To solve traffic, plant a garden

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In Antonio Oposa’s book “Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish,” the environmental lawyer and author makes a case for urban gardening and edible landscaping as a solution to problems in public transportation. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There’s a simple way to solve the Philippines’ worsening traffic crisis. All it requires is a patch of soil, some seeds, and a change of attitude.

In Antonio Oposa, Jr.'s book “Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish,” the environmental lawyer and author devotes a few chapters to make a case for urban gardening and edible landscaping as a solution to problems in public transportation, as well as a starting point in solving some other problems, such as hunger, poverty, and social isolation.

“It will lead to a massive transformation of society,” he says. “First, [it will solve] the problem of hunger,” lessening the need to buy food — often processed and from less-than-reliable sources — from restaurants and supermarkets.

“We’ve monetized food,” Oposa continues. “Nakalimutan na natin na ang pagkain, galing sa lupa. Magtanim ka lang ng munggo, in three weeks may munggo ka na. Napakaraming lupa, ginawa nilang parking lot.”

Among others, edible landscaping and urban gardening will help improve flooding concerns, as devoting more spaces for greenery will open up more places for water to be absorbed, instead of being trapped in concrete streets.

Atty. Tony Oposa and his book Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish Atty. Antonio Oposa during the launch of his book. Photo courtesy of REDGE JIMENEZ LOPEZ/MOIST COMMUNICATES  

Oposa’s voice has long called for out-of-the-box solutions to everyday environmental and infrastructural problems in the Philippines, most especially in cities. He’s an authority in the field, whose expertise lies in getting out of seeming dead ends through simple and innovative ideas a few would dismiss as too far out, or even crazy. He’s the lawyer who represented intangible “future generations” in a landmark case (Oposa v. Factoran) for Philippine environmental law, the one who was reckless enough to say that the “birds and the bees, flowers and fish,” were his actual clients.

He shies away, however, from taking credit, even for his own ideas. The intent is to highlight the fact that when it comes to issues like resolving traffic, flooding, logging, climate change, greenhouse gases, or pollution, the effort is always in the collective, and never in one individual.

“[We have problems such as] hunger, social alienation — but ‘pag nagsama tayo, if we build a cooperative, it will restore a connection with people,” says Oposa.

In his book, Oposa advocates for the creation of “rain gardens” (or rainwater collectors) in people’s backyards, creating spaces for runoff water to flow. The rain garden can be left open or covered in rocks or soil, and can also be planted with ornamental or food plants. The water collected forms an aquifer, an underground layer of water-bearing rock, gravel, sand or silt, from which wells can be dug.

“The enemy of the mind is the car,” says Antonio Oposa, Jr. “Because everybody thinks the car is the solution. No, the car is the problem.”

And where does he propose we get the land for urban and rain gardens? From a serious and strong effort to share the roads and rethink the transportation system, through the road sharing principle.

The principle of road sharing is enshrined in law, through Executive Order No. 774, Section 9 of which states: “The new paradigm in the movement of men and things must follow a simple principle: Those who have less in wheels must have more in roads. For this purpose, the system shall favor non-motorized locomotion and collective transportation systems.”

In 2014, law students, cyclists, citizens, backed by a group of lawyers, filed with the Supreme Court a petition to implement the same principle, in what Oposa says “may well be a watershed case to implement the road sharing principle.” The petition has been junked by the courts, even as the administration prioritizes a “build, build, build” framework for improving local infrastructure.

“The enemy of the mind is the car,” says Oposa. “Because everybody thinks the car is the solution. No, the car is the problem.” In his book, Oposa shares many cases where road sharing has benefited cities, among them Barcelona’s example of “superblocks”: an area closed off to cars, with traffic flowing around the intervia (a car-free interior area). He credits Barcelona’s Las Ramblas’ popularity to its prioritization of wider walking areas, with only a small portion of the pedestrian boulevard available for vehicles.

Yet the current paradigm, it seems, disfavors the principle already enshrined in law. “We’re about to spend trillions in the next few years to build roads,” says Oposa. “Ang gobyerno gawa ng gawa ng kalsada, kaya ‘yung mga tao, nakatira sa kalsada,” he jokes.

He has utilized his skills as a lawyer to put important local environmental issues in the spotlight — among many others, he questioned the lack of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), required by law, over the Manila Bay reclamation project, which was eventually shelved; and he was also instrumental in making the Supreme Court realize that the Laguna Bay required holistic management as a single ecosystem, and not piecemeal regulation by each local government surrounding it.

Proposed road sharing scheme.png A proposed road sharing scheme in 2015.

His draft policies (written as academic papers or suggestions) have been made into pieces of legislation (see the Solid Waste Act, and the provisions on anti-SLAPP, or a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, in the Rules of Procedure in Environmental Cases). Yet what Oposa is, at his heart, is a storyteller, painter, and poet.

This much is evident from the pages of “Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish” — which title alludes to the sights in his Bantayan SEA CAMP (Sea and Earth Advocates of Culture, Arts, and Music for the Planet) in Cebu. Formerly called the School of the Sea, a training camp for like-minded advocates, the place has been repurposed as an arts and culture center after typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) swept the country. What remained, and still stands, is Oposa’s locally designed Climate Change House, built on stilts and set back from the beach line by about 400 meters.

“Ang gobyerno gawa ng gawa ng kalsada, kaya ‘yung mga tao, nakatira sa kalsada.” - Antonio Oposa, Jr.

Through “Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish,” I am reminded of Oposa’s lectures in law school, where he taught an elective on environmental law, albeit in an alternative manner. For one, instead of memorizing law provisions, he asked students to plant seedlings on the rooftop. Grades would depend on the health of the plants at the end of the semester. The project reflects urban gardening and edible landscaping as some of Oposa’s strongest advocacies, along with road sharing and the need for better public transportation.

The 261-page storytelling and painting book recounts more of his experiences and his informative suggestions on solving some of our pressing environmental health concerns. The tendency is to treat the book — packaged as a coffee table book for easy and light reading — as one environmental lawyer’s urgent cry for change. But what it is, even more so, is a layman’s approach to breaking down what needs to be changed for the planet.

Oposa exhorts his audience to disseminate what the book contains, to tell the stories themselves and slowly change attitudes. (Offhand, he even tells some of us to photocopy it if copies run out.) He does not need to do it — he has contributed his fair share of changes in environmental law and policy — but he insists. “I urge you to shift your thinking,” he says.

As the pressures and problems of modern living grow out of proportion, the call to think out of the box — a call Oposa has been making for decades — seems more urgent than ever, and demands that we listen.

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“Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish” is available at the Culinary Education Foundation, 4/F, CCA Bldg., 287 Katipunan Ave., Quezon City.