A construction worker walks into the library and asks if it was open. He tells me he was a frequent visitor of the old public library and had dropped by to check if renovations were done. But I had just arrived at the VALACE building, my first time in Valenzuela, and I tell him as much. He says he would return another day. I watch him get on his bike parked outside, a hard hat strapped to the handlebar, and cycle out onto MacArthur highway.
If it were anywhere else, it would almost sound like the beginning of a bad joke. The road to hell, or at least a badly designed city, is paved with wide lanes and narrow sidewalks. If there is a bike lane, there are likely no barriers—just paint that cuts off at random. Errant utility poles and street parking get in the way of cyclists and pedestrians. Public facilities, like open spaces and libraries, lack accessibility and are poorly maintained. That is the urbanscape Metro folk know of.
So when the City of Valenzuela makes the effort to prioritize pedestrians, it made rounds on the internet. Valenzuela had done the seemingly impossible and people wanted parks and streets closed off to cars in their own cities. Because this reclamation of public space wasn’t in Seoul or Sao Paulo—this was happening at the margins of Metro Manila. Every Twitter thread on Valenzuela and its pedestrianization led back to King, or Michael King-Urieta.
As project officer for parks development and the city's arts programs, King has long been making Valenzuela more sustainable. Since 2015, the local government has created a circuit of parks, including People’s Park which is used for concerts and city-wide celebrations, a Family Park that features a playground and interactive fountain, Polo Park that commemorates Katipunan leaders Dr. Pio Valenzuela and Dr. Jose Rizal, the Sports Park designed as an obstacle course, and the Arkong Bato Park that is set to open this year. At every green pocket tucked into the different corners of Valenzuela, urban renewal is triggered at its periphery.
"We’re trying to make Valenzuela into a more livable space—para hindi lang pumpunta rito ang Valenzuelano para magtrabaho, o kaya dito ka lang nakatira, tumutulog lang, tapos namamasyal sa iba, sa Manila, sa QC. Ngayon, nasa open spaces ang tao.”
But King tells me that Valenzuela was once known for traffic, floods, and factories. In 1998, then President Fidel V. Ramos converted the former fishing village into an industrial hub as the northern gateway, connecting Region 3 to Metro Manila. Navigating through the city, you would find highways full of trucks that branch off into access roads to warehouses—a discernible lack of urban planning for residential and commercial areas.
Yet congested and narrow streets still made for good bones somehow, if it gave birth to a city of cyclists.
The Big Catch
From the Valenzuela library, King leads the way to Tagalag: a fishing village at the border of the city and Obando. King and our photographer Jilson ride ahead on their bikes while I fall behind by car. I lose sight of them among the streams of cyclists outpacing the traffic: construction and factory workers wearing safety vests, students in uniform, pedicabs. In the city, cycling has been the utilitarian choice of commute, even before there was Strava or before it became a pandemic hobby.
Reroute vehicles and people flow through the street that has been given back to them, altering the fabric of the community.
The way to Tagalag is a strait, and while still accessible to cars, it is a veritable haven for people. Kids play badminton on the streets—and there is no honking, no swerving vehicles. The boardwalk and solar farm of Tagalag are sprawling with cyclists, making it hard to believe that we were still in the city. The sight of open fishponds and floating nipa huts is a scene straight out of the province. Families and teens enjoy the sunset over the body of water that envelops the barangay: what once used to be rice paddies that have submerged into a home for hito, tilapia, and bangus.
On the map of the city, Tagalag is a dead-end, Valenzuelanos had no reason to go to the barangay. It was a liminal fishpond Tagalag residents passed by on the way home until it was declared an ecotourism zone. In improving the boardwalk and street lighting—as well as streamlined business permit issuance and livelihood training—the local government has created a streetscape where development ripples onto the community. The thoroughfare of Tagalag is lined with pizza and takoyaki vendors, with auto shops that transform into ihawan joints by night.
One of the first to open after the transformation of Tagalag is Alvarez Park Cafe—a restaurant within a ten-hectare fishpond, run by Atty. Shey Alvarez and her sister. The sisters opened the restaurant in 2020, wanting to share the simple joy of eating your own catch with other families. The establishment offers recreational water activities, including kayaks, water bikes, and fishing. It was a source of relief during the lockdown, met with such patronage that their employees have grown tenfold. The restaurant is one of three in Tagalag that have generated the majority of jobs in the area. Shey shares how multiple employees have moved to the fishing village after seeing how livable the city is.
