Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Rapid urbanization challenges our cities. Development issues exacerbate its negative impacts; we hardly have dignified experiences as commuters, we see displacement in urban poor communities, and over time, the movement towards a cement-ridden infrastructure has taken an ecological toll on personal lives and general development progress.
For urbanists, Metro Manila is a challenge. Veteran environmental planner and architect Nathaniel “Dinky” von Einsiedel, in his personal advocacy to integrate green spaces into our cities, welcomes this challenge. In the guide book Public Parks, Open and Green Spaces, a project he worked on for two years, he outlines ways to address the chaotic built-up environment.
He points out the obvious: “We are not increasing the supply of public parks and open spaces. In fact, the limited supply is dwindling, with the likes of Arroceros Forest Park threatened in the past years, and with many mayors converting their plazas and parks into basketball courts and barangay halls. Instead of acquiring additional land, they convert the remaining open spaces.”
Enabling Filipinos to take part in solutions is important. “I wanted to come up with something that people can readily use,” he says. What started out as a collaboration between the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners (PIEP) and the Philippine Association of Landscape Architects (PALA) eventually brought in a range of stakeholders that had a say on our cities, too. The Alliance for Safe, Sustainable, and Resilient Environments (ASSURE), the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), and the Forest Foundation Philippines (FFP) all joined in to produce the material that had been a long work in progress.
Von Einsiedel stresses how the matter of open, green spaces in cities should not be left to planners and architects. “I envisioned the material to be more than a planning and design effort; I wanted to include health practitioners, to include expertise on health benefits and recreation.” He also believes how going beyond compliance projects, and pushing for more innovations in our parks and streets can alleviate the metropolis.
CNN Philippines Life sat down with von Einsiedel to talk about the guidebook, and his take on green spaces in Philippine cities. Below are selected excerpts from the interview.
You mentioned how you wanted health and recreation to be an initial component for the guidebook. We read discussions in new urbanism today, where trees should be considered as public health infrastructure; greens and open spaces should really be part of our city spaces because of its many health benefits.
This isn’t in the guidebook, but I came across a study recently. Research done by doctors shows that kind of green open space is correlated with depression, where the metric used was the medication people buy to relieve stress. They found that the incidence of depression was low when the open space was forested as compared to open pasture.
Foliage plays a better role in improving people’s mental states compared to just grass and smaller vegetation. Another study shows where anything green, even painted roof decks, helps with relaxation. This works in places where there’s not much open space to begin with. I find these things very informative, and these are more recent studies that we weren’t able to include in the guidebook.
The open green spaces also become a strategy of sustaining our cities in the long run. There’s a World Health Organization recommendation of 9 sqm of open spaces per person. Would you know where we are faring right now, for Filipinos?
Based on the Green City Index research, we have an average of 5 sqm open space per Filipino. But what to me is a more dramatic statistic is when you consider Singapore, 47 percent of its land area is green space. Followed by Rio de Janeiro at 29 percent. New York is at 14 percent, and Manila is at 0.03 percent. We’re so far behind.
That’s a long way off. But one of the good things that the guidebook gave us is the understanding of what is included in open and green public spaces. Many people think of parks, but when we say open spaces, it includes streets and waterways, and when we say green spaces, there are vertical gardens, rooftop gardens. What is the scope of open and green spaces that we can work with, when we plan for our cities?
Open space can either be public or private. We’d want to disabuse people’s minds — public space is not only government-owned, it’s not only public land. There are privately-owned public spaces (POPS). What is interesting is that some private developers are more frequently talking about the green spaces, and the marketability of projects that have more open spaces, as compared to practice before that was only minimum compliance.
It has been a trend, lately.
I find it very encouraging. For the government, it’s not considered a priority. This is ironic to me, because the government requires private developers based on PD 957 and BP 220 a minimum of 30 percent for roads and open spaces. But government itself does not increase its supply of public parks and open spaces. The private sector is something that can be encouraged, maybe supported.
One of the things we wanted to convey is that while there might be a universal understanding of parks and public space, when we do it in the Philippines, it has to somehow jive with our culture. For example, with the Pasig Rainforest Park, there is an entrance fee. But it’s more than just a park. It’s an amusement park. That, to me, is what Filipinos seem to be looking for.
It’s not just about relaxation or passive recreation for many of us.
Yes, and unlike in other countries, like in the U.S., Europe, some parts of Australia, where trees, parks, and benches will suffice for users. In the Philippines, families are more attracted when spaces have entertainment.
Charging an entrance fee also provides revenue for maintenance purposes. It’s one of the negative things about our government parks — public maintenance. It tends to deteriorate very quickly. There is no culture of replenishment of facilities, or regular maintenance.
What more for improvement of these parks. Basic facilities are not given proper care.
Bulbs burn out after a while, toilet fixtures, plumbing — these are very basic, but too many of our parks don’t have it. A system of entrance fees somehow also negates the excuse of LGUs when they say they don’t have money to maintain parks. In the case of the Rainforest Park, they have Zumba in the morning, there’s a senior citizen program, there’s a zoo, there’s a zipline. People flock there even early in the morning.
It does. But with the growing population, we will need more of such examples.
