In the third and final article of his series on Manila, the capital mega-city region of the Philippines, Australian urban planner Marcus Tudehope ventures to Navotas, one of the seventeen cities that make of the Metro Manila region.
The slums of Navotas are some of the worst in the country’s capital. This is where the “bat people” live, building their shanties under traffic bridges in the dark. For the lucky ones, close to the opening of the bridge, there are opportunities to bootleg electricity, or to see the light of day. For others they are stuck living in the dark, their derelict homes built atop “stagnant water choked with litter and refuse.” On the second floor of the home of a local community group president Tudehope hears the rumble of traffic overhead and realizes that the ceiling is in fact the underbelly of the overhead highway.
It gets worse. Or, at least, it does not get better. Navotas is also known for its “floating houses,” shacks built as house boats on the brackish water just offshore. A major source of income here is scavenging for scrap metal in the waters of Manila bay to be sold at junk shops around the city. Diving in these waters is a perilous trade and Tudehope recalls the story of “two men [who] died after they brought up an unexploded shell from the wreck of a Japanese WW2 battleship, which exploded when they took a hacksaw to it.”
The last slum Tudehope visited during his trip to Navotas is one located on the Navotas beach. A recent fire ravaged the area, leaving 500+ residents homeless and relegated to a local gymnasium, where families have carved out 2m sq. sections to sleep in, demarcated by piles of family belongings stacked on the floor. These people have been given an ultimatum: either go back to the rural areas they came from (no job) or accept a one-off payment of 1500 pesos (roughly 34 US dollars) to rent a house in the area. For most, neither are viable options, so they remain in the gymnasium, surviving hoping for something more.
Tudehope concludes this piece, and his series on Manila, wondering about the many contradictions at play in the seventeen cities of the Metro Manila region. He wonders about the job of urban planners in such a context, maneuvering between projects aimed at economic development and attracting investment and the dire need for housing and basic services for the growing numbers of urban poor:
“From any angle, the inescapable reality is that displacing or repressing people will not make them disappear. If they have no other options to secure a livelihood they will return, all the more desperate than they were before. If exclusion and repression are the cause of that desperation then meeting it with more of the same will only serve to perpetuate a conflict.
“Conscious, then, of the difficulties of both sides, could we perhaps work towards reconciling the ideal of the stable, investment-friendly city with the presence of the urban poor?…
“Could new partnerships between planners, advocates and the communities themselves yield innovative ways to create a safe, efficient cultural hub that preserves and utilises this kind of diversity as an asset, rather than seeks to eradicate it? There are clearly no simple answers or quick fixes to satisfy all parties. However the appalling sights and stories from inside Navotas, Payatas and San Roque make it abundantly clear that business as usual simply cannot be allowed to continue. Nothing less than a paradigm shift is needed for the sustainable development of Manila.”
Find the rest of Marcus Tudehope’s series here. And for more on Manila, check out the write-up of my time there working as a consultant for a World Bank.
– Ariana K. MacPherson