A year after opening Alvarez Park Cafe, the sisters created a romantic floating restaurant called Fisherman’s Point. While it rests on the same property, Fisherman’s Point serves an international course menu to complement the dampa-style dining of its predecessor. “Mahilig pala kumain yung taga Valenzuela,” Shey says. “Hindi namin alam because back then, we only had so many restaurants in the city—yung Max’s at David’s Teahouse sa Puregold, or simple food like lugaw and pandesal in the morning since wala pa yung pares or tapa.”
The fishing village has become a destination for foodies and cyclists alike. A common argument against active transport is that there aren’t enough cyclists to take up a bike lane, but this elides how cycling is about community. Alvarez Park Cafe is visited by cyclists from as far as Pampanga, Antipolo, Taguig, and Cavite. When there are few urban spaces where cyclists are actively welcomed, people will ride to Tagalag in spite of the distance—often at the invitation of King or bike rides organized by local cycling clubs on Facebook.
The boardwalk of Tagalag invites locals and visitors to meander: to get to know a place as close as possible through a ride or stroll, rather than through a car window. And if you work up an appetite along the way, then there are spontaneous detours for street fare from the many vendors to choose from.
After Tagalag, we set out for Fatima Avenue—another 20-minute bike ride for Jilson and King. The entire stretch of Fatima is closed to motorized traffic. This street that was once occupied by cars is now a pedestrian-friendly area lined with trees, lampposts, picnic benches, bike racks, and eateries with al-fresco dining.
New to the block is Rosario’s, a tsokalateria that Atty. Rich Almario opened with his cousin in July of 2022. Rosario’s is an homage to their late grandmother Rosario Almario, who would make thick and rich tsokolate every Christmas growing up. Today, her antigua and espresso recipes live on paired with churros. Valenzuela once lacked a gastronomic identity of its own with only fast food franchises to dine from. The homegrown eateries of Rosario’s and its neighbors give character to the city—layered with stories and shared meals.
Rich decided to open a restaurant of his own after hearing about the beautification plans for Fatima. He says the area hadn’t always been this safe. Before its rehabilitation, those walking along the dark street were wary of snatching hands or moving vehicles. Fatima catered to the cars overflowing from the university and the church that anchors either end of the street. It was once a parking lot like anywhere else, thus, belonging to no one in particular.
Communities are atrophied by car-centric infrastructure. Reroute vehicles and people flow through the street that has been given back to them, altering the fabric of the community. Businesses that closed to the pandemic reopened stronger than ever, attracting customers from passersby. Parishioners and students have grown into the habit of walking to school and mass. While beautiful in the morning, I’m told, Fatima looks even better at night. Live music plays from the weekend market in front of the church. In another alley is a row of ever-changing food kiosks under strings of lights. Because of the street lamps that stay on until morning, locals stay out all night long at Fatima.
Streetscapes invite people to meander: to get to know a place as close as possible through a ride or stroll, rather than through a car window.
The malls in Valenzuela are empty in comparison to the parks and open spaces that have become their local haunts. Malling, it seems, is emblematic of a lack of urban space than the Filipino pastime it is christened as. “We’re trying to make Valenzuela into a more livable space—para hindi lang pumpunta rito ang Valenzuelano para magtrabaho, o kaya dito ka lang nakatira, tumutulog lang, tapos namamasyal sa iba, sa Manila, sa QC,” says King. “Ngayon, nasa open spaces ang tao.”
An Uphill Ride
According to King, Valenzuela plans to create a network of bike lanes to connect essential facilities, such as government buildings, open spaces, and schools. This network will expand from the bike lane along MacArthur Highway that was established in 2021 as a pandemic response to the lacking public transportation. The 6.7km bike lane was hard-won, part of the few government-led measures to protect cyclists in the Greater Metro. In other circumstances, citizens have been driven to organize and take matters into their own hands. It is the hope of active transport that every triumph in one city could spread to others, but as is the same with every loss. Recent development has shown that progress can be sideswiped and protected spaces taken back.
The way we get from Point A to Point B is largely habitual, and some habits are harder to stick to than others—for both a city and its commuters. Last December, the incumbent Mayor permitted motorcycles into the designated bike lane along MacArthur Highway. It is a devolved system that pits road users—of different size, speed, and vulnerability—against each other in a narrow pathway when it is everyone's best interest to arrive in one's destination safely. Valenzuela made rounds on Bike Twitter once more: When cyclists are no longer kept safe by introducing hazards into the space, a bike lane loses its function.
As someone who has just learned how to ride a bike, there is a lot of respect to be had for active transport. Cyclists get around on their own terms, in a way that no other mode of transportation permits. Self-determination makes up a lot of who cyclists are. But it would be unthinkable for cities to leave cyclists to determine their own safety on the road for themselves. If Tagalag, Fatima, and the pedestrian spaces of Valenzuela have proven anything, it is that habitat dictates habit, not the other way around.