This Is How We Ride

  • Sep
  • 8
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What does an urban planner see in Metro Manila? Where many see an abject failure, Julia Nebrija sees potential. Setting off on a bicycle trip that took her throughout Metro Manila last February, here she shares her thoughts about her intentions for her urban expedition, and updates along the way.

Written by Julia Nebrija
Photography by Miguel Nacianceno

I’ve been studying Metro Manila since I first moved here in 2008. The more I learn, the more questions I seem to have.

In the absence of a plan, Metro Manila has evolved on its own, with problematic results. There are 1,706 barangays across 16 cities and one municipality designing themselves within the context of whatever exists. On the surface, this is chaotic. If you overlay all the Comprehensive Land Use Plans in Metro Manila, for instance, functions overlap and there is no coherent vision. To many, Metro Manila is a failed city.

But when I bike through Manila, I see more potential than failure. People are addressing their own needs in their own ways and the manifestation of this response contributes to our urban identity: The banderitas, basketball courts, fighting roosters tied to trees, altars tucked into street corners, barangay halls, sari-sari stores, pedicabs, river boats, markets, gates, gardens—these are all textures of the street where the negotiation between public and private is most pronounced. Here we get a glimpse of how people make the city.

I keep a map of Metro Manila taped to my wall. I look at it and wonder what kind of city it will be in five years, ten years, or maybe even twenty years.

From a bird’s eye view, a clear framework emerges—major thoroughfares like EDSA, central business districts, and distinguishing landscapes like the Pasig River. On a map, we see the administrative boundaries of each city, each barangay. When we conceptualize developments, we tend to plan based on these recognized elements.

But what about the rest of the city? If we invert this map of current knowledge, what exists in its remaining streets? What’s happening on the street level in those 1,706 barangays?

Biking has been my medium of discovery in Metro Manila. When I bike, I try to take different routes between points A and B. Last week on such a challenge, I turned a corner to find a huge stone house covered in banyan tree roots. Another trip I stumbled upon my new favorite carinderia and found the perfect perch along the Pasig River. By bike, I am immersed in the narrative that exists beyond a map.

Notes from the road…
PROJECT MNL: Day 1
(Caloocan South, Navotas, Malabon)

Other observations… we need more shade! We’ve completely forgotten shade when it comes to street and infrastructure design. We know we have strong sun yet we don’t plan for it and instead, people tie tarps or other erect makeshift extenders. Of all the things I packed, I forgot sunblock. I now have a sweet t-shirt tan. We have to design shade into street plans to encourage more walking and biking.

No surprise really but we know every neighborhood has a wet market and each district has a large wet market. The waste management and public services in these markets are lacking. The market should be THE most beautiful public area in every neighborhood. It’s the easiest way to make everyone’s life better—majority of people shop here and the rest will smell it even if they don’t.

Excerpts from Julia’s blog, on projectmnl.com

On the surface, this is chaotic. If you overlay all the Comprehensive Land Use Plans in Metro Manila, for instance, functions overlap and there is no coherent vision. To many, Metro Manila is a failed city.

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Still, there’s so much I don’t know about Metro Manila. In my area, I see the names of recognizable areas such as Tondo, Ermita, Malate, Paco, Binondo. I know where to eat lumpia and buy Chinese herbs in Binondo. I know where to drink beers and see live bands in Malate. I know it’s possible to climb Smokey Mountain in Tondo and overlook the port city.

The same district levels in other cities are completely foreign to me. What’s in Caloong, Valenzuela; Tunasan, Muntinlupa; San Roque, Marikina?

How are these places different? How are they the same?

Our neighborhoods in Metro Manila are hyper-localized. We don’t just belong to a city, but to a district, to a barangay, to a municipality, to a certain block. Perhaps this is our greatest strength.

Thinking about the future of Metro Manila, my brain is racked with questions:
What kind of city do we live in?
What kind of city do we want to live in?
Who are we as urban dwellers?

What is our idea of public space?
How do we define and build “mixed-use”? What is special about our city?
Do we have an urban identity? If so, what is it? I think about all these questions as I peer out of the LRT or walk the length of the train tracks behind Osmeña Highway.

These questions pop up as I work with local government on projects and international organizations on strategic plans. I am reminded of these questions when I talk with people in the park, on a ferry, or even in a food stall. So I’ve decided to stop wondering and start exploring. I need to know what makes Metro Manila Metro Manila before imagining how it can grow, change, or improve, and the best way I could think of how to do this is to personally visit these districts of Metro Manila by bike.

Notes from the road…
PROJECT MNL: Day 3
(18 Line Highway to Eco Park to Labyrinth)

I biked 5.6 km on Commonwealth Avenue to reach La Mesa Eco Park from UP Diliman Campus at 2pm yesterday. It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.

More deaths occur on this 12.4 km stretch of highway than anywhere else in Metro Manila, if not, the entire country. It is 6-18 lanes wide at various points and is flanked by numerous subdivisions, offices, and malls, meaning people aren’t just flying by, they are also turning onto and getting off the highway often.

There is a bike lane on part of the sidewalk along Commonwealth, but as you know, I do not advocate bike lanes on sidewalks. Sidewalks are for pedestrians and they are filled with trees and telephone poles and once the sidewalk’s lane ends, it’s challenging to enter onto the road again.

Excerpts from Julia’s blog, on projectmnl.com

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Our neighborhoods in Metro Manila are hyper-localized. We don’t just belong to a city, but to a district, to a barangay, to a certain block. Perhaps this is our greatest strength.

I do not have a specific route planned, but I will try to cover the metropolis in a loop starting in Paco, Manila and traveling up through Caloocan (South), Malabon, Navotas, Valenzuela, Caloocan (North), Quezon City, Marikina, Mandaluyong, San Juan, Makati, Pateros, Taguig, Parañaque, Muntinlupa, Las Piñas, Pasay, and ending in Intramuros, Manila.

I am going with the intention of writing and photographing my findings. I do not have an expected outcome or a working thesis.

I’m starting this expedition with a long list of questions; by the end of the journey maybe I’ll know what I’m really trying to answer.

As featured in GRID Issue 7.

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