A critique of the pending National Land Use Act (Senate Bill 3091)

Source:  Yuta:  Limitadong Kabtangan (Land:  A Limited Resource).  CLUP NOW!
Source: Yuta: Limitadong Kabtangan (Land: A Limited Resource). CLUP NOW!

Zoning reform in the Philippines begins, strategically, with reform in land use planning. My assessment of Senate Bill 3091 is that it is merely legalizing the past in current time. And current time has drastically changed in form since then.

Therefore, NEDA, as the country’s premier socio-economic planning agency, should improve the currently-proposed Land Use Act by injecting into the legislation critical lessons in rural and town planning. The more important of these lessons are:

1. Development paradigms have fundamentally changed.

At the time when Euclidian or conventional zoning was introduced, it was thought that segregation of uses will protect the health of the community as when polluting activities are kept or zoned out from settlement areas. In this regard, Euclidean zoning serves its purpose. On the whole, however, the outcome is comparable to segregating each bodily function from the rest of the physical being – it simply cannot be done. At least that’s the lesson, after years of trying to force-segregate land uses – that despite the effort (and legal battles), community residents or broadly human beings naturally gravitate toward mixing land uses. Community residents don’t want to travel 10 kilometers to get their food supply (because walking 10 kilometers is so ice age!). They prefer to have good jobs nearby. And with adults working within the neighborhood, enrolling their young children to a nearby school becomes a necessity. Etcetera. So the situation is there’s a policy calling for mono use of land on one hand and a natural (and economically-driven) practice of mixed use on the other. In other words, traditional or conventional planning is “not able to ensure that desirable developments actually take place where and when they are needed.”

conventional vs smart growth planning

Traveling by automobile or public transport 10 kilometers to buy just a kilo of fish and some vegetables is, in the name of sustainable development, wasteful use of fuel or energy. Of course, one individual wasting fuel is insignificant but multiply the wastage with the millions of adults doing the same thing – it significantly releases carbon into the atmosphere; multiply this release by the years stuck in the separation of land uses – it significantly alters climate. Hence the promotion of compact use of land. And you can’t make land compact by separating its uses. Take Baguio City as an example. I think that planning here should be premised on making a city in the forest instead of the current paradigm of fitting the forest in the city.

For some time now, our case is one of a split personality: we talk of and legislate for sustainable development and triple-bottomline development yet fail to recognize that the way we shape development in our planning policies has constricted us from making desired progress on the ground. With a policy that runs counter to today’s development challenges, we’ve set ourselves up to multi-million (that could be used in socialized housing) battles over discretionary zoning. We need to bridge these gaps in the new Bill.

2. Past and current land use-focused regulation does not provide a holistic definition of space and place.

Traditional land use planning does not address the totality of space because it views space in terms of just its physical and functional dimensions. This is the limitation of land use-focused planning. Spatial planning on the other hand looks at space in three dimensions – the physical, function, and process. Space as process is “about people using space and their specific needs and wants.” This reiterates the actual spatial distribution of uses mentioned in #1 above – the natural inclination of human beings to mix land uses.

Spatial planning, according to the UK Government, “goes beyond traditional land use planning in that it brings together and integrates policies for the development and use of land with other policies and programmes that influences developments and communities and how they function.” In other words, land use is subsumed under spatial planning because in order to design alternative futures in space one need not only look at the physical space but rather this space in relation to other factors (not the current view of land as a static resource in a vacuum).

Environment cannot be addressed as a stand-alone and land use-only issue. We cannot address environmental degradation without also addressing the needs of communities who rely primarily on, say, natural resources for livelihood, otherwise it would be “the tyranny of the majority”. Inclusive growth is inclusion of these communities’ needs in the policy.

In So Near, Yet So Far, Mr. Cielito Habito says that the proposed Bill paves the way for the National Physical Framework Plan which “shall provide broad spatial directions and policy guidelines on the four broad uses of land, namely: protection land use, production land use, settlements development and infrastructure development.”

I’ve been turning this over in my head for quite some time, even before Mr. Habito’s article, and I’ve come to the conclusion that a physical framework plan cannot by its focus provide “broad spatial directions and policy guidelines”; rather, a national spatial strategy will provide the physical framework, among others.

Going further, my view is that with a national spatial strategy in place we can do without the national physical framework plan; planning would then be streamlined to just the regional development plan and then the local plans (i.e. town or city plans, neighborhood plans, etc.). Sector planning for example transportation by the DOTC should plan according to directions set in the national spatial strategy.

Naturally, a land use-focused legislation does not capture these spatial concerns, as history tells us. History also tells us that the simpler the process the easier it becomes for implementers on the ground. People don’t need redundant layers of management and too many plans (which only become food for cockroaches or the resting ground of dust).

3. Planning has not been consistent with the intents of decentralization and citizen participation.

I’d rather that the proposed oversight agency NLUC be instead the National Spatial Planning Commission or some other name to that effect (as I said earlier spatial planning includes land use). The Commission’s primary role is policy making, direction setting, monitoring and evaluation. NEDA is a member of the Commission and will provide technical expertise support. Promulgation of local land use plans and other spatial plans is the responsibility of LGUs. Citizen participation should move beyond mere information and consultation toward inclusion in the planning process (e.g. starting the neighborhood planning with a visioning exercise among neighborhood residents; entrust the process at the hands of locals). “Only through a…collaborative process, where everyone is at the table, can standards change.”

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