Better Cities in the Horizon

(published 29 October 2014, MST)

We often hear ourselves complaining about the cities we live in, work in, or travel through. We see congestion, ill-managed waste, flooding, transport woes, traffic nightmares. City life is depicted as unbearable, with all the benefits of progress canceled out by the inconveniences they bear. Then again, what can you expect from a country of 100 million people, with more than 60 percent living in urban centers?
The good news is that not everybody has to live this way. Some cities can be better planned than others. This will translate to an immensely higher quality of life for the people who live and work in them. There is “safety, convenience, livelihood, lifestyle and sustainability” —all in the context of an increasingly climate-defined future.
What is, after all, a livable city? It is one that is attractive for people to live, work and play in. It is affordable, accessible, socially acceptable, environment-friendly, economically viable and climate resilient.
This was what the Livable Cities Design Challenge, concluded on October 15 with awarding ceremonies for the most promising cities, was all about.
The challenge was posed by a team composed of the National Competitiveness Council, Apec National Organizing Council, Urban Land Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Asia Society and Alliance of Safe and Sustainable Reconstruction (Assure). Fifteen cities were invited to participate by submitting detailed urban plans. 
For the challenge, some conditions had to be present. Both the process and the plan should be well-documented. The development should be phased. The dynamics of the public sector, the private sector and the community working together must be highlighted.
There were two categories. The Government Center is a complex of government buildings designed to be disaster-resistant, with an accompanying education and awareness program that would enable citizens to be better prepare for disasters.
Primarily, it would be a public service facility. Secondarily, in the event of disasters, it could serve as a command post and evacuation center complete with power, water and telecommunication facilities that are all-too important in such situations. 
Cagayan de Oro stood out among nine other cities and bagged the prize for this category.
It submitted a plan for a four-structure building complex that would feature 200 classrooms, office spaces, laboratories, a multimedia library, parks, playgrounds and a rooftop garden.
Most importantly, the complex called Oro Central can be used as an evacuation center when needed, without affecting the operations of the school.
The complex will be located at the highest part of the city, and near important facilities such as hospitals and pharmacies.
The second category, the APEC Venue, focuses on the development of a livable city plan. The site need not be an entire city; an area for a meeting venue—hotels, convention facilities, routes and access roads— would suffice. The plan must include amenities that would make attendance in an event like the APEC meeting a good experience for both delegates and local residents.
The APEC Venue should “capture the soul and spirit of a city and be designed a s a permanent fixture that will form the core of a livable city,” according to the Livable Cities Web site.
Five cities participated in this challenge: Angeles City, Bacolod City, Cebu City, Iloilo City and Legazpi City. Iloilo emerged as winner, with Legazpi and Cebu as runners-up. 
An article from Rappler quoted National Competitiveness Council head for the private sector Guillermo Luz as saying that Iloilo best exemplified how its heritage meets the present meets the future. “The city was able to express its unique personality through its design.”
City planners have been able to talk to developers and investors to clean up its rivers, revitalize its cultural areas and bring back economic activity.
These plans are still on paper. Whether the designs and the vision materialize is another story worth watching. Local government units must realize that they have to take the lead in these initiatives because the national government is too saddled with other concerns to conceive of these projects, see through their implementation and ensure that they live up to the promise of being livable.
Then again, it’s not a public endeavor alone. Part of the success of any project is its participatory nature, achieved through constructive engagement with its private counterparts, the community and citizen organizations. This is so there is shared ownership of the vision -- and so that nothing is identified with a single political personality.
One offshoot of being a livable city is that business would sooner or later come. Because of the city’s competitiveness, its residents can find gainful employment right where they are instead of migrating to Metro Manila or worse, other countries. Adjacent towns may also benefit and in time can also design their livable cities/ municipalities plan.
In the end, we do not want just another city that never sleeps, or that which churns out products mindlessly.  By “livable” we mean the entire spectrum —time at home with the family, modes of recreation, education for the children, appreciation of heritage, preservation off ecological balance, and resilience in the face of disaster.
Nobody wants to just earn a living. Most of us want to really live.