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In the words of urban planning experts, the way we live post-quarantine must change, based on the lessons learned during the pandemic

By Johannes L. Chua

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In the consciousness of many Filipinos, new terms such as social distancing, community quarantine, or nationwide lockdown, are now part of the vocabulary. But post-quarantine life is not only about knowing news words, discovering new trends, or learning new norms. The way we will live day to day will also drastically change, whether we like it or not, based on the lessons learned during the crisis.

Living beside a mall or inside a central business district has its perks, but living beside a market or near a hospital may become more practical. Work will bring buzz once more to empty buildings, but for how long if social distancing (and work from home) is now becoming the norm? And do we really want our family in crowded urban spaces with the lingering “round two” of the virus (or its mutations) hanging in the air? Or do we think about thriving in the suburbs where houses are already practicing “social distancing?”

Manila Bulletin Lifestyle reached out to two experts on urban planning. Both of them—Nathaniel von Einsiedel and Louwie A. Gan—are prominent architects whose projects have enhanced urban spaces and improved the lives of people who live in them.

Einsiedel is well-known urban environmental planner. Currently, the principal urban planner of Concep Inc., a private consulting firm, he has been doing both government and private sector development work, with projects in Clark, Iloilo, Subic, among others. He was commissioner for planning of Metro Manila from 1979 to 1989.

On the other hand, Gan is an urban planner professionally accredited by international organizations in green building and urban planning in the US and Vietnam. He has more than 12 years of experience in urban and master planning, green building, visual impact studies, landscape and urban design.  Gan also has projects in Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, among others. He currently serves as consultant to the United Nations and the City Government of Makati.

Einsiedel and Gan share their thoughts on how Covid-19 has changed the way we live and how its impact will be in the short and long term. The two have varying observations and solutions, but they fully agree that the pandemic has exposed a lot of weaknesses (to the detriment of the poor) in our urban planning, especially in Metro Manila.

Though they have somewhat bleak assessments, they both bank on the resilience of the Filipino spirit and the kinship in our communities to ultimately save the day.

What lessons will we learn in relation to urban planning after this pandemic?

Einsiedel: The fundamental purpose of the practice of urban planning is to protect and enhance the safety, health, and wellbeing of people. The pandemic has highlighted many deficiencies in the way our towns and cities have been designed and developed, indicating the lack of understanding of what proper urban planning should be.

For example, our land use plans and zoning ordinances do not encourage “complete” neighborhoods where residents can do and get what they need locally, by foot, or by bicycle. During lockdown, we still need to buy food, but markets are too far away and require transport. It’s okay for those with cars, but how about those who don’t?

Gan: This pandemic allowed us to experience and confirm the strengths and weaknesses of how our cities are designed. While this challenge is happening all over the world, it is evident that Philippine cities need to change its policy for transportation, food security, and accessibility to open space.

For example, in transportation, our cities are prioritizing car mobility, thereby subjecting Filipino families to dream of owning a car as a symbol of success. In quarantine, all PUVs and mass transportation are halted to prevent the spread of virus, but it is also evident how important bicycles are especially for frontliners who walk for hours just to reach their destination.

Are our urban centers prepared to face another pandemic crisis like this?

Einsiedel: I would say—many, if not most, are not. This is because most of our towns and cities do not maintain proper data banks and management systems, much less monitor conditions in their territories. A pandemic, like a natural disaster, can be predicted if conditions are regularly monitored, and preparations can be initiated before it gets worse. Urban planning is about anticipating what can happen and prepare plans for it. Sadly, many of our towns and cities do not plan—they react.

Gan: No country is prepared to face another crisis. In our case, we are still on the verge of solving existing issues such as climate change and traffic in urban centers. To be resilient in this situation, urban centers, including residential subdivision masterplan policies, should be modified to prioritize the importance of basic needs, such as access to basic services and community centers. We built communities bombarded by large commercial establishments, but we failed to realize that these structures may not be helpful in times of crisis.

To be resilient in this situation, urban centers should be modified to prioritize the importance of basic needs, such as access to basic services and community centers. We built communities bombarded by large commercial establishments, but we failed to realize that these structures may not be helpful in times of crisis.

In a densely populated environment, what can architects do to continue, if necessary, social distancing?

Einsiedel: During the lockdown, people still need to be active, to get some sun, fresh air, and exercise. But the majority of NCR residents don’t have gardens and Rizal Park, Ninoy Aquino Park, or La Mesa Eco Park are too far away. We need to create more—even though small—green places that are close to people’s homes.

What can be done is to reconfigure some streets to widen sidewalks and plant some trees, by reducing the number of moving lanes or making them one-way streets. We need to give more space to people, not to cars.

Gan: One of the challenges I personally experienced is that Filipinos find it hard to distance themselves from each other. I realized that Filipinos would go out to buy basic necessities on the allowed time provided by the government. The centralization of our market, however, forces all people to go to the nearest market. I think we need to decentralize this market temporarily and provide alternative means. Decongesting community markets may encourage social distancing.

What are the immediate—and long-term—effects of this pandemic in relation to the property sector?

Einsiedel: With regard to housing, this pandemic raises the question of how small can a housing unit be, considering social distancing?

There was a time the minimum size of a dwelling unit for a family of six was 60 square meters, based on World Health Organization (WHO) standards. Now, we’ve scaled it down to 24 square meters. Is this healthy? There probably is a need to revisit the housing finance policies and programs of government.

Gan: People would be more vigilant in buying properties. Would they buy properties in communities with a history of full lockdown? Are they going to buy properties that experience difficulty accessing basic needs?

On a positive side, people would be looking for properties that are green and sustainable that boost health and wellness, rather than looking for the nearest commercial establishment. Obviously, malls are not helping Filipinos during this pandemic, but a small community garden and safe bike lane will do.

What have you realized during this crisis?

Einsiedel: The most important thing I have realized on a personal level is the importance of friends and neighbors who are helping each other in terms of accessing food, medicines, and other essential needs. Living in a neighborhood where most people know each other has been very comforting and reassuring.

On a professional level, this experience reinforces what I’ve always advocated—small but “complete” neighborhoods that foster a strong sense of belonging. Such neighborhoods are the building blocks of livable and resilient cities.

Gan: In urban planning, consensus among stakeholders is important to make the plan successful. During this pandemic, I realized that majority of Filipinos are cooperating and self-organizing to help the government. Behaviorally, I can see Filipinos adapt to these changes to survive. These qualities make Filipinos resilient to every challenge. Therefore, I have no doubt we can survive this pandemic.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/04/22/in-the-words-of-urban-planning-experts-the-way-we-live-post-quarantine-must-change-based-on-the-lessons-learned-during-the-pandemic/)

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