Cities are like ecosystems. They provide the life-support systems to all types of people who live within (and beyond) their boundaries. The life-support systems include housing, employment, trade, industry, commerce, education, transportation, water, electricity, sanitation, health care, security and recreation facilities, among others. Every person in cities has a specific location and profession (habitat and niche). By performing their respective professions in their respective locations, everyone contributes in maintaining a balance that sustains the life of cities.
But just like natural ecosystems, urban ecosystems can be degraded and destroyed. As members of urban ecosystems, it would help if everyone becomes aware of certain principles and approaches that will make cities become livable.
Nature works as a unitary whole, in an entirety of interactions that are beyond artificial divisions such as those imposed by people. Nature also operates based on certain principles that other fields call by other names like fundamental ecological processes or natural law. The principles are presented below. These are interrelated.
1. All forms of life are important
The tiniest plant and the tallest tree, the unseen microorganism and the biggest whale -- all have distinct roles in the ecosystem. If one of these becomes extinct, then there is a breakdown in the food chain, in the food web, in the food pyramid, in the cycle of materials and, therefore, in the ecosystem.
2. Everything is connected with everything else
Both the living and non-living components of an ecosystem depend on each other for survival. None of these components is superior to the other and controls it. Because of interrelatedness, factors affecting one part would affect the rest.
3. Nothing is for free
Although the natural environment continuously recycles nutrients, the resources are not infinite. There is a limit up to which the ecosystem can support the demands of a population on its resources.
4. Nature knows best
For generations, nature has taken good care of itself. Man cannot determine nor dictate through legal standards or processes what is sustainable to maintain nature's delicate balance. He must, on the contrary, abide by nature's laws or suffer the consequences of nature's wrath.
5. Everything goes somewhere
Materials in the environment are constantly reshaped or transformed, but nothing is created and destroyed. This is among the most basic principles of nature. However, man's constant interference with the natural processes and his misuse of the resources have created too much waste or useless resources, some of which have been transformed into harmful materials.
6. Everything changes
The interaction among living and non-living things in the ecosystem is a constant process and results in the transfer of energy from one thing to another, and the growth and eventual decay of all matter -- all of these in an endless cycle. The operation of natural laws assures that this process of change results in the health and maintenance of the environment.
7. Nature is beautiful and we are the stewards of creation
Humanity is realizing only now its true role with respect to the environment -- and that is to manage it according to the laws which have enabled it to exist for many years. By abusing the environment, man, in the end, would end up the loser. On the other hand, as man learns to abide by the principles and processes of nature, he would benefit the most from it.
The key approaches that this writer has learned from the training program on Managing Big Cities at Ecole National D’Administration are presented below.(1)
1. Cities, like human beings, must evolve in accordance to their DNA or their historical significance. In designing cities or urban settlements, it is important that culture and values are recognized, respected and allowed to be reflected in land-use and settlement policies. For example, the city government mandates the kind of structures that will be constructed along the roads of Paris since 1800s to ensure uniformity, alignment and aesthetic value.
2. There are always trade-offs involved in designing urban settlements, but what should be given priority is the general welfare of the population. For example, the right to own cars and use them is limited by the right of the pedestrians to have safe and conducive walkways, as well as parks and open spaces.
3. Laws are meant to be implemented, not to be broken. For example, a Prefect, who is assigned as the representative of the French State at the local level, can file a case in an administrative court if local administrators fail to implement or violate any law.
4. Citizens can freely express their needs or desires and have the right to get answers. This could be traced to the long history of a semblance of direct democracy at the village level in France. For example, a citizen can demand a job for him/her or other members of the family and has the right to receive a response from the local executive. Another example is the case of a local chief executive who could not get the support of the citizens in implementing a project because of a failure to consult the stakeholders.
5. A national land-use and housing policy is critical to ensure that local governments can develop their respective land-use and housing policies that conform to the mandates under a national policy. In the case of the Philippines, the national land-use act remains a bill. In the absence of a national guide, the local government units prepare their land-use plans, if at all, based on limited knowledge and skill in land-use and settlement planning. The result is an unplanned development that negatively affects the various aspects of community life.
6. There are many ways to manage the transportation requirement of an urban settlement, as long as proper analysis is done and appropriate policies are in place. For example, the City of Paris has reduced the volume of cars by 10% for the past 3 years by prohibiting cars in some roads, by making bus rides convenient, and by making the subways faster and safe.
7. European cities have accepted the phenomenon of private vehicle owners ferrying passengers for a fee using an online registration system as a form of positive market behavior. For example, in the City of Paris, the use of private vehicles to carry passengers is not regulated by the State or by the city government.
8. There are many ways to manage the transportation requirements of cities. In the case of Paris, it has successfully used a combination of the following:
9. Use of CCTVs, cars, horses and sufficient personnel as a tool for traffic management and for law enforcement. For example, the entire city has a network of CCTVs that could spot potential and actual violations.
10. Policy to prohibit the construction of buildings that uses negative energy. For example, a building permit is issued only if a property owner or developer could show evidence that it could generate more power than it will demand from the grid.
