Cities as Narrative: Urban Life in Manila and Bonifacio Global City

Julia Nebrija

Manileños live in a mess. Should those who can escape to an urban fortress?

I live in Manila because of days like last Nov. 29, 2014. I spent the afternoon walking around Escolta looking at the temporary public art installations for 98B’s Transi(en)t Manila. Pieces peeked out of abandoned buildings, hung over forgotten facades, and activated vacant storefronts. We drank beers on the street and ducked into dumpling places. Afterwards I took a jeepney with friends to another opening at 1335 Mabini, a gallery in Ermita. We sang along to pop tunes blaring to match the disco neon interior.

I called it an early night. It was a cool evening, and I decided I would walk home to my house in Paco, just 15 minutes away. I reached a stretch of UN Avenue where it became wide and dark. I noticed a statue of the Virgin Mary illuminated by blue Christmas lights, glowing behind an old wrought iron gate. I thought to myself, this is why we walk in cities: to see something new. 

I took out my iPhone to snap a photo, and, when I turned around, a man was behind me, standing far too close. When he grabbed me I understood that I was being attacked. I was able to push him hard to the edge of the sidewalk and against the light of moving cars when I saw that he had a knife. I screamed and ran and was able to escape unharmed.

Halfway down the street a young man noticed me running and asked what happened. He was sitting on a small BMX bike without a shirt, smoking a cigarette—just hanging around. I recounted the ordeal and he shook his head. I noticed he had pegs on the back of his bike, and I asked him to please take me home the rest of the way. 

Making a city “work” is a complicated science. Cities around the world struggle to marry the social aspects of urban environments—such as participation, inclusion, and interaction—with its physical aspects, such as connectivity, safety, and order. 

At first glance, it might seem that where the city of Manila fails, Bonifacio Global City works: One is chaotic, the other is organized; one is dirty, the other is clean; one is dangerous, the other is safe. But if BGC is the antithesis of the old capital—does this make it a better city?

BONIFACIO GLOBAL CITY (1241)

 When my office relocated to BGC from Ortigas, I was excited to experience the city that one real estate ad claims “puts the live, work, play lifestyle within easy reach.” After work I spent rush hour seeing movies at a theater with Dolby surround sound, unlimited popcorn, and fully reclining chairs. I worked on my laptop sitting outside Jamba Juice in the safety of High Street and the ease of clean air. I met up with friends at expensive bars. The escape was tempting, and I began to understand why people choose to pay New York City rents for pools and parking garages and trends. In a metropolis where convenience is gold, BGC has a ready market of people who just want a place that works.

 BGC is the flagship project of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority—a government agency tasked with redeveloping military bases and properties “into centers of economic growth.” Along with Ayala Land, Inc. and Evergreen Holdings, Inc., BCDA conceptualized their version of an ideal city. Among its ideal features, BGC lists the grid, the multiple access points, the pedestrian friendly environment, and the BGC bus as evidence of good mobility.

 Looking at BGC from the sky, the development looks like a skin graft, taken from elsewhere and fused to an empty plot of land. The edges of the claimed land have no relationship with the existing form. JP Rizal ends suddenly as it approaches BGC, where the streets become 36th and 7th. The existing roads, structures, and communities are sandwiched between Kalayaan and C-5 and BGC. Instead of connecting to the communities, ring roads, like 38th street, Rizal Drive, and McKinley Parkway cut them off. This is a city designed to be its own entity, not to integrate with its surroundings.

Once inside, the streets are organized as a grid. A grid, when used correctly, is an effective planning tool. It can provide a flexible, walkable framework for development. In BGC, the grid unfortunately, like most other elements, is a copy and paste exercise.

A grid is not intended to be a geometric parceling of land, but rather an organizing and networking of streets. In BGC, parcels of land are sold to individual developers who are free to build within that parcel however they wish. Therefore, a variety of configurations exist within each parcel: The Fort Strip is separate from Market Market, which is separate from High Street, which is separate from Serendra. These different developments do not work together and are not designed in relation to one another. Lost also are the churches, open areas, basketball courts, and other public spaces that help weave together the commercial and residential blocks in other cities. Yes, BGC is on a grid, but the result is a concentration of people in one commercial area or another rather than a seamless flow of people: consumerism by design.

Simply laying out a grid does not guarantee a walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment; street scale and function also matter. Super blocks with little variety in function, uniform facades, and large commercial units feel lengthy and boring. Combine the lack of visual or human interest with little shade—narrow rows of trees struggle to shade passersby and there are few passages acting as arcades throughout BGC—and a ten-minute walk can feel like thirty.

Although it is technically walkable, BGC was designed for cars and therefore is better observed from a car than on foot, which is exactly what happens. People drive to their condos; they drive to the mall; they drive in and out of BGC.

A subway connecting BGC with the Makati CBD and Mall of Asia was approved this year. This connection will significantly improve access for tourists and business folk, and hopefully also for residents, depending on how well it links with existing transportation systems, such as the MRT. Still, it is a promising prospect. BGC is already struggling to accommodate current volume. With only seven access points, four of which are typically utilized and clog to a stand still during rush hour, residents are finding it increasingly difficult to move in and out of the area.

