Filipino Architect wants to Transform Slum with New Plan

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A clash is occurring across the global South over the future of urban planning and the ever-growing slums of the world’s megacities. This will be a decisive clash of visions: should cities flatten slums and relocate their residents, or work with slum dwellers, acknowledge the role they play in city economies and improve their lives with better dwellings?

As the world turned into a majority urban place in the 2000s, cities grew at a phenomenal rate. The cities of Africa and Asia are growing by a million people a week, according to some estimates. Megacities and sprawling slums will be the hallmarks of this new urban world, it seems. In sub-Saharan Africa, 72 percent of the population already lives in slum conditions.

The danger of building unsafe or makeshift homes can be seen in 2010’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, where many buildings collapsed, killing thousands.

One of the Philippines’ leading architects and urban planners,
Felino A. Palafox Jr. of Palafox Associates (www.palafoxassociates.com), is passionate about re-making the slums in his country’s capital, Manila. The city is prone to devastating and sometimes deadly flooding. Palafox believes the vulnerability of slum dwellings and poor urban planning are placing lives at risk.

“We can’t wait for another tragedy,” Palafox told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2010. “We have seen how an unprecedented volume of rainfall like what (storm) Ondoy had brought could prove too much for Metro Manila’s river and drainage system. We have also seen what a massive earthquake could do to an unprepared city like Haiti.

“While there is nothing that we could do to control the destructive power of these natural phenomena, there are steps that we could take to limit the amount of damage.”

If the rapid growth in urban populations is to be safe and sustainable, then new dwellings will need to be built that meet high standards of durability.

The UN Challenge of Slums report from 2003 (www.unhabitat.org/pmss/listItemDetails.aspx?publicationID=1156) broke with past orthodoxy that slums must be cleared, arguing that slums should be seen as positive economic forces, incubators for budding entrepreneurs that offer a gateway to better things for new migrants.

Muhammad Khadim of UN-Habitat summed up the new thinking:

“Ten years ago, we used to dream that cities would become slum-free,” he said. But “the approach has changed. People see the positives. The approach now is not to clear them but to improve them gradually (and) regularise land tenure.”

The arguments behind embracing slums come from the economic changes across developing countries since the 1970s. Growing informal economies combined with fewer social provisions and the shift to urban from rural communities have all contributed to the explosion in slums and informal housing.

Manila is a city of stark and startling contrasts: there are glitzy shopping malls and high-rise office buildings, but also large slums and hungry people begging and selling trinkets on the city’s roads.

It’s a place where the slum clearance-vs-renovation debate is hot and current. The Philippines is currently in the midst of a campaign to clear slums in Manila and move people back to the countryside.

“Many of our people are no longer interested in agriculture, so we need to give them incentives to go back,” Cecilia Alba, head of the national Housing and Urban Development Co-ordinating Council, told the New Statesman magazine. “If we had to rehouse the slum-dwellers inside Manila in medium-rise housing, it would cost a third of the national budget.”

Palafox has a different vision – rebuilding a slum community from top to bottom.

An architect, environmental planner, urban planner and development consultant, Palafox runs one of the top architecture firms in the Philippines, employing more than 100 staff and consultants.

Usually occupied with office buildings in the go-go new business centres of the Middle East and Asia, Palafox has turned his attention to Estero de San Miguel, a Manila slum that is home to some 1,200 families, or 6,000 people.

Families are packed into tiny rooms in a labyrinthine slum complex beside a canal. The rooms are made of wood and floored with linoleum and have to be accessed through a narrow tunnel and tight connecting corridors.

Palafox’s plan is to work with the residents and rebuild it in its current location. In place of makeshift shacks will come modular homes, 10 square metres in size with space for shops and bicycle parking.

The design has the homes extend above a walkway, imitating the way the original slum structures were built.

Palafox is applying innovative thinking to the problem: taking his design direction from the dwellings slum residents build:  “The slum-dwellers,” he explained to the New Statesman, “are experts at live-work space design. They spontaneously do mixed-use! We just have to learn from them.”

Re-housing the residents on site means they can continue to play their role in the city’s economy, and do not have to make a long commute to jobs and opportunities.

Palafox also rebuts complaints about the cost of his plan, arguing the scale of corruption in the Philippines costs just as much.

“OK, the total cost of rehousing slum-dwellers in situ is 30 per cent of GDP (but) I calculate we lose about 30 per cent of the country’s wealth through corruption. If we didn’t have corruption, we wouldn’t need to tolerate slums.”

Another passionate advocate of working with slum dwellers is Father Norberto Carcellar from the Homeless People’s Federation (http://sdinet.org/countries/philippines.htm).

“We have to recognize the value of slum-dwellers to the city,” he said. “These are the ones who drive your car, clean your house and run your store. If these people were cleared from the city, the city would die. Slum-dwellers add social, political and economic value to the city.”

Even in its current form, Estero de San Miguel is a vibrant place, with an Internet café and a volunteer police force.

A BBC report found it lively and economically viable because it has educational and communication technologies that improve living conditions. The residents make their living working as cheap labour for the city.

Oliver Baldera, a carpenter, lives with his wife and four children:

“We’ve been here more than 10 years,” he told the New Statesman. “There’s no choice.

“It’s easier to get a job here and I can earn 400 pesos a day. I can send the kids to school and they eat three times a day – but it’s not enough. I need more space.”

Resources

1) More Urban, Less Poor: The first textbook to explore urban development and management and challenge the notion unplanned shanty towns without basic services are the inevitable consequence of urbanization. Website: http://www.earthscan.co.uk/?tabid=649
2) Slum Populations in the Developing World: See a breakdown of the urban/slum population in developing nations. Website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5078654.stm
3) Architecture for Humanity: An NGO to promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises. Website: http://architectureforhumanity.org/
5) Building and Social Housing Foundation: The Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) is an independent research organisation that promotes sustainable development and innovation in housing through collaborative research and knowledge transfer. Website: http://www.bshf.org
6) NGO called Map Kibera began work on an ambitious project to digitally map Africa’s largest slum, Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. Website: http://www.mapkibera.org
7) ArrivalCity: The Final Migration and Our Next World by Doug Saunders. Website: http://www.arrivalcity.net
8) Slum TV: Based deep inside Nairobi’s largest slum, Mathare, they have been seeking out the stories of hope where international media only see violence and gloom. Website: http://www.slum-tv.org
9) A Kenyan eco-village is helping slum dwellers to start new lives and increase their wealth. The community, Kaputei, is being built by former slum residents – some of whom used to beg to survive – and is providing new homes with electricity, running water and services like schools and parks. By building their own homes, with the help of affordable mortgage loans, the residents are able to make a big upgrade to their quality of life while acquiring real wealth. Website: http://www.jamiibora.org
8) Cities for All shows how the world’s poor are building ties across the global South. Website: http://globalurbanist.com/2010/08/24/cities-for-all-shows-how-the-worlds-poor-are-building-ties-across-the-global-south.aspx

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