Implications to Philippine Urban Settlements
In view of the lessons learned above and the observations that this writer had noted down during visits to different cities, there are challenges and opportunities that if properly understood and appropriately responded to, would help the state and non-state actors to embark on a sustainable settlements pathway for the country. The key challenges and opportunities are described below.
Cities need to create an identity
Strategic planning practitioners know the importance of formulating a vision for cities based on the traditional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOTs) or on the imagined and desired future state using the alternative inquiry (AI) approach. A vision statement is the main strategic goal of any organization. It embodies the set of future conditions that the stakeholders define and determine within a given time frame. Although futuristic in direction, a vision statement, however, needs to be grounded on a set of cultural givens and social artifacts. In this manner, a city’s identify is a product of its historical unfolding. This goes without saying, however, that cities could not innovate or could not create an identity based on a clean slate.
A city’s identity is her own soul. If a city projects herself as a place of golden friendship, then it follows that visitors will experience a special kind of affinity that only the city could offer. It should not be a city where visitors could not find an honest cab or tricycle driver, where street violence is rampant, and where hotels and tourist destinations are not safe. If a city imagines herself as a green and healthy city, then this implies that the city is walkable through wide and unbroken pedestrian lanes, that vehicles do not emit toxic gases that will destroy the lungs and reduce the intelligence quotient of children and adults, that there are bicycle and skateboard lanes, that there are green parks where people can rest and have leisure, that the city is not covered by billboards of all sizes and contents, that every side and corner is clean, that waterways are not dead and clogged with garbage, and that houses and establishments follow proper design specifications regardless of class or level of income.
Cities need proper land-use plans and building designs
Land-use planning was earlier used as a means to stop the uncontrolled development of settlements. It is based on the power of the city, a power derived from the Constitution, to limit individual liberty to ensure that every citizen lives in a settlement that is fit for human habitation. It “creates the prerequisites required to achieve a type of land use, which is sustainable, socially and environmentally compatible, socially desirable and economically sound”. (2) It means creating a settlement that jives with its natural endowment. It means establishing what Justice Douglas described as a “quiet place where yards are wide, people few, and motor vehicles restricted” because these “are legitimate guidelines in a land-use project addressed to family needs.” He explained: “The police power is not confined to elimination of filth, stench, and unhealthy places. It is ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people." (3)
Cities must have land-use plans that are based on best contemporary practices and they must implement land-use plans uniformly, consistently and well. In accordance to land-use plans, cities must also have suitable building design specifications to ensure that the edifices, transportation facilities, open spaces and houses blend with the overall design of the cities. Cities must not lose sight of their origin, at least based on the conventional view, that they emerged as a result of the agricultural revolution to support the requirements of an increasingly large population.
Cities must provide appropriate transport plans
Cities must provide opportunities for people to walk safely from their houses to places of work, learning, worship and recreation. Researchers point out that walking provides fitness and blood pressure benefits. To encourage walking, cities should establish wide and unbroken pedestrian lanes, which are free from barriers like parked vehicles. To help improve the air quality, cities should plant tree species that have high capacity to absorb greenhouse gases along roads and in green parks. To avoid the conflict between trees and electricity lines and posts, as well as to reduce the risk of damage from typhoons, cities should pursue underground cabling of electricity and telephone lines. To prevent damage to the skylines and cultural heritage, cities should come up with an innovative way of using properly designed trains (aboveground or underground), bus rapid transit, trams, buses, cabs, jeeps and tricycles using electricity, liquefied petroleum gas or liquefied natural gas.
Cities must also come up with appropriate policies, laws and regulations. To limit the number of vehicles, cities should declare old vehicles as off limits in city roads, disallow vehicle ownership without appropriate parking areas, and limit the streets where vehicles are allowed.
Cities must provide suitable housing units
The presence of informal settlers, especially the urban poor, is a big challenge in city governance. However, it is a problem that will become serious over time if correct solutions are not implemented at the right time. The correct solution is to enforce the land-use plan, especially the easement requirements, remove the informal settlements, and transfer the settlers in suitable housing units located in appropriate areas. This means that transferees will not have difficulty taking public transportation to their places of work – which an efficient public transportation system should be able to provide. People can pay their respected housing units over time based on agreed upon dates.
Suitable housing units should be planned so that the health, sanitation and safety of the residents are not compromised. This means providing proper solid waste management, clean water management, effective, efficient and professional law enforcement, as well as sufficient health care services and facilities.
There is no easy way to pursue good governance in cities. But there are cities in the Philippines (Marikina, Davao, Puerto Princesa, Cagayan de Oro, etc.) and abroad (Savannah, Paris, Singapore, Taipei, Osaka) that are trying to show the way. If others could do it, then there is no reason why the rest could not do it.
Indeed, there are factors that contribute in creating unsustainable cities. These factors generally include the absence of the political will to implement rules, absence of civic will to make political leaders accountable, and absence of corporate citizenship from the business sector. The experience of other cities point to some ways to break the cycle of unsustainability. At one point, a good leader will be elected by the people and this leader will pursue that which is good for the greatest number. At another point, the people will make their voices heard and demand that their leaders do their job. Somewhere in the future, a visionary from the private sector will produce goods that will not harm human and ecological health, deliver services that will benefit the community and the government, and help shape the development of cities along such paths as green productivity, sustainable consumption, cleaner production or sustainability.