Although the distance between my house and the office decreased when my office moved out of Ortigas, my commute time increased. To reach my new desk, I ride the LRT to the MRT and then walk down a crowded stairwell to the street and across a major intersection to wait in another line for the BGC bus, which then crawls down McKinley Road where the traffic stops every few minutes to let individual cars in and out of gated communities. It would not be unusual to spend half an hour trying to go the two-kilometer stretch into the center of BGC. When traffic is backed up to EDSA I prefer risking an accident weaving through cars on the back of a habalhabal to get to my office on time.

By the time I finally ascend to the 26th floor of the brand new One Global Place, I peer out of the floor to ceiling windows onto a landscape of construction and wonder what the traffic will be like when all those buildings are finished and become occupied by hundreds of thousands of other office workers and residents.

The “live, work, play” equation suggests a seamless, entertaining, convenient urban environment, but BGC’s design often works against this narrative. The sign outside one construction site promises LIFESCAPES in large letters. But looking around the streets, little public life is found. Street life, as defined by people occupying public space, in BGC is primarily observed in the evening when joggers occupy one of the pocket parks or circumvent the deserted sidewalks. Skateboards flock to streets emptied after rush hour, but their altercations with the BGC security have even limited this rare display of community—a reminder that no space in BGC is truly public.

The predominant landscape is not one of people, but of glass, reflective facades that remind me of abandoned office parks, blue and grey. If I’m captivated by anything, it’s the reflection of other buildings in other buildings in other buildings, a mirage of computer-rendered concepts. The yellow pipes and green netting protecting cars from construction debris at least add color to the street.

The Soul BGC campaign attempts to infuse the area with culture, through planned movie screenings, music festivals, and community events. There is a narrated bus tour of public art for customers who spend at least PHP 1,500 in BGC stores. But community, sense of place, and local identity are formed by inhabitants, not marketing schemes.

Unfortunately in BGC, residents have little say in how the space beyond their unit evolves. BGC does not have a governance system; rather, issues can be brought up with the Bonifacio Global City Estate Association.  The lack of civilian participation might be more of a philosophical dilemma, but without it, BGC will continue to look and feel like you could be anywhere.

After three years working in BGC, I’m left wondering if it can be called a city, or if Bonifacio Global Estates is a more accurate title.

MANILA (1013)

 I ended up in Manila by coincidence.

 When I first came to the Philippines in 2008, my research took me to Tondo and I was fortunate enough to get an apartment in the Syquia apartments in nearby Malate. I marveled at the wood floors, high ceilings, and big windows—all features of a pre-war apartment, by national architect, Pablo Antonio, no less—a place I could never afford or have access to in U.S. cities today.

Manila’s slogan, “forward ever, backward never,” seems comical for those of us who choose to stick it out in the Old City only to watch the streets flood, businesses struggle, and our precious buildings get bulldozed. Where there are sidewalks, they are broken or occupied, and jeepneys and tricycles whip around you. Pollution envelops you. People hassle you.

This was not always the plan for Manila. Following Spanish invasion, Manila transformed from a series of fishing villages by the Pasig River into the church, plaza, government building-typology used to organize and thus rule over a colonized population.

The Americans again used planning as an attempt to tame the savages by employing the great Daniel Burnham to bring new world order to the orient. Despite its unfortunate premise, the 1905 master plan set a sound framework. Burnham laid out a solid skeleton of networked streets and a radial axis connecting neighborhood nodes. Much of Burnham’s vision was never realized, and many planners and architects today still tout Burnham’s masterplan as a lost opportunity. Whether or not we should revive the plan is debatable, given the current context, but we have Burnham to thank for designing Manila as a capital. 

With no plan, Manila evolved over time through centuries of habitation. While this evolution is generally perceived as a failure, in the absence of planning, a rich, layered city emerged. Among Manila’s assets are historical districts each with its own churches, markets, and communities, each different from the next[1] .

In Quiapo, the church plaza is lined by fortune-tellers and its sides are flanked by vendors selling charms to satisfy every superstition. Quiapo is the site of the annual catholic Black Nazarene procession, and it is the home of the Golden Temple with its own Muslim Quarter. In Binondo old Chinese businesses share storefronts with gold pawnshops. The church adobe blocks are mossy with growth and temples tuck into narrow alleys throughout the winding streets. It is possible to visit a Chinese doctor and buy herbs in an apothecary and then see the latest Chinese film at the Luckytown China Mall. In Paco, there’s a park with a chapel and catacombs. Old residential areas for the wealthy like Ermita and Malate are still dotted with large, wooden houses on individual lots, a reminder of their previous density. The newly renovated Paco Market is a bookend to the spruced up Paco Estero, now filled with tropical plants rather than trash. In Tondo, the former fishing village on a white sand beach is now a port pushed almost to its breaking point. Truck drivers, port laborers, and informal communities do all the invisible work it takes to run the city, sorting our trash, delivering our goods, and disposing of our waste. Away from the port, Tondo has working class neighborhoods, where pedicab frames are made and jeepneys are fixed.

