Prospering in Place—A Necessary Paradigm for Cities Towards a More Resilient Age
by Joel Luna. Published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 6, 2020.
Covid 19 continues to offer us new realities. As the quarantine is slowly lifted, we awaken to a society that struggles to achieve two seemingly opposing goals: reactivating the economy and bringing down the number of Covid cases. The pandemic revealed the fragility of our systems, our own vulnerability and the susceptibility of the marginalized. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic rendered many unemployed, businesses taking losses and global trading constrained. Economic engines such as tourism, real estate and consumption that fueled the robust growth of the Philippines for over a decade were severely weakened.
Cities, the centers of economic activity, were suddenly helpless and impotent during the lockdown, barely able to supply essential items to its citizens. The deficiencies of our urban areas became glaringly apparent: cities are food deserts that depend on the hinterlands for the survival of its citizens, critical destinations that have become unreachable except by motorized transport, the tyranny of spatial segregation heightened the underlying inequity of society.
While many view the Covid 19 pandemic as unprecedented, this was certainly not the first nor most severe health crisis that the world experienced. Bubonic Plague killed 20 million people in Europe during the 1300s, appearing in waves over several years and afflicting people as well as livestock. People left cities, the epicenters of the disease. After the plague left in its wake economic and social turmoil similar to what we see today. There was a silver lining, though: The Plague enabled the upheavals that ushered the Renaissance and its explosion of scientific and creative thinking. Cities became the hub of cultural and economic activity again and of the new socio-economic order that brought unprecedented levels of prosperity. All these emerged from history’s darkest pandemic. It makes one wonder if Covid-19 is also presenting to us a chance to create a new order—one that doesn’t try to revive the past with all its imperfections, but instead aspires for a future that is better.
Is There a Better Way?
Meaningful change starts with the realization that we have long been in crisis even before Covid. The robust economic growth that our country experienced for over a decade made us blind to what is broken in our system and it took a virus to reveal what those are. The Old Normal’s obsession on growth reinforced short term thinking, overconsumption and singular focus on profitability. While the long economic run was welcome and euphoric, it resulted in the increasing gap between rich and poor, environmental damage and the eroding well-being of people.
There were some bright spots, though. While the global economy was paralyzed, local enterprises and new forms of cooperation, economic activity and service delivery emerged that sustained most of us throughout the lockdown. Perhaps these indicate a way towards a new form of prosperity that is more local, self-sufficient and empowering and a way of reimagining our cities.
1.0 Creating Compact and Diverse Communities
The irony of being under quarantine is that while we need to be increase physical distance from each other to minimize the risk of disease transmission, we also had to retreat to compact spaces and reduce our sphere of mobility. This highlighted a flaw in our developments: gated, single use communities segregated by income became islands. The practical advantage of having essential goods and services within walking distance from homes, became a desired reality. Deliberate thought on the scale of communities and diversity of activities within them is needed to ensure a level of self-sufficiency even in the midst of a crisis.
2.0 Active and Micro Mobility
We are also witnessing a transformation in mobility. Biking as a means of transport is finally gaining support with the introduction of protected bike lanes in different places of the metropolis. When coupled with compact and mixed use communities, biking and can become a preferred mode of travel, supplanting the car for short trips. Providing cities with the necessary infrastructure to encourage bike use (signals, showers, bike racks, etc) will facilitate a healthier and more sustainable environment.
3.0 Building Natural Capital:
The pandemic underscored the importance of the outdoor environment as a means to boost health and wellness and also as refuge during calamities. History shows how cities successfully responded to crises by investing in parks. For instance, the planning for Central Park started in the aftermath of the cholera outbreak in New York due to the belief in the importance of large open spaces to wellness through access to fresh air and sunlight. Also, during America’s Great Depression, FDR mobilized labor to restore natural habitat by creating Civilian Conservation Corps. providing work relief to 500,000 men thus stimulating the economy and planting 3 Billion trees in the process.
4.0 Local Food Production
Hierarchical supply chains collapse under a crisis leaving cities with limited food supply. The lockdown saw renewed interest in domestic vegetable gardening, food preparation and delivery. These emergent enterprises can be institutionalized and allowed to scale through progressive land use policies to create truly mixed use communities that integrate agriculture, food production and distribution within neighborhoods.
5.0 Empowering Local Economy
The DIY community grew out of necessity and altruism during the lockdown. Fabrication of PPEs, digital printing of facemasks were done by firms and volunteers for distribution to front liners. Others pivoted their businesses and took on food preparation, baking and delivery. Post lockdown, and with over 5 Million Filipinos left jobless, micro enterprises can provide employment and income.
Even before Covid, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises already constituted 99% of Philippine businesses and employed 63% of the country’s workforce. These businesses are the most vulnerable in times of crisis and yet these are also the most adaptable, able to deliver goods and services to address domestic needs even when global supply chains are crippled. However, access to capital by small businesses remain limited as banks prefer lending to large companies. Strengthening small-scale enterprises through incentives and spatial inclusion in new developments will enable a level of self-sufficiency and have allow direct connection between production and consumption.
6.0 Investing in People
The Old Normal’s obsession on growth and earnings reinforced short term thinking, overconsumption and singular focus on profitability and wealth accumulation. While the long economic run was welcome and euphoric, it has failed to address the increasing gap between rich and poor, environmental damage nor of overall wellbeing of people. Economic growth became abstract and unfelt by many. In the meantime, life is lived in local communities. Rather than creating value through production, we have relied on the extraction of value from labor through overseas employment or in the BPO sector. We have neglected investment in areas that can create the stimulus for innovation that will produce meaningful long-term prosperity.
The skills and services gap, particularly in healthcare and research became apparent during the pandemic and points us to where we need to provide more attention. Data from the World Bank show that the Philippines spends only around 0.16% of GDP on R&D (2015), lagging behind other developing nations and our ASEAN neighbors. Knowledge advancement by increasing R&D investments and incorporating the development of Human Capital infrastructure (Schools, Healthcare, Culture) among the priority programs of government can enable long term growth and productivity. Building the necessary software (knowledge, labor, skills, health) to complement the hardware (buildings, roads, rail) is critical to prosperity and well-being.
7.0 Creating a Culture of Caring
There were numerous heartwarming stories all over the world of communities forming new bonds to enable them to cope with the crisis. Cooperation, volunteerism, interdependence, sharing and an overall culture of caring emerged in many neighborhoods. The Social Street movement spontaneously formed in Italy, allowing people to help their neighbors deal with isolation. Locally, big businesses led relief provision and monetary donations to aid the afflicted. Imagine how much society could progress and how everyone’s lives could be lifted if this culture of caring will persist even during the best of times.
The lockdown forced us to de-prioritize the non-essential, reducing consumption, unnecessary travel, unnecessary meetings. As businesses halted and capitalism retreated, nature had a brief opportunity to recharge. This binary reality of modern society highlights what was wrong with the Old Normal—Economic Growth or Environment? Wealth Accumulation or Equity? The hard reset forced by the pandemic provokes us to take another viewpoint. Perhaps this allows us to examine what growth should mean and who should it be for. In the end, a truly resilient society is one that constantly works for the common good—pursuing what is ethical, equitable and just. As the economist Duchrow and the theologian Hinkelammert stated “…the perspective of the common good fundamentally starts with the weakest, most threatened members in the community. If they can live, all can live.”
Photos by Javier de la Maza, Karolis Vaiciulis and Elisa Morr.