4 ways we can be instruments of urban change

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Our democracy gives us the right not only to participate in city planning, but to decide on what our cities should look and feel like. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — We struggle with many issues in our cities everyday. Getting rain-soaked and stranded on a corner without having a covered walkway as refuge, or breathing in black fumes, or spending six hours in waiting lines and standstill traffic. It’s unfair that we always just experience some difficulty, as if we had no better alternatives. This shouldn’t be the case.

Deeper urban issues, such as inequality and vulnerability, also come with our routines. Switching the air conditioner on may comfort a handful of persons, but it contributes to unbearable urban heat. Using a car to drive to work shuns commuters, pedestrians, and cyclists away from spaces that should be shared, making our mobility suffer. What we find unfair may be caused by something we commit ourselves.

Dare we ask if we can do something about our cities?

The thing is, we really should. And there are so many things we can do to become instruments of urban change. Our democracy gives us the right not only to participate in city planning, but to decide on what our cities should look and feel like.

Here are a few meaningful ways that Filipinos can do to help with urban management.

Walk and observe

Although it’s a simple thing to do, it lays the groundwork for citizens to know, feel, and experience what is good or bad for their cities. We know our spaces best. From that hazardous pothole to a sweaty, tiring experience walking up a deserted street without accessible transport, citizens have a myriad of firsthand experiences on what works at the street level. Walk around and visit spaces near your residence and check how your river or estero looks like. Ask yourself what could better improve the spaces you move in everyday.

Take notes of your observations. Take photos and videos of what you think can be improved. Create urban sketches to document how the rivers and streetscapes have changed then and now. Think of these as your “urban diaries.” Observation is a technique well-used by urbanists like Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Allan Jacobs, and Donald Appleyard in doing human-centered, community-led forms of planning in new urbanism.

Be your local government’s auditor and collaborator

Our city, municipal, and barangay governments all have mechanisms in place for citizens to participate in planning and development. Our Local Government Code (or Republic Act 7160) provides regular meetings to talk about a locality’s development progress, planning, and policies. Sanggunians have scheduled meetings; all it takes is one call or visit to our barangay or city hall to know when you can drop by and listen to how elected officials work on the directives of our hometowns.

You can send your urban diaries and letters, and bring up thoughts as collaborators. Present your observations during City Development Council meetings, and raise your issues. Your experience using the jeep or the bike is something that your government representative might not be familiar with if he only uses a car to get to work. Your grandparents’ hardship to go around with a wheelchair on uneven sidewalks may be something others can easily omit. Your wish to have more trees on the abandoned park or plaza may not be a budget priority.

Planning that works comes from planning with good representation. To be urban changers, we must make our voices heard.

Make conscious, individual choices

Habits and lifestyles do not only impact our own bodies, but our cities, and the environment as a whole. Making conscious choices, such as limiting motorized vehicle use or finding the courage to try cycling, planting one or two trees a year, or having the discipline to avoid parking on sidewalks or throwing trash just about anywhere impacts the livability of our cities, especially in the long run.

Individual decisions can become collective solutions. Bayanihan is a proud part of our Filipino culture, after all.

Converse with your neighbors and maximize your public spaces

Technology has brought ease and convenience to everyone, but has also redirected conversations online, leaving our public spaces empty or unused. Cities provide vast opportunities for people to get together and become working communities through public spaces, but gates and walls, whether online or physical, keep us segregated.

Take time to talk to your neighbors and people you get to interact with. This gives us better perspectives of what each of us need in our cities, and in a way, reduces biases that may lead to inequality.

While this may seem far from contributing to urban development, this very simple solution brings us back to what ancient Greek cities’ markets and open spaces were actually used for: debate and conversation — tools that are crucial in every democracy, the very reason why people are the heart of our cities.