In the recent Asia CEO Forum, Architect Felino Palafox, Jr. asserts that long-term planning in infrastructure and urban renewal will ensure that the country’s economic growth remains unimpeded

A healthy, robust economy seems to be the new normal for the Philippines, which recently received its third investment grade credit rating from the Japan Credit Rating Agency Ltd. (JCRA), following the first two dished out by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor. With glowing statements like “Asia’s rising star” and “one of the world’s fastest growing economies” now being associated with the country, an atmosphere of positivity and optimism pervades both the public and private sector.

In his presentation at the latest Asia CEO Forum, however, Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox, Jr. cautions the crowd of local and foreign businessmen in attendance to “still be vigilant.”

“We were like this in 1976 and 1996,” relates the founder and managing partner of Palafox Associates, ranked among the world’s Top 100 Architectural Firms by “World Architecture Magazine”. “There was great optimism and we had many investors—but the euphoria of the EDSA revolution in 1986 eventually faded and we’ve had coup d’état attempts in 1999. So let’s still be vigilant,” he says.

According to Palafox, the country’s existing and planned infrastructure will simply not support the current rates of growth in population and the economy. Cities play a crucial role in national development, and piecemeal “solutions” proposed by both public and private sector groups will only serve to further fragment the city and obstruct movement.

“In the Makati central business district (CBD), the daytime population is 11 times the night time population, so you have that problem of bringing in that amount of people in the morning and bringing them out at night. It’s the reason why we have a worsening traffic and pollution situation,” he points out, adding that without immediate and long-term planning in infrastructure and urban renewal, the country’s capital, key to the nation’s economic health, would be mired in congestion in a matter of time.

Shiela Lobien, director of global real estate consultant Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), underscores the need for heightened strategic planning, especially with the growth of residential, office and commercial property, as well as rising industries like logistics and manufacturing. “Almost all BPOs and call centers are planning to expand. In 2012, office takeup in Metro Manila was at a record-breaking 480,000 square meters, and that number is likely to increase in 2013,” Lobien shares.

Taking PH To The 21st Century

Population distribution, not population growth, is really the country’s biggest challenge. The development of strong urban growth centers outside of Metro Manila is one strategy to decongest the capital city and spread out economic opportunities throughout the country.

In his presentation at the forum titled “Philippines 2021: Philippines at 500,” Palafox presents his vision for the country’s urban development. He highlights the advantages of having high-rise, vertical developments versus the Los Angeles-inspired urban sprawl model Manila follows today. “Urban sprawl isn’t sustainable anymore,” he says, pointing out that the environmental disasters the country has faced in the last couple of years could’ve been minimized if we hadn’t “practically covered our cities with buildings and roads and infrastructure. We hardly have any open spaces. We really have to change our paradigm and go vertical,” he advises.

He also emphasizes the need to put in place road, rail, air and sea infrastructure if we want the country’s growth unimpeded. In  more progressive cities of the world, people only spend about 30 to 45 minutes in traffic. “Cities should not be designed for automobiles—they should be designed for the human being. Livable, walkable, with wide open spaces,” he states. He cites his masterplan for the city of San Juan, where he proposed to the local government to apply the best urban design and planning practices in the world. Geographically the strategic center of Metro Manila, the 594-hectare San Juan will have three main levels: “Street level, second level interconnected walkways, and third level elevated monorail. We’re proposing San Juan be a vertical city—no more building height restrictions provided you pay P2,000 per square meter as a development charge/impact fee,” he says.

Palafox also showed a series of architectural renderings—“Postcards from the future,” he calls them—of the urban renewal of the communities along the Pasig River and other esteros in Metro Manila.

Institutional Memory

As grand as Palafox’s visions may be for the Philippines of the future, expatriate businessman John Underwood is quick to ask: “Who is listening? If you were to pick three people who are influential to the country—so we don’t all leave here as cynics, feeling that was a good presentation but [asking ourselves] what does it really mean? Name three top individuals who could make a difference to this country.”

Palafox cites Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez and Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson as among the individuals he feels would listen. “Another thing missing in our country,” he adds, “is the presence of city architects and city planners per city. We don’t have that. So the ones deciding are politicians, contractors and engineers.”

Meralco executive Mon Segismundo also points out the issue of continuity: “How can we implement and execute a 10-year, 20-year development plan when the Presidential term is just six years, and the mayors have three years?” This, Palafox was spared from answering, as political economist Dr. Bernie Villegas voiced his opinion.

“The problem of changes of government every three years [requires that] at least three associations have the ‘institutional memory’ our politicians do not have,” Villegas says, citing three associations in particular: “First, the seven foreign chambers of commerce, who came out with Arangkada. They have the visual memory and can put in a lot of pressure in our leadership. Next is the Makati Business Club, who is constantly talking about public issues; and then there’s MAP (Management Association of the Philippines).”

Villegas then proposes quite the “provocative” suggestion to further address this particular issue. “Jun and I agreed to give a briefing to Mayor Erap Estrada of Manila. We will give him all these specific information [Jun has presented] and we will convince him to be there for the next nine years. He can be re-elected twice. It’s also very providential that he’s in the same party as the Vice President, who, with greatest probability may be the next President. Again, this is very provocative. And so we have, at least, certain possibilities that the ideas of Jun Palafox can be implemented,” he boldly says.

With the apparent approval of the crowd gathered in the forum—comprising mostly high-level executives from the local and expatriate business community—Palafox’s grand vision for the Philippines in 2021 may just be realized yet. “If we revisit the location of the Philippines to the rest of the world, we’re actually in the strategic center. Many centuries ago, the center of trade and commerce was the Mediterranean; [in] the past century, it was the Atlantic; now it’s Asia Pacific, and we’re right in the center. But we’re still using obsolete ideas, laws, codes and so on. Let’s not get stuck with 20th century solutions and bring the Philippines to the 21st century,” he says.