Urban form as a reflection of local values Part 2

It’s not that I condone lice picking on city streets or the conduct of sand and gravel business on the sidewalk of a primary suburban street, rather I’m trying to understand why despite controls Filipinos continue to infringe on streets (and because the practice is viral, that is, unresponsive to public laws and policies, exasperated public authorities have long given up on preventing or controlling the spread and have left it be which of course doesn’t resolve the “problem”).

A year or so ago, I heard a senior executive talk about the Blue Ocean Strategy. I thought, wow, genius in its simplicity and obvious too (although it’s the obvious that are oftentimes overlooked): Leave behind the red ocean of competition and find an entirely new product or service which calls for an entirely new client base (example given was Cirque de Soleil).

The red ocean or the usual way of looking at the disorder of the urban form in Filipino communities is that the problem is the disorganized and disorderly Filipino hence the target of the solution. As mentioned in Part 1, usage of the street by Filipinos for private business and activity continues despite pressuring him or her to conform with legal provisions and standards (e.g. prescribed allowance between the street and buildings, zoning) and policies (e.g. urban growth strategies).

But what if, following the Blue Ocean Strategy, the problem is not the Filipino? What if it’s the planning paradigm applied?

Reading on countries’ experiences and evaluations of spatial patterns, I came across a journal article Urban Spatial Patterns and Local Identity: Evaluation in a Cypriot Town by Dekra Oktay. It focuses on the concept of ‘extension of life into the street’ which is also previously studied by Girne in Limanarkasi. The author says that in North Cyprus the street was the most primary element in traditional urban pattern in that formed an intersection between the public and private domains. The street, Oktay observed, was an extension of the home where a multitude of group activities was accommodated within the limits of privacy.

Similarly, Deden Rukmana, an Indonesian who is assistant professor for urban studies and planning at Savannah State University, and a blogger (Indonesia’s Urban Studies), argues in his blog that the dominance of the Chicago and Los Angeles Schools in the practice of urban planning in Indonesia has contributed to the lack of spaces for the informal sectors in urban areas, in effect marginalizing the sector. He refers to the informal sector as a unique urban phenomenon in developing countries not commonly found in developed countries (where urban planning schools of thought originated).

In Part 1, we see that as with the case of North Cyprus and urban Indonesia the street for the Filipino serves a similar purpose. Oktay and Rukmana attribute this to traditional local culture such that the traditionally oriented person will regard the street as expansion of his or her home regardless of where, urban or rural, he or she is. In this regard, therefore, it makes sense for the Filipino proprietor of the gravel and sand business with the suburban sidewalk as its business address to not have qualms about conducting his or her business there.

But – and this is when the conflict starts – traditional planning principles would balk at this and refer to the practice as unsound. On the same note, the provincial and traditionally-oriented Filipino describes their fellow Filipinos living in sanitized and uniformly-designed living spaces (think upper middle class developed estates in Metro Manila) as “westernized” which in this case has negative value in that “westernized” Filipinos are seen to have lost their orientation toward the street. To the extent that the street brings together everyone in the community regardless of status, “westernized” Filipinos are accused of keeping to themselves (not stepping out of their homes in order to interact on the street with the others).

Oktay (as well as Rukmana) critiques the new urban developments as usually oriented toward creating a monotonous and standard image (one borrowed from uniformly designed and sanitized settlements in Northern countries) and buildings designed with little concern for their relationship to each other (again, based on the cultural orientation in Northern countries toward independence), orientations that in the study contradict local (Cypriot) culture. She therefore recommends that design should take the street as an integral part of the dwelling, considering its components as in an outdoor room and provide a direct relationship between the street and the house.

What about for the Philippines, is this the recommendation as well? Is the street-oriented tradition good or bad?

If you ask me, I’ve no definite answer which goes to say that the issue needs community discussion and resolution. I’m conflicted between the recognition of the benefits of the planning paradigm (one that values order, uniformity, community sanitation, and the like, which I personally prefer actually because of my personal orientation but then I’m not the only Filipino in the world so) espoused by Northern countries and the preservation of local identity and culture. Following the Blue Ocean Strategy, the call is for a planning paradigm and tools that can make diversity (global yet local) in space work. Meanwhile, the crux of the matter I think is not whether one orientation is superior over the other (because each has its benefits) rather it is to what extent will, as Rukmana suggests, urban planning practice be modified in order to in this case preserve the distinction of place. Can the street accommodate private activities (well, of course we have to draw the line on lice picking on city street and gravel and sand business on suburban road) and actually work? To what extent will it work? This implies research on the subject (and many more) relative to urban planning (and growth strategy making in rural areas), a culture that LGUs should build up within their systems.

Another dimension to this is that, based on my observation, those who are now conducting their private activities and encroaching on the streets are traditionally oriented (despite a college education) for various reasons (perhaps from having had little or no exposure to the rest of the world which of course is not their fault). And it would take perhaps three to five generations more before adult Filipinos, through community education and exposure, are globalized in their mind-sets and practices (again, is this good or bad?). Until then, we are still going to see on the streets extension of private activities and encroachment.

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