bad idea

One of the last episodes on MLQ III's The Explainer's was on Capital Planning (with Paulo Alcazaren). I don't get ANC where I live so I cannot judge the contents of the show -I can only go by the shownotes that MLQ III posted on the-explainer.com. I think Mr. Alcazaren is an excellent resource person for the history of urban planning in Manila and I'm sure his discussion of the Burham and the NCPC plans would have been very enlightening.

I do have problems with Manolo's closing statement:

"With talk of a concerted, if unofficial, move to transform either Subic or Clark into the administrative capital of the Philippines, our officials and the public would do well to look at grand -and failed- attempts at capital-building in the Philippines.

"Neither Manila nor Quezon City, the once and present capitals of the country, has ever had its thorough plans end up as concrete reality, which leaves our country almost uniquely bereft of a rationally-planned and executed capital city among the countries of the region and even the world. The truth is that both Quezon and Manila Cities, for national capital purposes, are both dead, and that the time may indeed have come for a new plan for a new capital in a new place.

"A new national capital is always a great means for spurring economic growth and decongesting an existing metropolis; it is also an act of faith in the future and a way of resolving the past. We’ve been independent for sixty years, but still lack a national capital. This says much about our lingering incapacity to manage our own destiny."

I think a new national capital is a BAD idea. It's not so much the cost that bothers me -or even the prospect of repeating history (i.e.-failing to implement the plan). What bothers me is that new, purpose built capital cities have largely fallen short of their promise.

Starting over with a new national capital had its heyday in the early and middle 20th century -with projects such as Niemeyer's Brasilia, or Nowicki and Mayer's (and Le Corbusier's) Chandigarh, or Griffin's Canberra. These projects were driven by utopian views of urban planning. (See also this.) Most were also built as compromise locations supposedly to balance between the might of competing cities. (Brasillia is equidistant from Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro; Chandigarh is a compromise and shared capital between the states of Haryana and Punjab; Canberra is a compromise between Melbourne and Sydney.)

As beautiful as these cities are, they share a similar burden/failure. Apparently, purpose building a city to house only governmental functions creates a semi-dead city. Since the local economy is driven only by one employer (government), purpose built capital cities lack the vibrancy of most cities. Canberra is pretty much dead after work hours while Brasilia's planned core is ringed by slums (new unplanned cities rose out of construction workers settlements).

Cities, after all are economic agglomerations and the most successful (-and by that I mean successful in agglomeration) cities are characterized by a full spectrum of economic activities. So New York's 24-hour city or the liveliness of Shanghai, HK or Tokyo. (One can argue the benefit of aseptic cities...)

Much of urban planning has left the utopian paradigms that started those ambitious new city building projects - and are now more concerned with the real politik of improving existing cities. (In fact, only South Korea has/is attempting to create a new city. They are building a city to house half a million government employees in the Yeongi-Gongju region. They originally intended the new city to become the new national capital replacing Seoul but have now scaled back the plans to just creating an "administrative" capital.)

Segregating government into a separate district also tends to put it out of reach of local citizens -and makes it the domain of lobbyists, vested interests and influence peddlers. (Having an inaccessible Senate in the reclamation area and an even more remote House in litex/fairview is bad enough, imagine how things will go in a city totally built only for government!)

The tab for Korea's new city will top $45B. A new national capital for the Philippines would cost nearly half as much. That money would be better spent on making serious improvements to Metro Manila (like a full network of bus rapid transits ala Bogota's trans-milenio or serious street redesigns), solving our housing backlogs, or funding planning in our smaller cities.

Further to Manolo's closing notes, the fact is no new capital has ever decongested an existing primate city. The city is an economic entity, it grows because it attracts people who make money and find a living in its streets. -If anything, it tends a new capital tends to create new congestion when the plans for the areas around the city are not fully conceptualized (ala Brasilia).

That money would be better spent coming up with a National Urban Development Strategy that ties in our infrastructure investments (road, rail, etc.) to our land use plans.

I also don't agree that Manila or Quezon City is dead "for national capital purposes" - many living, existing cities have re-imagined and rebuilt themselves while the city continued its business -like Hausmann's Paris or Penalosa's Bogota (or see WRT's Designing Omaha -All of it! pdf2.1mb). Stepping away from the complex problems of Metro Manila (by investing our energies in a city built from the ground up) would be akin to burying our heads in the sand and consigning the 11M inhabitants of the metropolis to an unlivable existence.

I do agree with Manolo that we need a project that gives us a perspective of our past and a vision for our future. Massive projects (such as the pyramids, the Eiffel tower, and the urban plan of Paris) have always had the effect of encouraging long view thinking in their home cities and the home civilization. (We are so direly in need of long view thinking.) I would suggest that a serious re-imagining of our primate city - starting perhaps with a redevelopment plan for Intramuros and the environs or a full rehabilitation of the Pasig River watershed -may serve the same purpose.

I hope that, beyond looking at a national capital city project, this particular episode of The Explainer will be the start of a much needed national conversation on the state of our cities.

(For inspiration, download the Enrique Penalosa's speech and podcast on the importance of creating public spaces to make great cities.)

Image credit: Quezon Monument by Vernes Go. (CC)


mlq3 said...

paolo alcazaren during our many discussions on the subject, apparently originally favored either the reclamation area plan, or a return to some sort of burnham plan, but after the show he told me thinks the most practical solution is to revisit the quezon city plans and adapt them. of course we talked about this after the show ended.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


if the goal was to create a civic center - or a monumental district (as burham had planned and ala l'enfant's national mall in DC) then i would agree with Paolo that maybe revisiting the QC plan would be the best option. -- that is, of course, if you subscribe to the notions of the city beautiful movement.

many other cities though lift the civic spirits of their citizenry even without a distinct civic center. (Paris for one has many of its government offices in La Defense -in the outer arrondissements.) Some cities are defined by iconic streets instead of monumental districts - like La Rambla in Barcelona.

we could instead put our energies into making sure all our goverment offices are accessible and have civic presence. same goes for our transportation infrastructure. they can be spread out in nodes (in the Lynchian sense -thereby helping to make the city more legible) -and do not necessarily have to be huddled together in a single location.

the key questions we must ask (and must continue to ask) are: what kind of city do we want to have? and who will this city be for? -only after we answer those questions (and come together with a shared vision) can we say whether it is better to create a civic district or to create livable neighborhoods and walkable streets.

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