Across Manila, these scenarios are abundant. Manila has the most number of barangays in Metro Manila. As of the 2010 census it has 897; the second highest was Pasay with 201. These 897 communities are tucked into corners of Manila along esteros, behind train tracks, or near commercial hubs. The barangay is a unique Filipino system. It is hyper-local. I know I’ve crossed into another barangay when the colors of the bandaritas change, which in Manila might be every other street. The community association at the barangay level is an invaluable social network, and the community scale makes the city highly inhabitable.

Yes the electricity may not be legal, waste management hardly exists, and the integrity of structures is worrisome, but the scale is human. The streets are narrow and short, which prevents neighborhood roads from becoming thoroughfares. Instead pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, and tricycles utilize the roads more than cars. The buildings are generally a maximum of 5 storeys and have ground floor businesses owned and operated by the tenant or someone else in the storey community. People know each other. This is “mixed-use” at its best.

Linking these neighborhoods are 16 LRT stations and a network of jeepneys, pedicabs, tricycles, and AUVs. Of course there is traffic in Manila; the port roads—Quirino, Taft or Roxas Boulevard, and España—are overcapacity. Connectivity is still a major issue for Manila, but as someone without a car, I have a multitude of options to get myself from point A to point B.

When our movement isn’t restricted, we can actually experience what the city has to offer.

In Malate, I attend openings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, party at Korean discos, and see drag shows. On Roxas Boulevard, I watch sunsets against the silhouette of fishermen and sweethearts. I’ve wandered into Catholic churches, Seikh temples, Buddhist temples. I watch religious processions in Intramuros and fiestas weaving through back alleys. I bike to Binondo to eat hand pulled noodles and visit Dr. Tan. I jazzercise with old ladies in a parking lot behind the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I watch movies at an outdoor auditorium in Rizal Park.

These are narratives of a vibrant city. These are experiences; these are memories; and they are completely unique to Manila. I can immerse myself in the city, but unlike BGC, in Manila I can also contribute to it.

I built a garden in an empty garden box outside an abandoned hotel on my street with a homeless vendor named Roda. Roda’s garden is now a jungle, although the papaya tree still bears no fruit. (I try not to get discouraged by the metaphor.)

Several friends and I started an organization called Viva Manila[1] to revitalize spaces of Manila through arts and culture. We work with neighborhood partners and local government agencies to put on events like our Sunday Pasyal, a street fair in Intramuros. We value the heritage, history, and people that make Manila a vibrant city and are working to translate those assets into visible change.

A culture cannot be planned, but it can be supported. The failure of Manila, then, is a failure to develop systems which help these homegrown assets flourish.

Jeepneys shouldn’t be banned, but they should be regulated through planned stations and routes and the enforcement of emissions standards. There are too many pedicabs; drivers need alternative livelihoods. Informal communities need secure tenure. Basic building codes need to be followed. Heritage should be preserved and repurposed. Arts and culture need funding. Local business needs less red tape. And to weave it all together, Manila needs a solid development vision and plan.

When all the texture in Manila is viewed as an asset, the city will realize its potential. Perspective is already starting to shift. Rizal Park received an upgrade with new lights, a modernized auditorium, and more weekend programming. The Roxas Boulevard Bay Walk is currently being renovated to make it more bike and pedestrian friendly. There is a renewed interest in heritage preservation, especially among the youth.

Still, it will take monumental, miraculous shifts in political will power to leverage these changing tides into larger waves.

END 

In BGC we see an attempt to define modern Filipino urbanity, the results of which are yet to be understood. I would argue that BGC is not a city, but a private island, and in the end, cleanliness, order, and luxury are not uniquely found in BGC, but any real estate development of the same caliber.

The challenge for the BGCs of the Philippines is to figure out how to plan new developments that are more integrated, culturally sensitive, and provide platforms for creating community. The comma in the “live, work, play” scenario is culture, and BGC needs to find ways for people, not just buildings to shine.

In Manila we find a vibrant, layered city, but soul is not enough to make a city livable. Manila has to more efficiently meet peoples’ basic needs. This requires the effective implementation of planning tools and a major overhaul in governance.

The rest of Metro Manila still has the positive aspects of Manila: human scale, identity, culture, inclusivity, participation. We shouldn’t turn our backs on these assets by grafting BGC typologies on any available plot of land and we shouldn’t try to solve our problems by isolating ourselves behind walls, real or suggested 

Perhaps we need an entirely new language for planning cities in Metro Manila. Architect Jan Gehls says “we shape cities, and they shape us.” How we define a city is up to us. In both Manila and BGC we see urban trajectories that leave something to be desired. We have a chance to take a hard look at both and think about how we can shape a narrative in which our urban space not only works, but also inspires.

We still need to explore the “diversity” of Manila a little more, after we’ve discussed that Manila is too many things in too many time periods all at once. I thought about it this morning—and maybe quickly describing each district would be a good and effective approach!



[1] Visit www.vivamanila.org to find out more.