While living in Metro Manila offers economic opportunities, its districts, where people live in close proximity, have particularly enabled the fast spread of disease.
Correct urban planning may help ‘cure’ Metro Manila’s vulnerability.
Urban planning and design experts have long said that Metro Manila was an “incubus of viral plague.” It was a brutally honest assessment which, through the years, fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. Year in and year out, with new leaders coming in and faded ones booted out, Metro Manila’s decay and degradation continued, with its population density rising to the roof.
Manila Bulletin Lifestyle asks Nathaniel von Einsiedel, a fellow at the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners (PIEP) and the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP), and principal urban planner of CONCEP Inc., where Metro Manila went “wrong” and why it is more vulnerable to Covid-19 and other disease outbreaks.
“Metro Manila has long been a magnet for people seeking economic opportunities and a better quality of life,” says Einsiedel.
“While living in the metropolis offers prospects for better economic opportunities and infrastructure, including healthcare facilities, the way it grows and expands plays a huge role in the spread of infectious diseases. Its districts, where people live in close proximity, have particularly enabled the fast spread of disease.”
Although Metro Manila residents generally have better health than rural populations, Einsiedel notes that the risks are distributed unequally, “with most of the burden falling on vulnerable segments of the population, such as those living in slums and areas with poor public health conditions.”
“The skew on account of socioeconomic disparities and governance puts parts of the metropolitan population at higher risks, especially those lacking access to proper housing, healthcare, and basic utilities such as water and sanitation,” he explains.
Numerous studies have all revealed that the urban environment was “linked to a large number of non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and pulmonary diseases, as well as communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, and water-borne and vector-borne diseases, such as dengue.”
Einsiedel, who has more than four decades of experience in urban planning, has said in the past that Metro Manila’s problems will eventually “catch up”—and it will take a problem such as a health pandemic to expose its points of risks.
“Metro Manila has more points of risk because of its weak hygiene practices, exposure to waste and wastewater, overcrowding, inadequate housing, and exposure to flooding, changing weather conditions, and other risks,” he says
Einsiedel added that the Covid-19 pandemic just exposed the metro’s multiple inequalities caused by “decades of neglect and underinvestment in urban planning and management, basic services, and health facilities.”
He has a dire warning to all – Covid-19 is not the last pandemic we will experience.
“The proliferation of drug-resistant infections and the myriad methods of transmission in urban areas can overwhelm even the cleanest and wealthiest of cities, like what happened in Singapore,” he warns.
There is hope
At this point, not everything is about doom and gloom. Even with all the horrible mistakes done to Metro Manila’s “dignity,” there is hope. There are, in fact, a lot of proposals on the table. Architects and urban planners are stepping up to present recommendations to stop, if not totally reverse, Metro Manila’s decline.
“Metro Manila should be able to leverage technology to strengthen monitoring of cases and populations at risk, and create strong communication channels for building awareness and avoiding panic among residents,” says Einsiedel.
He calls on authorities to develop solutions, in addition to strong disease detection and response systems to quickly control emerging infections.
“Authorities must focus on prevention and the emergency response to outbreaks, particularly in informal settlements, slums, and crowded marketplaces,” he says. “They should also look ahead at recovery and developing durable solutions for long-term impact at the metropolitan, city, and neighborhood levels. Neighborhoods need good design and infrastructure.”
He challenges young and emerging urban planners to look into building “20-minute neighborhoods” within the cities. An example is Melbourne, which is already testing such neighborhoods where most daily needs are within a 20-minute walk, bike ride, or public transport commute. Paris is similarly promoting the “15-minute city” to reduce pollution and improve the quality of life. Many other cities have initiated similar strategies.
“High-density areas create greater social cohesion and bring more economic and environmental benefits. What stops such areas from becoming overcrowded environments – where disease transmission can be high – is the availability of good quality public spaces and physical infrastructure, with planning standards that promote healthy environments for all,” Einsiedel says.
“Our urban institutions should function such that the economic benefits of Metro Manila, and the value created, are more equitably shared.”