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Curing the ills of overdevelopment
by Hanna Lacsamana

At 105 years old, Baguio City has gone a long way. Since it has been laid out and dissected on the blueprint during Arch. Daniel Burnham’s time up to the present, many of its potentials that have been realized didn’t disappoint. If it were a child, it was the most ideal one that has satisfactorily done its bidding.

It grew the way we wanted it to be, and more. A summer capital? An educational center, tourist hub, business center, haven for all sorts of agents and professionals, a  wedding and convention capital? Name it. our Baguio performed it all and very well. A parent could not have been prouder and more satisfied.

Be careful what we wish for

Why the grumbles, then?

Complaints, one after the other, started sounding off way before the city reached its milestone centenary in 2009. Temperatures rising, watersheds and forest reservations encroached upon, seeing and breathing smoke rather than the proverbial fog, pine trees being replaced by residential and commercial structures left and right, streets overburdened with vehicles, longing for the almost inexistent smell of pine, and traffic becoming the favorite excuse for tardiness in a city once known for walking with ease.

It would seem, somebody has left the paint jar open with an over-eager child who unwittingly made a palimpsest on a canvas of the original Baguio City.

Now, the battle cry is for bringing back the old Baguio that we once knew and lived in, and preserve what was left of it. A tall order and gargantuan task, for we have to answer some questions. Which old Baguio do we want to preserve? What developments, in the first place, do we want Baguio to undergo? Can we undo what Baguio has become?

Are there solutions to the problems we now have as a result of dealing with the inevitable changes Baguio and its people had to face? Would we take it upon ourselves to solve these challenges? Do we – the city government and the constituents – have what it takes to cause these solutions? Do we have the will and means?

First is trying to accept the bitter pill.

Bitter pill: Making up our minds

Going back and preserving the old Baguio we once knew is one thing. Identifying what part of that old Baguio we are referring to is another.

Elvis Palicdon, a member of the United Architect of the Philippines-Baguio,  posts the question: “What old Baguio are we talking about in the first place? Is it 1900s, 1920s, 1960s? Is it last year, or a decade ago? Many would just say the old Baguio, but we have to be specific, so we would know what we really want.”

Palicdon, born and a practicing architect in the city, also asked what aspect we want to preserve: Is it the climate, environment, the trees, or the number of people and structures?
“Then up to what point? We have to make up our mind on what we would like Baguio to become,” Palicdon said.

What is seen as an ideal period many old timers feel nostalgic about is Baguio’s peak during the American occupation, when the city was in the limelight and earned its summer capital tag. Back then, a sufficient number of structures and facilities were built for a particular number of residents and amenities for the Americans’ temporary stay. What attracted the Americans were the same reasons nearby folks also came to this mountain city, either to visit or build summer houses, followed eventually by those who wanted to do business, to find a job, and to settle in the city.

At that time, the city crafted and had in place laws to control the growth of Baguio, which Palicdon opined, has not been maintained through the years. The population still burgeoned along with all sorts of structures needed to cater or support the needs of the population.

In a sense, what Baguio is at this point is a product of its people’s doing. We flourished along with the many opportunities that the city and the people themselves encouraged. As the income of the city and all the constituents doing business here increased, so is the costs required to provide for services and infrastructure, as reflected on the city’s annual budget through the years.

Palicdon said Burnham indeed designed the city for 25,000 individuals, but it was also expected it would grow just like other places after some time. Regulating measures, in fact, were put in place by the early officials to deal with and adjust to a growing population. The problems the city is experiencing now are just manifestations that the regulations have not been applied in the strictest sense.

“If these were applied, then we would not have been experiencing all these problems right now. Expect Baguio to grow but it should be an acceptable, controlled growth,” Palicdon said.

It comes to a point that the growth that the city has become a bully. “We wanted and invited development. But when people came, we complain there’s no space left. We should have known these problems will happen.”

“So we should focus on the specific things like the environment, the structures, urban growth, population, so that we can zero in on what is there that really has to be preserved, and then we decide on what we want.”

Development + mitigating plan = sustainable environment

A thorough architect-builder knows it to be the principal rule. Palicdon said if you introduce something, there has to be a corresponding mitigating measure or support facility to come up with a sustainable environment.

“There’s already imbalance if we build something without the corresponding facility to support it.”

A comprehensive study is required. Palicdon said when planning to build a 10-story building, first factor to consider is location, followed by its impact to the environment, and if such can be mitigated.

“We could excavate on a mountain. But what are the negative effects of our plan? When we build a house in a forest, certainly the ecosystem will be disturbed. Living patterns of surrounding communities will have to adjust. Are they amenable to that? Could they handle the change? Could we address the imbalance?”

“We must know that once we push through with it, the character of the area will be lost, such as one that was supposed to be for residential would already become commercial. Could we mitigate the impact? Is it allowed by law? ”

He said every architect or builder has to consider these. It is for this reason there are requirements such as environmental compliance certificate as required by the national government and compliance to city ordinances on buildings especially in a city that has a unique terrain,  like Baguio.

Palicdon said this, unfortunately, has not been completely applied in Baguio. Why? Because the city experiences these current problems. “We see the traffic. We are overpopulated. What we see are eyesores.

“It is very obvious there’s no control. At times when we do not agree to a certain development, we don’t have the legal basis to say no, you cannot do that or you cannot build that or you cannot build using that design. There is no specific form of regulation.”

Throwback, going green to preserve what’s left

While the city’s CBD obviously can no longer accommodate more structures with its current overcrowded state, there is still room, in fact, for “expansion.” The architect said this doesn’t require space, as many structures in the CBD are not being maximized, some even have not been in use at all for years now.

Instead of fitting in new development, Palicdon opined something might be done with these buildings like the old hotels that have been not been in business or structures that have been left unused for a long time. It might be better these serve for other purposes and help reduce the need for more space.

Control, however, is something a building designer could not impose on a person planning to put up a structure as far as design is concerned. One can only go as far as assuring that the planned project is feasible and following the basic rules in construction.

Palicdon agrees it would be a nice thought if owners adopt environment-friendly features in building their houses or commercial establishments as this would help not only in mitigating effects of climate change but also in promoting a sustainable way of development.

Though it is part of their advocacy, he said what they can do to realize sustainable construction is only is to suggest or recommend to their clients to adopt green building concepts because cost and understanding of the concept have to be considered.

Cohesive decision in CLUP, political will, active stakeholders

Palicdon says political will, stakeholders, and the implementation of laws – or the lack of it – are the crucial factors in achieving a sustainable growth for Baguio. Since Baguio has nowhere to go but move forward, it should have a vision that is reached through a cohesive decision of every stakeholder, not only by a few.

He said the public, may they be Baguio old timers or migrants as well as visitors, should be actively involved in the crafting of the city’s plans in terms of classifications of zones and uses of its lands and resources. To preserve what is left of the city, everyone should be active, for instance, during this period when the city government is crafting the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP), so that suggestions are discussed, considered, and voted upon by the majority.

Aside from that, the citizens should take it upon themselves to follow city laws and be on guard by actively involving themselves in the monitoring of its implementation. “Though it is the job of the government to implement and monitor, the citizens’ job in seeing to it these measures are followed is equally crucial.”

It would boil down to a two-way process: political will of the city officials and the residents’ active participation.

“We may not be able to preserve Baguio the way it was, but we could have a controlled growth, where what we wanted are defined, and both the government and the people are seeing to it these are followed,” he said.

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