Urban Ecology – Greenspaces in Manila

I have been meaning to post about this topic for a few months now. It is so interesting, but I have really struggled to find the words and the right context to write about it. I don’t think I could ever find the right context about this issue, especially in Manila, but hopefully my perspective as an outsider is of some value. I really got interested in this issue when I visited the University of the Philippines – Diliman Campus Arboretum in Quezon City back in November. At that time, I was really struggling with adjusting to living in a big city and having seemingly no available respite in quiet, open spaces. I was really looking for places in Manila where I could enjoy nature and have time for thought and reflection.

I found out about the Arboretum by just looking at Google Earth and a map of Quezon City, trying to get a sense of where there were greenspaces and how much of the city was “set aside” for public greenspaces to offer people a place to relax and enjoy nature. Quezon City also has a website that describes some of the parks there. If you get the chance, pull up Manila on Google Earth and try to get a sense of how dense and urbanized the landscape is. As I mentioned in my last post on urban ecology, there is very little space for anything here, having one of the highest human population densities of anywhere in the world. I read the following on the website about the UP Arboretum:

“This is a man-made forest park found within the grounds of the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines. Established in 1948 by the Department of Agriculture, the 16-hectare arboretum is the only remaining rainforest within Metro Manila where exotic and endangered species of trees, along with diverse flora and fauna, can be found. The park has a man-made pond that hosts various aquatic and humid-loving plants, which also serves as a favorite picnic spot among visitors.”
After reading this description on the website (I’m not sure when this description was written), I was thinking to myself that it sounded like a perfect place to visit on Sunday afternoon. I was expecting that the place would be great to learn about the local flora and fauna. I was expecting that it would be well preserved and cared for by the university that owned the land. I was even thinking of bringing picnic supplies. So, we set out one Sunday afternoon to find this place. We located the technology park that is adjacent to arboretum. We asked some of the security guards at the technology park where to find the entrance to the Arboretum. They all gave us looks like “why would you want to go there?” or “you shouldn’t go there” or “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Eventually we found a side road between the technology park and a gas station that had a sign next to it that said “UP Arboretum”. So naturally we walked down the road. As we walked down this road, to our right was a high cinderblock wall with barbed wire on top separating the road from the technology park. On our left, was what could only be described as a slum. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw after we found the “entrance” to the arboretum.

This is an aerial view of the UP technology park and the arboretum behind it. The white dome on the right is the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute. The entrance road to the arboretum is on the left side of the technology park. You can also see the areas of informal settlements along the left side of the photograph and adjacent to the large forested area. (photo by Gil Jacinto)

We entered the gate to the arboretum, and saw children playing basketball, laundry drying on lines strung between trees, garbage all over the forest floor, piles of plywood and corrugated metal sheets, and the smell of burning plastic. Wait a minute! People live here! As we walked further into the arboretum, we saw more of the same. There were motorcycles, bananas, tarpaulins, roosters tied to trees, people cooking and washing clothes, dogs barking, and small shops selling basic items. We found that the majority of the arboretum contained houses, and some of them were built with bricks or concrete, making them permanent. The man-made pond described on Quezon City’s website wascompletely surrounded by settlements and garbage. It was not an ideal spot for a picnic. This experience blew my mind. I think the most surprising thing was that all of the trees were still there. It was like a slum in a jungle. I estimate that at least 500 people were living in the arboretum. The Arboretum is on public university land. People are not supposed to be living here, right? How did it get to be like this?

After seeing this, I had to do some investigation. I kept thinking that this situation would be the perfect topic for some sort of documentary. I was thinking, “how did UP Diliman let this happen?”, and more importantly “why is there such a big gap between policy and reality?” This website posted by the university gives a brief history of the arboretum, but there is obviously a huge gap between the end of this “official” story of 2012 and the modern realities of 2013. Not the information I was looking for. Luckily, I found a short investigative documentary that I assume was done by a university student. I am personally so thankful for university students and the fact that they still have the time, energy, and motivation to do something like this. The rest of us are sadly usually too downtrodden by our own society to do anything like this. The interviews are in Tagalog, but as a non-Tagalog speaker, you can still get the gist of the story and the images of what these settlements look like.

