pedestrian bridges or crossings respected by demons in jeepneys, fxs and cars.
9. ManilaÕs cultural soul is alive but exists in spite of a poverty of spaces and venues to support it. The Cultural Center complex has not seen any improvements or additions to its venues since it was built four decades ago. Heritage venues like the Metropolitan Theater are disintegrating in districts abandoned for shopping complexes that favor digital cinemas to drama, musicals or opera.
Manila has museums but most are scattered all around the metropolis, isolated instead of being embedded into a vibrant urban fabric. Cutural venues are the glue that make a city great, but Metro ManilaÕs cultural network is a haphazard
10. Manila has sold its soul by allowing the commodiÞcation of its citizensÕ
lives. We are all now interpelated by the agenda of private companies, rounding us up into cathedrals of commerce, to be able to sell us the illusion of a good life ...convincing us to spend money we donÕt have, to buy things we donÕt really need, to impress people who donÕt really care. Outside these big boxes of business, billboards, banners and ads permeate our physical surroundings, telling us whatÕs new and whatÕs desirable. We are producing citizens of a metropolis who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Nothingness is the zeitgeist of metro Manila today. It is a place almost empty of meaning, devoid of any substance that could feed civic pride. One proof is that we do not know what to call ourselves. Are we Metro Manilans?, Mandaluyonguenos?, Quezoncitians? Eastwoodians?, Rockwellans?
Having a soul means having lives centered on we do for substantive social interaction and communal bonding linked by history and tradition, physically, to a place we value. We have little of that. Instead we are a metropolis where eventologists bring us together in temporary spaces (emptied of historic meaning or forced to replicate places in other cities in other lands, waiting to be the site of future towers), entertaining us with ephemeral global culture, and hoping that in the end we are persuaded to shift Telco providers, buy cheap chemical concoctions meant to whiten our skin, or continue to eat fast food laden with empty calories.
Does Metro Manila still have a soul? Unless we look inside the emptiness and placeless-ness, unless we question what we see, then what we had as our essence may have disappeared; replaced by something even overrated Þctionists will Þnd difÞculty to adequately describe. We can recover Metro ManilaÕs soul but urban salvation will take more than the effort of posting rants or making lists. A city is its people and it is up to us to shape it to Þnally make sense, to elicit pride that we live in it, and to call it home.
Feedback is welcome. E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.