November 8

On November 8, coinciding with World Town Planning day, & World Urbanism day; is the first environmental planning day in the Philippines. At the core of celebrating this day are Environmental Planners, numbering at least 6,000 registered professionals all over the archipelago, and in overseas chapters. We hopefully all share a common mission to ensure resilient and sustainable communities that are in harmony and designed with nature. Many do not know we exist, nor think our jobs matter. Some know us by what we do as urban planners, town master planners, transportation planners, or urban designers. There are as many sub-specializations in the profession as there are styles of Pancit in the Philippines.

I prefer Environmental Planner. An environmental planner for me is a facilitator of change, for the planner considers the limitations of nature with the needs of developing the built environment while providing information to make empowered decisions by the community. Also, the planner is a scientist, artist, and activist that mixes technical knowledge of planning methodologies, with the art of negotiation, and with a passionate advocacy for change. There is no other job that I know of that has the opportunity to affect so many lives, except maybe for the Office of the President. Yet, it is a frustrating, albeit fulfilling job. It is frustrating as it involves balancing and striking down the conflicting agendas of different social, economic, and ideological agendas of individuals, corporations, civil society, and trapos. But it has its moments as a force for good, especially when the planner does the work right by influencing decisions to a well informed outcome that benefits the many, while respecting ]nature’s elements. Maybe next time we should elect an Environmental Planner as Mayor or President of the Republic. The planner as president would be technically proficient, academically qualified, morally just, an experienced facilitator, well traveled, and a down to earth leader who knows what it takes to work in the field. You only need to look up to American President Thomas Kirkman for reference.

I consider myself a neophyte walking down this path. I remember my uncle this All Soul’s Day when he asked when I was starting back in 2013 if I was certain that this is the way that I should be in my career. And that I should be sure, for it will be a difficult one. He was right. It still is a hard road ahead. As the Mandalorian said, “This is the way”.

I have dreamy idealism for the profession that is past its middle age. For 50 years, since 1969; the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners (PIEP) has been home to veteran planners, and a nurturing space for newbies. Instead of adding words to my thesis, here I am contemplating the past 6 years as a professional member of the PIEP while safely entombed in a home office besieged by the noise of downtown life, and the bellowing of hungry cats. While looking back at the promises of master plans, all I see were that, promises unfulfilled by the most brilliant, and creative minds by our planning pioneers. Many have died not seeing the execution of these plans into completion. The reasons are many as to why we have not seen the best cities and towns we deserve. Exceptions to these are isolated greenfield or brownfield planned unit developments (PUDs) the likes of which were textbook private sector mixed-use projects such as the Makati Central Business District, Ortigas Center in Pasig, and Taguig’s Bonifacio Global City. But these are merely oases of moneyed locals, and expats. They are but the golden goose of local executives for their political ambition. And the land of plenty for the struggling working class. The planner as activist must continue to insist that it is our right to live in dignified spaces humanely built for our needs. Not just for those who insist they pay more taxes, but for all citizens born and about to be born in this country. Nobody should be left behind in our mission because the next 3 decades will be critical. The UN Habitat projects that more than sixty percent of humanity will continue to migrate, live, and work in cities by 2050. Therefore, the plans we make today should account for the stress to our finite space, and resources. Adding complexity to the scenario is adapting to climate change.

Hence, the present dysfunction of our cities are the accumulation of failures by leadership that did not value the human scale of tomorrow. We envy the efficiency of Singapore’s public transport, we dream of the Netherlands’s bike network, we aspire for Thailand’s tourism success, we admire the purity of New Zealand’s natural wonders, we long for Germany’s renewable energy grid, and we hope for Vietnam’s courage against the odds. And when it comes to protecting the environment, there is much to do in our patrimony. More so when political fanaticism becomes dangerous to our habitat by cognitive dissonance of a few which clouds common sense and decency over artificial sandy beaches. Are we humble enough to admit our collective failures? Are we capable of making the hard choices in prioritizing the environment and the people over profit? Are we ready to work for a just, and equitable society? If all the answers to the above is yes, there is still hope for us yet.

According to the IUCN World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA), there are 516 protected areas in varying levels of legal protection status in the Philippines. 15% of the Philippines total land area are terrestrial protected areas, while only 1% covers marine protected areas. Meanwhile, old-growth forest cover has gone down to less than 25% of the total forest land area from 70% when it was officially documented in the early 1900s. Even with the passing of the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas Act that increased the number of National Parks in the country to more than 90, the resources required for its effective management is found competing against rising budgets for other critical departments in the bureaucracy, especially when facing a pandemic, and the seasonal threat of destructive typhoons. This is evident wherein only 17 protected areas have undergone management effectiveness evaluations since the IUCN began cataloging the WDPA. We cannot manage what we cannot measure, and we cannot measure what we don’t know, and we cannot know, if we do not have the means to monitor and evaluate programs. We need to do more than to be complacent with conserving statistics on what is merely scraps for our biodiversity. Mere compliance to law is negligence when society deserves environmental justice.

Articles have been written about the correlation between emerging zoonotic viruses, and biodiversity loss. The continued destruction of the environment for agriculture, sprawling subdivisions, and industry exposes us for future pandemics, and natural hazards. How many more people have to die, and how many more would have to live with the long term effects of Sars-Cov-2 before we collectively admit that the way things are, is an act of slow on-set suicide for the next generation. The pandemic and the effects of climate change all go back to how we have mistreated our planet, and each other.

Recently, Metro Manila was spared by Typhoon Rolly’s destructive path. It was recorded as the strongest typhoon for 2020 that made landfall. Some observers have compared its aftermath to Yolanda’s wake on Tacloban. Other provinces were not so lucky, especially towns in Catanduanes, Quezon, Albay, and many more. As of this writing, we are slowly getting information on the ground about the number of casualties and the amount of damages to livelihood and property in these areas. The effects of extreme weather events diminishes the capacity of our cities to respond from these disasters while currently wrestling control of the spread of Sars-Cov-2. Resources are exhausted to the last manpower, and Peso.

The livability of cities in the future would depend on our policies, and decisions today. The means to develop resilient and sustainable communities that are in harmony and designed with nature is not rocket science. We have the tools, the knowledge, and the people dedicated to working for this future. What we need is a clear vision, and the relentless pursuit to see through its end.

So why are we again celebrating a non-holiday event this Sunday on November 8? I don’t know, it’s always somebody’s birthday on a Sunday. I think birthdays are a ritual of renewal. I hope this rebirth will begin a new phase in my life as a planner. Happy First Environmental Planning Day I suppose. Cheers!

Published by Francis Josef "The Lost Cartographer" Gasgonia

I dabble in environmental planning, cartography, archaeology, and conservation.

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