Sustainability: Cities, Economies and Sensibilities

Warren Buffet once said, “Opportunities come infrequently. When it rains gold, put out the bucket, not the thimble.”

And that, my friends, is how we look at the global economy as it reels from Covid-19. We’ve been on edge the past year expecting the long overdue 10-year cycle in Philippine real estate to finally go bust and, at last, we exhale. Opportunity has arrived. It is golden, and we’ve got a bucket to fill!

While we may want to fill our bucket with all the gold, Buffet also said, “Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years.”

In the last 10-year cycle, urban planning, architectural design and engineering have made strides towards sustainable communities. With the earth spinning towards warmer temperatures, and the race to balance livable communities with conscious consumption of natural resources, the next cycle trains the eye on design and construction practices to create sustainable cities. Can the key cities of the Philippines keep up?

We reached out to experts in the fields of urban planning, architectural design, construction and market research with exposure in various markets to clue us in: Joey Bondoc, senior manager, Research, Colliers International; Stephen Chow, urban planner and architect; Joel Luna, principal, Joel Luna Planning and Design; and Leonard Ng, country director, Singapore Hub, Ramboll Group.

PROPERTY REPORT PH: We’ve noticed a visible movement towards sustainability in the Philippine real estate landscape. Is there a trend in the last 15 to 20 years that leans towards more sustainable development in townships, cities, regions?

The future Alibaba Jiangsu Headquarters in Nanjing, China as designed by the team at Benoy.

JOEY BONDOC: Based on the market scan of Colliers International, yes. Over the years, the government’s failure to adequately address issues plaguing Metro Manila such as worsening traffic, flooding, and poor mass transportation systems has compelled private firms to take the lead in developing sustainable master-planned communities that integrate the live-work-plan lifestyle. The expansion of economic activities in the country’s capital has also buoyed demand for integrated communities.

Colliers sees developers pursuing more integrated communities outside of Metro Manila such as Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan, Tarlac and Pampanga over the near- to medium-term as land values are unlocked by an aggressive expansion of road networks. In the Visayas and Mindanao regions, we see similar developments in Cebu, Bacolod, Iloilo, and Davao. We are confident that this will be sustained by the government’s push to generate economic opportunities in the countryside anchored on its commitment to usher in the “golden age of infrastructure.” Hence, we see this trend reshaping the property market even beyond the current administration’s term.

A sense of the outside in at Kampung Admiralty. Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl, as appointed landscape architecture and water sensitive urban design consultant, envisioned layers of blue and green infrastructures woven into the building such as an eco-pond, green roof and rain garden. From

In your experience, what are the best design and construction practices to create sustainable cities?

STEPHEN CHOW: To create sustainable cities, I believe it requires a thorough and detailed understanding in the context of the city, and it would involve a lot of other factors such as infrastructure, energy saving strategy and the pre-set land use zoning determined by the government. Whether it’s the preliminary design or the construction practices, all parties need to understand the strategies and its implications to the environment.

LEONARD NG: Make it a win-win situation by primarily understanding the underlying issues, taking a holistic and integrated approach to design, and a long-term view for solutions.

How about locally, what are the best design and construction practices to make Metro Manila sustainable and where are developers in the spectrum or adapting these principles?

JOEL LUNA: I think we will find a number of projects throughout the metropolis that have adopted green technologies or encourage more sustainable lifestyles. In the past, I have seen projects that have used biotic sewage treatment, double piping system for greywater re-use, insulated walls and windows, transit-oriented developments and more. But if we are to pinpoint a specific type of development where principles of sustainable development are adopted strictly: where scrap is reused, where consumption is tempered, where there is a mix of uses, where mobility is primarily on foot, where there is diversity and inclusivity, where there is local economy and where the environment is adaptive, no such purpose-built project exists. We will find more of these sustainable principles applied in informal communities. It will be good for developers and planners to learn and apply the principles of how these communities thrive.

Is retrofitting an urban masterplan development possible? If so, will these same principles apply?

CHOW: I think it doesn’t matter to what extent will be covered, it’s about the determination to contribute back to our environment. Though retrofitting approach has certain limitations with the current constraints, I still believe there are many ways to help raise social and environmental awareness.

We’re interested in live examples, Stephen, that you have worked on. As with you Leonard, on projects you or at Atelier Dreiseitl and Ramboll Group, have worked on. Particularly on both design and constructions practices.

CHOW: We have done some interesting projects with an aim to create smart a city: a mixed-use development with different uses coexisting in proximity to each other to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emission. Also, with the latest technology, we are exploring the integration with future public transport system for underground, water, land and air to ensure the reduction of private cars on the road, thereby creating a walkable green city within our environment. One of our recent projects is the Alibaba mixed-use development in Nanjing, China: a true futuristic project fully integrating both the future transport system and the latest technology relying on a robotic system to reduce commuting to different plots of land.

NG: Three of the projects I have worked on are Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, Jurong Lakeside Garden, and Kampung Admiralty.

(Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, one of the largest urban parks in central Singapore, best demonstrates multifunctional design between drainage and livability. It features an old concrete canal that has been de-concretized and naturalized into a three-kilometer meandering river with lush greenery. Jurong Lakeside Gardens, a 90-hectare garden in Singapore, features the use of biophilic design, a contemporary concept to a strategic approach in harnessing nature in the built environment, with zero energy buildings and water-sensitive urban designs.)

Where is the market in terms of embracing these concepts, and the price at which they may impact on the developer, and the general public?

CHOW: One of the biggest hurdles from clients is always the extra construction cost integrating with the network and system for sustainability. However, as a responsible professional, we should convince the clients that though the initial construction cost is normally higher, with a proper system in the long run the cost will be comparatively cut down substantially. More importantly, the impact to the environment is hugely beneficial from such strategies. This is the vision, and something we should do from the designer point of view.

