time out: whatever happened to subic?

The image to the right is the original masterplan for the Subic Freeport by Kenzo Tange and Associates. It was proposed back in the heady days when Dick Gordon was chief cheerleader for the port and when APEC put Subic in the spotlight and the leaders of the 40% of the world's population (and, back then, 56% of the global GDP) signed the 1996 Subic Declaration (which was ironically titled "From Vision to Action").

Subic back then was supposed to be our answer to Singapore and was meant to eclipse the port of Hongkong and rival Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor. The masterplan shows an intense CBD style development with a tall central spine and a strong sea-to-mountain visual axis.

Unfortunately, because of internecine politicking the the vision seems to have died on the vine. The second image shows the Freeport now. True, Subic is still getting the Subic-Clark Expressway and that $215 million container port and its industrial core is expanding, albeit by fits and starts.

The strategic question that Subic must answer is what role will it play in the megalopolis when the expressway and northrail finally connect Metro Manila with Clark and the freeport. Will it just be the overflow for Manila's port traffic? An alternative to the industrial sites in Cavite and Batangas? Will it just be the gateway to central luzon - and be another export processing node? What key niche will it serve in (GMA's) "urban beltway"?

The current economic strategy seems to be following a 1970's-80's, export led development track. Get factories, low-cost labor, then build from there. Great, except now you're competing with China.

Maybe Subic should rethink its strategy. It should start looking at post industrial strategies that leapfrog the export-led, labor infrastructure and jump instead to the growing business process outsourcing industries and IT and biotech industries. This is also the new paradigm in urban planning.

In the industrial age, physical infrastructure -access to road, rail, air -was the guarantor of urban economic success. Hence the explosive growth of port cities, and consequently the heavy investment in physical infrastructure from the 20's to the 80's. The mantra of export led development also preached low-cost labor as the competitive advantage

In the new paradigm -it is connectivity by bits -access to the information as well as investments in human capital that is the edge. Creativity trumps low cost labor. Cities are pursuing creative industries - and attracting creative talent as part of the economic strategy. So rather than investing in industrial parks and ports, cities are investing in livable downtowns and arts districts and in broadband and fiber optics. Several cities (Philadelphia, San Francisco) are opening up citywide wifi access. -Apart from asking "What will make it easier to do business here?" cities are asking, "How do we get young people to live and work here?" Instead of investing in industrial muscle, cities are looking for enriching intellectual capital.

The new success stories are Bangalore, Portland, Seattle, Austin. (Singapore knows that it must attract the creative class to retain its competitive edge and is investing heavily in educating for creativity.)

I wrote about Subic in a very early post. I posited some questions that I think are still valid, if Subic is to become more than just another industrial park:

  • What kind of city are we building?
  • Who will live here? Where will they live?
  • What will they do/ Where will they work?
  • How will people travel to get to where they work?
  • Where will people go to buy their daily needs?
  • What kind of place will this be?
I will add three more questions:

  • How do we attract the highly educated, 25-35 year olds (the cadre of the tech industry and breeding ground of entrepreneurs) to live, work and invest in Subic?
  • How do we make this a center of research?
  • How do we make Subic a showcase of sustainable urban development- and have it join the vanguard cities of the 21st century, post-industrial economies?
I see no reason why Subic cannot compete in the BPO/Call Center market. This would be a good starting point. They can convert those old hotels (which aren't doing very well, anyway) into call centers. The existing infrastructure of underground conduits will make laying a high speed fiber optic backbone easier. The natural environment would be a great come-on. You could have young professionals (call center workers -or back office techies) working in Subic during the weekdays and taking the ferry back to Manila on weekends. (They can work at night -and party on the beach, or hike in the jungles in the daytime.)

The BPO investors will also appreciate the access to watersports and hiking and nature. They could very well be persuaded to open up more companies tech companies -beyond BPOs and call centers.

The kind of buildings and (floorplates) a tech based metropolitan economy requires a very different spatial plan -a different urban plan and strategy. One that pays more attention to placemaking and quality of life and livability. One that looks ahead of the curve and asks "What kind of city will this be?"

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