Planning for the new City of Tacloban

Many climate change and disaster preparedness experts say that rebuilding the 78-square-mile town of 220,000, where thousands were killed by the storm, is a grave mistake.

Rebuilding “needs to be done urgently and differently for the Philippines,” Vinod Thomas, director general for independent evaluation at the Asian Development Bank, told Quartz. “There is clearly a big lesson to be learned in not relocating in a highly vulnerable area,” he said. “Tacloban is like a poster child. You can’t imagine a more vulnerable area than Tacloban.”

After the storm hit, the devastation on the peninsula of Tacloban was almost complete. Areas in deep red are “totally damaged:”

via Quartz

World Wildlife Fund officials happened to be studying the city to suggest preparations for a “worst-case” scenario storm in the weeks before Haiyan hit. Now, after the storm, the group has concluded that “it is more logical to relocate” rather than rebuild, WWF project manager Moncini Hinay told Quartz. “If the city and its citizens do want to rebuild, there are two options,” he said. “Rebuild but elevate, or move to a safer place, away from the sea, move the city center, move the airport and relocate the schools.

– Heather Timmons, Quartz

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The new or different approach to reconstructing the City of Tacloban is actually not altogether new because the foundation is already laid out in the country’s National Urban Development and Housing Framework (NUDHF).  The formation and structure of the country’s urban areas is seen to follow a spontaneous pattern as opposed to formally planned, producing an irrational pattern.  I’ve been in the City several times before Haiyan (as it was my former employer’s HQ for the Visayas).  It’s a typical Philippine city.  Schools there, hospitals here, malls farther there, in other words, it’s like a curio shop and I understand that everybody loves curio shops because of the thrill from discovering rare objects among the disarray and at a bargain too.  However, when you apply the critical eye of the urban planner, there’s a lot to be said of the City then (that are not altogether so different as the other Cities’ in the country.).

Planning, per se, for the new Tacloban is, in my view, the easiest part.  Look at how the top builders in the country are able to transform vacant and/or degraded land into communities that can compete globally in standards.  Think Bonifacio Global City.  The difficult part, for me, is actually building in physical space a community that strikes a balance between competitiveness and resilience and social integration given that the intention is to recall or lure back Taclobanons who left the City.  And we know that many of them, as well as those who are left behind, belong to the poor.  Philippine Inquirer columnist, Jose Ma. Montelibano, captures the relationship succinctly:  “the story of Typhoon Yolanda at its core is the story of poverty”.  The poor, without subsidies of one form or the other and despite it, cannot pay, even if he goes without food for days, say, a standard-priced one bedroom condominium unit, because, the painful truth is, climate and disaster resilient structures cost an arm and a leg.  And so, if the new Tacloban is designed with only those who can pay in mind, most likely, the poor will again build their own makeshift houses.  Or, probably, they would never leave their bunkhouses (that in the near future will most likely become the sore eye structures next to luxurious gated communities or towering buildings, and there you again with problems of urban squalor).

What does an equitable City look like?  (This is also an issue for other Philippine Cities and urbanizing areas.) How do you achieve that in physical space?  It is therefore important that the individual who will spearhead or lead this task, an expert in the work, an urban planner, who belongs to the more progressive group of urban planners (this is because the traditional planning model is increasingly losing relevance in today’s context), should be someone who believes that cities of today (in the face of a changing climate) should be designed for mixed use or walkability or proximity (as opposed to sectoral usage of land), higher compactness, more public space, and social integration, as the head of UN Habitat enumerates in the video below.  There are brilliant urban planners in the country who government can tap for the work.

I/NGOs are now planning for the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase in their respective programme areas and government (via this expert-led planning team) should take the lead in consolidating all of these single-agency initiatives in the affected localities into a coherent urban plan.

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