Eight out of the 30 most densely populated cities of the world are located within Metro Manila, Philippines (here). Number 30 is Makati City with about 19,000 people per square kilometer. Number 1 is Manila City with about 43,000 people per square kilometer. Metro Manila consists of 17 cities/municipalities and has a population between 12 million (“National Capital Region” – NCR) and 24 million (“total urban area” including the urban agglomeration beyond the NCR boundary). The NCR accounts for more than one third of Philippines’ gross domestic product and is the country’s center for basically everything – from government and politics to economy and culture.
In this setting, the usual recommendation would be to diversify: Instead of Metro Manila (Luzon island group) as the single dominating hub, other urban areas within the country should be developed. And these sub-national hubs already exist; for instance, Metro Cebu in the center (Visayas island group) with 2.5 million inhabitants or Metro Davao in the South (Mindanao island group) with 2.3 million inhabitants. But the Philippines (comparable to Indonesia) is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. Geography can be tough. The country is unfortunately not located between two nearby mainland areas, but somewhat the Pacific outpost of East Asia. Even with flying, shipping, and (internet) browsing becoming cheaper and quicker, the Philippines are placed into this geographically/economically disadvantageous setting.
This means for the short and medium term: Metro Manila it is. Thus, we turn to the other usual recommendation: Diversify within the metropolitan area. Fortunately, this is already happening ‘thanks’ to a free market competition and/or race to the bottom between local governments, which try to attract investors to their greenfields and brownfields (countless informal settlements and slums). However, if you continue diversifying the metropolitan area to the outskirts as is happening right now, you are basically sprawling the urban development. Here again, Metro Manila is geographically disadvantaged, being squeezed between the two water bodies of Manila Bay and Laguna Bay, as well as valleys and mountain ranges (not to mention the swampy lands and several active earthquake faults).
So no matter how dense the various cities within Metro Manila already are, I would argue that one part of the solution has to be to build more high-rise buildings. I am fully aware of the side-effects that come with such developments; for instance, forced eviction of squatters, land speculation and shady land deals, destruction or covering up of natural environment (such as creeks), and an even more concentrated pressure on infrastructure systems. In another blog article (here), I have already discussed the current lack of smart, livable, or human-scale design solutions for such big infrastructure.
However, if you inspect the various neighborhoods within this metropolitan area, you will find that there is still a large amount of town houses or small two-/three-story buildings. Even with some diversification within the extended urban area, the population increase (both natural and in-migration) requires further densification of the core urban areas in Metro Manila (also see here). It might sound counter-intuitive or even counter-productive in light of the already high density figures mentioned above. But instead of growing further and further horizontally, the vertical options should be exhausted (also see here).
The question that arises, however, is: Are they ready for this? Would residents, local decision makers, private businesses, social institutions, architects, designers, construction engineers, transport planners, etc., be able to deal with even higher population densities? Just to give you an idea: Replacing three-story buildings with medium high-rises of 30 floors (already a compromise to a 50-floor skyscraper) would translate into a tenfold increase in the number of residents in the exact same area. If that would be done across the main central cities in Metro Manila, what would the result be? Correct, a very ugly urban area (see here). And this is not due to the fact that the high-rise in itself is ugly. It is due to the lack of incorporating those elements into high-rise buildings, which were previously situated next to the three-story buildings, such as courtyards, street corners, house entrances, playgrounds, and small gardens (also see here).
While I am still trying to imagine how this densification might be possible, construction companies are already building the new concrete reality in Metro Manila. And stakeholders are buying into the idea and necessity of densification…and it is not a wrong idea! If affordable apartments would become available to lower- and middle-income employees, they could live closer to their jobs, and their kids might as well be closer to their schools. Families would be closer to shops, doctors, and other amenities. As a result, there would be shorter and/or less commuting – maybe one of the most detrimental burdens Metro Manila has been struggling with (here). Densification – if well designed and not overdone – can bring very useful economies of scale in the provision of infrastructure and services (also see here).
But the question remains: Are they ready for this? It is a very different living. If the high-rise buildings continue to be so ugly, mono-functional, and inhuman, they will bring about all kinds of social repercussions (also see here). At the same time, (local) governments have to realize that the densification is a two-sided coin: One side is the construction of high-rises (see here). The other is the construction/ development/ preservation of other, ideally public, spaces. The taller a building is, the larger its shadow falls…if you plan and design for this, it will be a natural shadow against the extreme weather conditions, while residents can sit in a nearby park or interact in a sun-protected street. If the densification, however, is left only to the market forces of high-rise construction, these buildings’ shadows will be socio-economic ones – the metropolitan area would dig its own grave of decaying urban life.