by Daniel Wagner*
Davao City is the third largest urban concentration in the Philippines with more than 1,5 million people. But that seems not to be enough. Everywhere, it looks like the city is trying to assure itself, leading to the thought that the city lives in a constant state of self assurance, of self defining. As if it is constantly screaming to everyone: “Look! I am a City!”
The first impression of Davao is that the city is one entire periphery, like a giant suburb. Except for the most expensive hotel in town, there are no high rise buildings, and the city sprawl takes shape of a continuous amalgamation of houses and small streets between a couple of highways. And like Venturi’s views of the symbolism in the buildings of the “strip” in Las Vegas, in Davao giant billboards emerge from much smaller buildings below. Symbolizing something evidently bigger than the building itself, both in material size and meaning. Like an architectural crown stating that this is not a mere building, but is part of something greater, a city! The actual construction doesn’t matter much, it seems that the important thing here is not the object – no great architectural value, or impressive size – but what is it saying, what is it holding proudly on the top of its head.
The site where the city is today was inhabited by regional tribes long before the Spanish colonization. But it was only in the end of the nineteenth century that Davao had consistent increase of European population and urban growth in the western style, with roads, squares, monuments etc. The twentieth century was a fast growing one for the city and in 1937 about 68.000 people lived in Davao. In 1960 this number was about 225.000, and only ten years later, in 1970, more than 750.000! So, the picture now is a little downtown, densely populated with roads and blocks existing since the Spanish era. From this center, a couple of highways link the outer region. Between and around these highways, spaces were quickly occupied by the new comers in a more or less homogeneous urban tissue.
This kind of rapid urbanization led to some curious consequences. In a large part of the city there is no soft transition between road hierarchies. One goes to the traffic intense, high speed highway directly to the low scale residential alley. These small roads have a life on their own. Small shops and canteens are everywhere and the street life is really intense, with kids playing on the street, elderly playing checkers, teenagers hanging out and even pigs being roasted right there on the street. The feeling of neighborhood is strong, people know who lives where and greet by passers strengthening the sense of community.
Also, there are not many options to traverse longer distances inside the city. One must either take one of the two highways or scramble around a large number of small and disconnected residential roads, leading of course to intense traffic jams on the highways and a not very suitable scale of traffic in the small residential roads.
Although a port city, Davao’s urbanization always looked toward the inland. That’s not different from other cities around the world. It may seem strange to us now, but being close to the ocean was only considered a positive asset in the real state market in the twentieth century. Before that the sea was never valued in an urban context and usually buildings had their back facing the water. This concept only changed less than a hundred years ago, when nature became something not frightening, but desirable. Some cities managed to adapt and invert this logic, but here in Davao it seems more difficult. Most of the coastline is either private, blocking any attempt of public access, or is part of the harbor activity. The places where coastal areas are public, informal settlements flourished, and as the city continues to attract population without being able to allocate them, stilt houses grow further above the water.
It has been a trend in most of the cities in the third world. Private investments leaving the old center degraded, than, finding a new vector to expand the urban tissue, generating a greater social and spacial division in the territory of the city. In Davao it was not different. It seems now that local developers found the wonder of the gated communities and the higher social class of Dabaeños are buying it, the concept and the houses. Everywhere in city a new condominium is born. Until now, in Manila as in Davao, different social classes coexisted more or less mixed in the territory. The expansion of the private investments in one vector and the gated community fever is separating this mixture.
*Daniel Wagner 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