With growing populations come the demands of urbanization. The guidebook shows different examples of parks, their dimensions, and what they look like. But in Metro Manila, with so many people migrating and with the strain on the built-up environment, urban managers have to work with areas that have nil open and green spaces. How do you think planners could work with these spaces? Take for example, Tondo. While we agree we need the parks and the better streets, and these have positive effects for everybody, we have to integrate planning work with difficult development issues.
From a planning perspective, there are many inner city areas that have deteriorated over time from years of neglect and lack of effective urban management. People add floors to already unsafe structures, patch out gaps. Whatever public spaces are left are becoming smaller and smaller, and private spaces increase and encroach on public spaces. That’s why we find these shanties hanging on the back of esteros and rivers.
One way of addressing this is through urban renewal and revitalization. But it’s easier said than done. The local governments, the leadership will want to genuinely address the issues. In very many cases these are privately owned lands, parang ayaw makialam. So people are left entirely on their own for initiatives on whatever improvements are necessary.
It’s difficult when there is no interest in the community itself because the appreciation for trees, for nature, for public spaces and open spaces, these become secondary to the more pressing needs on food on the table, shelter, healthcare, schooling of the children — the more basic services. There are so many places that are borne out of poverty. I find very few LGUs focusing on and balancing those kinds of problems [with the urban environment].
“What is more practical advice is that if there is an opportunity to develop a public park, no matter how small it may be, for example, a small intersection or corner where we can put a little bench, just to maybe initiate the idea where we can have green and open space, let’s use it.”
The guidebook also talks about the importance of integrating open and green spaces with our land use plans. We talked about renewal, housing, health — some people see these urban matters as silos. What would the integration of all of these entail?
Land use and planning components can be too abstract for some people. For the general public and integration of land use, laymen do not appreciate the relationship of land use and traffic, or land use and open space. But if we link it with something personal, like health, then people tend to appreciate what that means. It affects the person, the family. When you walk from your residence to where you ride the jeep, it affects your life everyday. We can use these relatable things as an integrating factor.
It’s also about creating an experience in the city.
Correct. For LGUs, it’s about what revenues that they can generate from open spaces. It’s not just money-out, like how some localities rent out general sports arenas. We have to go beyond that. It takes a lot of difference if a road has a lot of trees, and if you had a proper sidewalk to walk on. If you can’t even have a proper sidewalk, where do we even plant the trees? Those small things matter. The guidelines talk about a certain, ideal distance for green spaces. But we know that for many instances, that isn’t possible. If we’re talking about places like Divisoria, what space do we use to develop into a park?
There could be smaller spaces turned into pocket parks.
Yes. Street guides should be promoted further. Are you familiar with the concept of skinning streets? … A number of cities do it. Here, most LGUs use the DPWH standards, so lanes are so wide. They’re designed for trucks and high speed. But when you’re in a small community, you don’t need them that wide. You can narrow the car lanes. That is an opportunity — if we really can’t find vacant spaces for parks, at least we can improve the street. Narrow down the lanes, increase the width of the sidewalk, and put planting areas along the sidewalks.
This helps contribute to protection and safety for pedestrians, bikers, and better mobility, integrating this with what’s presently car-centric. Many people — even in the environmental planning profession — do not have a concept of road narrowing, or find it too controversial.
I have encountered similar reactions. We design parking slots and roads to eat up unneeded space, which in sum, matters in opening up green spaces in our cities. There are also studies that show that narrower streets lower traffic accident rates. Here, because of the traffic, cars can’t go very fast, that’s why people perceive. The mentality of many people, as influenced by some transport planners, is that if there is traffic, we should widen the roads. As we know, once new roads are opened, they are immediately clogged by traffic.
The annexes of the guidebook show us successful PH case studies — Iloilo’s Zoning Ordinance (where subdivisions have tree planted strips and landscaped forest parks), the Angeles People’s Park (which converts an idle PNR station to a green space) and Ortigas Central Elevated Park and Panorama Park in Pasig (where there are hardly any spaces). Could you tell us what your favorite success story is on greening cities?
One of my favorite cases is Marikina. It was a huge mess before it was cleared, and people were transferred from the riverbank and provided with housing in the city. That’s a major accomplishment, and Bayani Fernando showed how it could be done.
A lot of LGUs make the excuse that they do not have the money to purchase lands that develop more parks. These LGUs would auction off properties that do not pay taxes. But LGUs would have the first right to acquire the property, but these are not used to develop more parks.
Since the guidebook was released, it was circulated among planning, landscape architecture, and forestry circles. What would be your advice to users, may they be authorities, professionals, and even civic groups, to move forward open and green spaces for cities in the Philippines?
I would suggest for them to be opportunistic in working with our urban areas, where there is a lack of open space. What is in the guidebook is ideal, where parks and open spaces are categorised and serve different functions at different levels, from a neighborhood park to a regional forest. But what is more practical advice is that if there is an opportunity to develop a public park, no matter how small it may be, for example, a small intersection or corner where we can put a little bench, just to maybe initiate the idea where we can have green and open space, let’s use it. The guidebook may convey the message that we would need a large space with facilities. Given our situation, let’s use what spaces we have. It doesn’t have to be large projects all of the time. Or for those who are bolder, let’s start narrowing roads, let’s create bike lanes and planting areas.