Apart from these resources, I have found it exceedingly difficult to find much information about informal settlements on the UP Diliman campus or anywhere else in Manila. I was able to find out that the Urban Poor Affairs Office did an assessment in 2006 and discovered that 25,000 informally settled families lived on 11-15% of the 493 hectare campus. Assuming that each family is four people, that is 100,000 people living illegally on a university campus. I’m guessing that eight years later, that the number has at least doubled. If we assume that 200,000 informal settlers live on 493 hectares, that is about 400 people per hectare if you spread the people over the entire campus! That is four times the population density of New York City! That isn’t even taking into account the fact that there is also a functioning world-class university there with 22,000 students!

When you think about this for a while, and the multitude of issues at play here, a number of key things rise to the surface. First, UP Diliman is obviously in a state of denial about the situation. To the university, the situation is just another inconvenience, and it should be swept under the rug so to speak. They don’t really see it as a problem as long as the informal settlers don’t obstruct the functions of the university. If anything, the informal settlers are well integrated into the day-to-day function of the campus, many of them working there. Besides the problem is now out of hand, and dealing with it would be a big undertaking. If it’s not a problem, then why can’t the university change its policy to acknowledge the legality of the informal settlements? What cultural and political forces require the university have to keep pretending like they have a problem with it, yet they do nothing about it? These are questions that I can’t even begin to have the answer to.

There is obviously a clash going on here between the western idealization of private property, entitlement, individuality, and open space with the eastern idealization of community, patience, hospitality, conformity, and generosity. The university was designed to mimic American universities with a large quad, open lawns, parks, common areas, and walkways. It is a complete anomaly to the way Filipinos conceptualize and design their cities. Within the Filipino culture itself, there is a constant pull between the forces of western and eastern influence, and the situation here is a perfect reflection of this. In this country, it is a basic tenet of life that everyone have a place to live, regardless of your level of contribution to society. There are other places in the city with the same issue, including Manila’s North Cemetery.

There are also political forces at play here, but it is not my place to get into that. Nor do I have the desire to discuss the political situation at the university. If the informal settlers were going to be kicked out, where would they go? How would the university go about removing them? Buy them out? Remove them with the police by force? There is nowhere for them to go. They can’t go back to the province because they cannot earn money there, and there is no land for them to farm even if they could farm. They can’t go somewhere else in Manila because someone else already lives there. Many people are “professional squatters” and spent their whole lives bouncing around from settlement to settlement. Many of the people in power in Manila depend on the people living in informal settlements for everyday services. The reality is that these spaces that were initially designated as greenspaces, are being devalued as greenspaces, and are now providing the most basic human requirement, space for the human body to physically occupy.

As the land value in Manila rises with the population increase (the country is roughly the size of the US state of Arizona and the population of the Philippines is expected to surpass 100 million in 2014), the land becomes allocated to the basic survival needs of people. Land is no longer used for purposes that could be defined as luxuries or for leisure. But at some point, some level of connection with a piece of land is essential for survival. There is no way to replace land for food to be grown on, although there are some really innovative things happening in Asia. Check out this vertical farm in Singapore. Although this is a great and innovative idea, it is nowhere near as sustainable as organic gardening and permaculture on the ground. The Philippines is a net importer of its food, and the country is going to really struggle with ways to raise its agricultural productivity and to feed all of its people in the future.

I haven’t even gotten into the psychological and environmental health benefits of greenspaces and pervious surfaces in cities. These benefits have long been documented across the world. I have also discussed in past posts about the flooding problems that Manila has on an annual basis during the rainy and typhoon seasons, in large part due to the pervasiveness of impervious surface in the city.

What is in store for the future? The campus officials at UP Diliman maintain that the informal settlements will be removed, but there has been no official press release on their intentions. Am I wrong in assuming that there is even a problem here? Is there a line that needs to be crossed before there is any change? Do people really think that the current situation is sustainable? What is it going to take in order for people to be mobilized into action? The thought of going to the UP Arboretum for a “picnic” or to find “diverse flora and fauna” is laughable. I think Quezon City should change its website.

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