What if Philippine cities magically had decent housing, reliable public transport, and participatory local governments? What would this future look like?
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) presents “Ang Bata at ang Butete Sa Bayan Ng Hiling (The Girl and the Magic Blowfish in the City of Wishes),” a short animated film produced by UrbanisMO.ph and Young Public Servants, with support from the Chevening Alumni Fund and the National Democratic Institute. Set in a highly urbanized city by the sea, the film offers a thought experiment: What if we were able to address the fundamental issues plaguing our cities?
Filipinos are quick to anger when visitors call our country “weird and ghastly” or “the gates of hell,” but have been unable to come together to correct the situation. So what if, with the help of a magical blowfish, we are finally able to change the course of Filipino urban life? What if Philippine cities magically had decent housing, reliable public transport, and participatory local governments?
The film follows a little Filipino girl over the course of a lifetime, beginning in 2021, when she frees a magic blowfish trapped in plastic by the shoreline. In exchange, the grateful blowfish grants the little girl a wish: the power to transform her community. Too good to be true? Perhaps. But fairy tales serve an important function, in the same way that imagination is a necessary aspect of reform: it helps us imagine what a kinder world can be.
1. Lessons from the pandemic: imagining the post-Covid city
The Covid-19 pandemic, which as of January 2021 passed 100 million cases and more than 2 million deaths worldwide, accelerated many existential threats and forced everyone to redefine what is necessary for personal and collective survival. A recent Oxfam briefing estimates that billions of the world’s poorest will take at least a decade to recover from the economic losses of the pandemic. In contrast, the worlds’ top 10 billionaires have seen their combined wealth increase by $540 billion –– far outstripping what even developed countries have been able to spend on coronavirus response. In the case of the Philippines, where most of the country’s 109-million population will only be vaccinated by 2023, vulnerable communities bear the brunt of its consequences. Survival entails reimagining the way we run our cities.
Metro Manila is home to almost 13 million residents and three of the densest local government units in the world. Manila, Pateros, and Mandaluyong have up to 46,000 people per square meter. Density is a gift and a curse. The city is a locus of jobs, essential services, and tertiary care hospitals, but it is also a disease hotspot, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown. Metro Manila generates 36% of the country’s gross domestic product; it remains the primary gateway to the country despite efforts to invest in hubs such as Metro Cebu and Metro Davao. The infamous “Balik Probinsya” program was driven by a narrative that Manila must be decongested, and so people should be incentivized to return to their home provinces. In reality, transport and business shutdowns created thousands of “locally stranded individuals” desperate to leave Manila after losing their daily-wage jobs and the capacity to pay rent, therefore becoming homeless for weeks, even months. People were forced to sleep in jeepneys and sidewalks. Some died on footbridges. When LSIs were finally allowed home, Covid-19 transmission went up in regional centers. This highlights the unequal distribution of opportunities and capacity to generate economic value between regions; however, the true impact is felt at the city, barangay, and neighborhood scale.
One of the urban issues magnified by Covid-19 is the lack of decent and affordable housing, let alone green and well-ventilated public spaces. The Philippines is facing a 6.5-million housing backlog, which does not include homes that have been damaged by natural and human-induced disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes, fires, and demolitions. Many of the issues related to pandemic-era survival such as keeping food prices low, supporting jobs, and delivering basic health services, including future vaccination distribution, are related to land and transport policy. With the suspension of public transport, only car owners –– comprising only 12% of households in Metro Manila –– were able to get to work, leaving commuters stranded and transport workers begging on the streets. All this is compounded by environmental risk, as shown by the eight different typhoons that hit the Philippines in the last quarter of 2020, depleting strained local disaster funds.
2. Reimagining urban governance through citizen action
While it is tempting to fall into cycles of sadness and rage with the challenges of the “new normal” — which is likely to shape the next two to three years of life — it is useful to take Arundhati Roy’s invitation to look at the pandemic as a “portal.” That is, a gateway between one world and the next, forcing us to break with the past and imagine our world anew.
Food security. Glimmers of a kinder Philippine city can be seen in the many citizen-led initiatives and mutual aid groups that have bloomed in the last harsh year — a glimpse of the creative energy that could be unleashed once Filipinos are freed from the neveracting cycle of reactive survival. Groups such as Lingap Maralita, the Save San Roque Alliance, the private-sector Bayanihan Musikahan initiative (where prominent musicians led by National Artist Ryan Cayabyab staged online fundraising concerts), and even K-Pop fandoms helped make sure that urban communities got fed while aiding rural farmers in selling produce that would have otherwise been spoiled due to travel restrictions When the jeepney drivers lost their income due to the stoppage of public transport and the shift to online classes, university students and officials banded together to raise funds and connect drivers to alternative livelihood opportunities. In Manila, the St. Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center sheltered more than 400 street dwellers and homeless families.
Inclusive mobility. The lockdown restrictions eased but public transport was slow to resume operations. Many frontliners were forced to walk, or went back to work on bicycles. Active transport advocates like Life Cycle PH supported this shift and donated thousands of bicycles to frontline workers, especially hospital staff. Bikers United Marshalls/Movement, a group of sustainable lifestyle advocates, provided road assistance and set up pop-up bike lanes for the protection of bike-commuters. In a November 2020 survey conducted by Social Weather Stations, 87% of Filipinos said that they want the government to prioritize public transportation, pedestrians, and non-motorized transport such as bicycles over private vehicles. The ecosystem of transport activists working throughout the pandemic reflects this call. MNL Moves and the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities launched a survey that became the basis for the proposed Metro Manila bike lanes network. #MoveAsOne, a broad civil society coalition of 140 organizations, lobbied for pandemic mobility response programs that the government has since promised to adopt. These include active transport policies and programs such as bike lanes in Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Davao City and the introduction of service contracting in public transport, which transitions public transport service to a performance-based model from the fare-based revenue model of jeepney and bus services. Altmobility PH, which has been campaigning for a Magna Carta for Commuters, helped Metro Cebu local governments and civil society groups develop their bike lane networks plan.