LUNA: While people see the necessity of living and working in the city, we can also see the trade-off they make on a daily basis: traffic, congestion, stress, high cost of living, eroding quality of life. These are endured by citizens to attain a level of “prosperity.” The costs paid for prosperity do not seem to be sustainable. It is apparent that an alternative way of life is necessary. And this cannot be addressed by physical planning or architecture alone. But design is a starting point. A way to begin is to probably to stop looking at the city’s population as “market,” which implies that we need them to consume more and more of our products to fuel the economic treadmill of growth. Rather, we should view them for what they really are: citizens of the urban realm who are entitled to a better quality of life.

It would be interesting to know the level of acceptance by the local market in the Philippines based on indicators from the perspectives of LGU, developers, investors or citizens.

BONDOC: There has been a growing acceptance for integrated community development in and outside of the capital region. While stand-alone house and lot developments are still popular in the provinces, township projects are popular in Metro Manila as developers are able to maximize land use and yields through these projects. For instance, rising demand and land prices are enticing industrial property owners in strategic locations to liquidate land holdings in favor of mixed-use township developments. Examples of these are the projects along C-5 Road. The strategic location of these integrated communities unlock the potential of these former industrial properties for more profitable uses, compelling more firms to develop similar projects.

Developers must aggressively scout for idle private properties or government assets that they can acquire and redevelop into master-planned communities. This strategy is similar to Rockwell Land’s redevelopment of a mothballed power facility into a thriving Rockwell Center and Megaworld’s transformation of an idle textile mills into a fully developed Eastwood City.

We expect the government to be more active in putting land parcels out to tender to private developers as it intends to raise additional revenues for its massive infrastructure development program. Given the lack of developable land in Metro Manila, we think that some developers should revisit the option of buying back properties that were previously donated to government agencies.

There has also been a rising interest among local governments. National players have been active in scouting for developable land outside the capital. We have seen city and municipal governments partnering with national property firms to develop integrated estates. Due to the dearth of available land in major business districts such as Makati CBD, Fort Bonifacio, and Ortigas Center, developers have started to gravitate towards peripheral areas such as Makati fringe, Quezon City north, and Taguig. Some local governments in the provinces have also partnered with homegrown and national property firms in developing integrated communities which indicate urbanization and reshape the localities’ property landscape.

Particular to Metro Manila, are there any indications of increased interest for business investment if urban design is redeveloped, infrastructure improved, and access to information technology is at par with the rest of Asia?

BONDOC: Definitely. Greater infrastructure investment is particularly important. Major railway and expressway projects are being developed across Metro Manila and once completed they should contribute to higher property prices in Metro Manila. There is an increasing opportunity for transit-oriented-developments (TOD), for instance, given the railway projects under construction which extend all the way to urban areas such as Bulacan and Cavite.

Companies employing millennials also gravitate towards integrated developments. Even government agencies as well as traditional firms prefer offices within townships as these towers foster a live-work-play lifestyle. By 2030, millennials and the next generation will comprise about 70 percent of the country’s workforce based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). A 2015 Urban Land Institute (ULI) report noted that about 60 percent of millennials would like to live where they do not need a car often and that millennials will continue to be a strong driver of demand for compact and mixed-use communities.

What are the key considerations you would make on the short and long-term in retrofitting Metro Manila? These as possible solutions to the inherent problems of a design legacy from as far back as the Spanish to American colonization.

CHOW: It’s always difficult to strike a balance between retrofitting an existing one to something well representing the modernization, while yet to inherit and preserve the essential elements from the Spanish/American colonization. It should be a collective effort between urban planning, heritage specialists and designers from different disciplines. For myself, as an urban planner and architect, I believe there should be a detailed process of understanding the importance of the project and integrate certain measures/ design influences to revitalize the area while keeping the collective memories from the past.

NG: The first thing we would do is to understand the problems, prioritize them, and then, create a roadmap to address these systematically. But, primarily this should be the government’s role.

Joel, as a Filipino architect and design planner, if you could dream it, is there a way to retrofit MM? At what cost, and over what period?

LUNA: If we are to dream a better Metro Manila, then there are multiple ways to retrofit it, but some of the solutions may be painful and drastic if the intent is to reverse the current trajectory of its development. The starting point will have to be a clear, singular, long-term and meaningful vision for Metro Manila. I’m not sure if there is one. At least not one that goes beyond political slogans that we see in several cities. Ideally, the vision is driven by an urgency to solve the problems beyond looking for band-aid solutions. And it should reflect what its citizens value.

Any meaningful change will require a change in mindset and a shift in the paradigms that created the problems of the metropolis.

It may mean revamping dated land use, density and zoning patterns; discarding archaic transport modes; adopting more effective governance policies, reviewing the locations of public lands such as military camps, airports seaports. It may mean changing the way we privatize public land and changing the way we govern and influence private development to prioritize protecting more public open spaces, introducing new mobility networks, better utilization and enhancement of natural assets such as watersheds, trees, mountains, creeks and lakes and shorelines, building biomimetic structures. More fundamentally, it could mean a radical shift in our concept of growth and development that transcends GDP and economic terms towards loftier aspirations for livability, equity, and the development of human and natural capital.

These will obviously entail a lot of sacrifices and take a long time. But I think a way towards achieving this is by breaking it down into smaller components: can we retrofit neighborhoods to have better streets, parks, mobility and infrastructure systems? If we can localize the solutions and implement them even a street or a neighborhood at a time, then it is a step towards improving the urban environment.