Guest article – The Philippino way, Part 2: Public Spaces

San Pedro street in downtown Davao

San Pedro street in downtown Davao

This is the second part of the guest article by Daniel Wagner. You can find the first part here

by Daniel Wagner*

The relationship between the Philippino and the street is a very intimate one. Actually there is no clear distinction for the variety of outdoors activities among different types of public spaces. The western European modern tradition segregates different activities in specific public spaces. In this sense, the street are for cars, the squares for people in recreational times, sidewalks can be to a certain point occupied by cafes and its tables, and so on. In the Philippines everything happens on the streets. You play, you walk, you rest, you shop and you eat in the same lane that jeepneys and tricycles are supposed to pass.

Plaza Roma, square in front of Manila’s Cathedral

Plaza Roma, square in front of Manila’s Cathedral

As a former Spanish colony for more than 300 years, the old colonizer left a vast range of influence in the country, starting with its own name, when Magellan honored the Emperor Felipe II, baptizing the new colony as Filipinas. Many Spanish words got mixed in almost all of the more than 30 local languages. But probably the most influential and lasting characteristics seen today left by the Spanish, is the Christianism. 94% of the population is auto declared Christians and 83% Catholics. This can be easily verified by the number of churches, old and new, rural and urban spread all over the territory. But, on the contrary of the western European tradition, the role the church plays in the formation of the public space is much different. In traditional European cities and even in European colonized Latin America, villages and towns orbited around the church square, usually the center where most of activities are held. Until today squares in the western world thrive with people and commerce. But in the Philippines, squares are often empty while narrow streets are packed with people.

Victotia street, just around the corner of the Cathedral

Victotia street, just around the corner of the Cathedral

Traditionally a rural country, the Philippines, like several other parts of Southeast Asia, has experienced a rapid urbanization process. According to the World Bank, in 2010, 66% of the population live in urban areas, where twenty years before that, in 1990, they were 48%, in 1970, only 33%. People and cars sharing the same space in a low density, small scale rural areas is perfectly acceptable and has no further consequences. But when the country starts to urbanize, and cities get larger and denser, the same situation becomes tricky, to say the least. In Davao, apart from the small historical city center, there are not many squares. Green areas and urban leftovers were occupied by informal settlements, and the city sprawl swallowed nearby districts. Today, roads are in a constant competition among cars, pedestrians, small commerce, jeepneys, playing kids, tricycles, and even the eventual preacher for every little tiny space available. And as in all competition without regulation, the stronger usually wins.

Cars, pedestrians and commerce struggling for a space in Davao

Cars, pedestrians and commerce struggling for a space in Davao

Being a pedestrian in the Philippines is not an easy thing. As the culture of the street dictates, there are no sidewalks. In the local small scale street this problem is usually solved simply by not walking. Even for short distances people prefer to take a tricycle (http://blog.inpolis.com/2013/03/13). It is in the large avenues and highways that this problem acquires more tension. There, cars roll as fast as the traffic allows, and plot owner build their walls and fences until the border of the road. And even in highways there are a lot of establishments facing directly to the road, generating a large number of pedestrians. Consequence, people walk on the street.

Life of a pedestrian in Davao: McArthur Highway

Life of a pedestrian in Davao: McArthur Highway

Equilibrium: main bridge of the city over the Davao River

Equilibrium: main bridge of the city over the Davao River

In the historical city center, where density is a little higher, this spacial logic is a bit different. Streets are slightly wider and sidewalks can be found here and there. The problem to the pedestrian here is the number of obstacles one finds. The lack of official standardization in placing urban equipment generates an environment not very friendly for the pedestrian. Similar situations of that sort found in Manila and Davao suggests that this relates to something beyond an urban planning issue, but rather something rooted in the Philippino culture, rural based, in the way people deal with public space where the street itself is the place for public activities of all types and for human interaction. And sidewalks are just neglected.

Downtown Manila (l.),and downtown Davao (r.)

Downtown Manila (l.),and downtown Davao (r.)

Motorized transportation has total priority over the pedestrian here. This is also related to the fact that people don’t walk much. But even if walking is limited, crossing the streets has to be done frequently. In the big avenues and highways this can became a very risky activity. In many places, crossing the street is even forbidden. Even in places with traffic lights, where a little adjustment in the timing of the lights would solve the problem, crossing, although a necessity, is not allowed.

Breaking the law

Breaking the law

In front of one of Davao’s touristic attractions, the Chinatown Gate: note the street sign on the top left

In front of one of Davao’s touristic attractions, the Chinatown Gate: note the street sign on the top left

In the never ending competition for space in the cities of the Philippines, where the stronger always wins, there is only one thing stronger than the car: basketball. It is amazing how much  the Philippino is fond of this sport. After the World War II, the influence of the United States came overwhelmingly strong. One of the results is the love for basketball. Philippines is the only country in Asia with a professional league, made with the North American NBA (National Basketball Association) as a reference, here they have the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association).

Basketball courts:  Covered court in a high middle class neighborhood (top);. A middle class area (middle); dirt court in the middle of a informal settlement (bottom)

Basketball courts: Covered court in a high middle class neighborhood (top);. A middle class area (middle); dirt court in the middle of a informal settlement (bottom)

And of course, as every public activity is made on the street, basketball could not be different. There is no place a ring can’t be installed, there is no terrain a ball game can’t be played. It finds no social or local frontiers, in every neighborhood of every social class there are several courts on the middle of the road. And this, of course, has total priority over everything. Even cars have to stop and wait for the ball go out of bounds, to pass.

____________

*Daniel Wanger is an architect from Brazil spending six weeks in the Philippines. He is a participant of the International Masters Programme in Urban Management, at the Technical University in Berlin

About Ares

Ares Kalandides holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies from the National Technical University of Athens. He is the founder and CEO of Inpolis, an international consultancy based in Berlin, Germany and has implement several projects around the world. Ares teaches Urban Economics at the Technical University in Berlin and Metropolitan Studies at NYU Berlin.
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