Open science and access to information. Efforts toward open-source science have flourished as a matter of necessity. Many academics and public health researchers (such as the UP Resilience Institute) have built Covid-19 dashboards, releasing weekly briefers and explainers to the public on social media. De La Salle University has been compiling local government best practices and other pandemic-focused research pieces on a dedicated portal. Citizens Budget Tracker and the Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy (iLEAD), a group of fiscal reform specialists, studied the national budget and the supplemental Bayanihan Fund, helping advocates, decision-makers and everyday citizens push for allocations for mobility, social services, and health. Mental health support groups also provide free counselling services to people suffering the silent consequences of deaths, isolation, and job losses.
As scientists worked around the clock to better understand Covid-19, the necessary health responses evolved too, creating the need for up-to-date information campaigns. In the face of mixed messaging and ongoing tensions around media freedom, citizens groups drafted basic FAQs with simple and actionable messages to help people behave responsibly and help keep themselves and their families safe. Notable efforts include the Healthcare Professionals Alliance against Covid-19 (HPAAC)’s APAT Dapat Campaign — enjoining citizens to improve (A) air circulation, observe (P)hysical Distancing, (A)lways Wear Mask and Face Shield properly; and limiting necessary interactions to (t)hirty minutes or less. These have been translated into vernacular languages by volunteers such as Language Warriors PH, led by academics from the UP Department of Linguistics. While much of this is on social media, offline mirrors are also crucial — a notable example being a recent partnership between Dinagat Islands and educational podcasts (PodKas, Usapang Econ, and PumaPodcast) for transmittal over provincial radio.
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3. Responsive urban governance as a matter of life and death
Global data show that governments that are more transparent and open to collaboration performed better in handling the pandemic. Thus, when a responsive mayor or barangay chairman can spell the difference between life and death, the role of functioning local governments and planning processes can no longer be ignored.
The local governments of Pasig, Valenzuela, and Antipolo have partnered to ensure that their contact tracing efforts are interoperable. Provincial governments such as Lanao del Sur and Basilan in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao have supported their farmers by purchasing local vegetables for relief food pack distribution, while setting up local rolling markets during the first phase of the lockdown when residents could not travel to the usual suppliers in Iligan City and Zamboanga. Businesses are attempting to adjust operating models by supporting sustainable and localized value chains in places where both their workers and consumers live in order to protect jobs. Despite these best practices, however, stand-alone efforts to drive consumption and recovery cannot match the resources of the national government, whether from local (P4.05 trillion in 2021) or foreign-funded financing (P652 billion as of December 2020).
Elsewhere, efforts to plan the post-pandemic city are well underway. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is pushing for the “ville du quart d’heure,” or the 15-minute city, which shares similar elements with plans for 20-minute neighborhoods in Portland and Melbourne. Much of this is not new: precursors include Barcelona’ superblocks, and nine-block car free zones, and Hamburg’s plan to go completely car-free, all of which reverts cities to before the car was made the center of all urban design. The U.S. fight for a “Green New Deal,” which aims to wean the American economy away from fossil fuels by 2030 by transforming basic infrastructure, jobs, education, manufacturing, transport, remains politically uncertain due to right-wing resistance. However, at a time where access to clean air, water, space and light, and reimagining safe jobs and education is more important than ever, elements of such “Green Deals” will inevitably form part of most developed countries’ post-Covid recovery plans, including that of the European Union. London Mayor Saadiq Khan compares the spending required for full Covid recovery with post-war reconstruction: a scale that can only be authorized at the national level. Thus, hyperlocalized and area-based responses for public health and livelihood can only reach the desired result when supported by an enabling national government that prioritizes community needs.
4. Cities beyond Covid?
Covid-19 is only the beginning. It was initially viewed as “just a health problem” and later, “just” an enforcement problem, but with climate change and other escalating risks, we are forced to acknowledge that collective survival requires interdisciplinary complexity — understanding that all issues are interconnected and defies silos — and having an expansive enough model of politics necessary to see it through.
The very purpose of planning and public policy in general is supposedly to correct market failures, while ensuring that who gets what, where, and how is guided by the community’s genuine needs and aspirations. But in a time of neverending disasters, urban policy is too important to leave to the so-called experts and politicians. Everyone who lives in the city has a right to shape the spaces he or she lives in regardless of income or tenurial status. Thus, the pandemic is an opportunity to redesign Philippine cities with people at the center. To survive this “gateway,” however, we must first accept that the old, fragmented, trickle-down, and cut-and-paste models of development planning cannot have a place in the post-Covid city.
At the start of the lockdowns in 2020, Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy shaved her head to protest calls for the “new normal,”decrying the conditions that allowed infectious disease to spread and people to suffer the social and economic consequences. “Fuck normal,” said Eltahawy. “There is no going back to ‘normal’ after a pandemic. We must see it for the abnormal it was.” In the absence of a magic blowfish, making space for people to come together may be the hardest wish yet.
“Ang Bata at ang Butete sa Bayan ng Hiling (The Girl and the Magic Blowfish in the City of Wishes)”
Writer: Mixkaela Villalon
Animation by: Janina Malinis
Produced by: Ica Fernandez
Voice Actors: Amihan Ruiz and Jayme Ancla, Jr
Sound design and scoring: Jayme Ancla, Jr
Presented by UrbanisMO.ph and Young Public Servants with support from the Chevening Alumni Fund, the National Democratic Institute, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism— PCIJ