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Taking the cudgels:
What we need to do for the Baguio We Want
by Roland Rabang

The Bulwagan Juan Luna was again the venue of a summit organized by the "The Baguio We Want" movement where inherent problems in urbanization such as waste, water supply, traffic and pollution were discussed. -- Roland Rabang

George Orwell, author of novels that portray visions of the future such as “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-four,” wrote about the decline of the English language in these modern times in the essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Orwell’s argument is premised on the notion that the English language’s decline is evinced, apparently, in its current written form. He is convinced that this stagnation is ensued by “political and economic” causes and writers fall into bad writing habits because their prose is either shaped or hampered by a prevailing political and economic climate.

There are efforts to “rescue” the language from its downward spiral. However, modern society with its addiction to expediency and convenience regards any intervention outside of what Orwell describes as “orthodoxy” to be “sentimental archaism.” There is a felt need for corrective measures, Orwell argues, for the reason that “our civilization is decadent and our language must inevitably share in the general collapse.”

The intersection of language and culture leads us to imagine that Baguio City is a lot like the language that Orwell mourns. Caught in the decadence of civilization, the city is seen trapped in what conservationists call “runaway development.” And unless and until we apply the brakes on this runaway development and replace it with what conservationists again refer to as “sustainable” systems, then the city is bound to crash into a brick wall, or fall into the precipice of urban decay.

The problem of urban sprawl

Urban sprawl is the one factor that invites suggestions from both sides of the argument either for its regulation or perhaps outright cessation. Since May this year, there have been concerted efforts from the city council to introduce a podium parking system at the Burnham Park. The measure introduced by councilors Benny Bomogao, Michael Lawana and Faustino Olowan came in the wake of a perceived inadequacy of parking areas in the city based largely on visitors’ feedback.

The proponents of the Burnham Park podium parking, also known as a multi-story carpark, point to the “Ganza area, between the Children’s Park and the Orchidarium, at the former Pantranco terminal and (the) whole stretch of the City Library” as the proposed site of the carparks. Benefits-wise, one carpark building is reportedly capable of accommodating 500 motor vehicles. A collection of parking fees would eventually translate into revenues for the city.

But the measure was met with opposition from the multi-sectoral forum “The Baguio We Want.” The group declared this in a manifesto published in the Baguio Midland Courier on Aug. 13 that called on the city government to “promote Baguio city as a pedestrian-friendly, wellness-oriented city.” The manifesto further describes the proposed podium carpark, as “the anti-thesis of what a park should be poses a continuing threat to the shrinking green spaces in Baguio City and will cause adverse consequences to the heritage, culture, health and well-being of the people.”

One side of the conversation speaks of the displacement of spaces while the other promotes an upkeep of the city’s remaining spaces. One voices out a seemingly logical and practical solution to a long-drawn problem that is vehicle parking, while the other voice calls for either a long view or worse, a preference to the status quo.

Podium parking or green spaces? “Like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes,” according to Orwell. Thus, is the “green space” argument a step backward; a mere hankering to a time in the past, which can no longer be retrieved?

“It is not as simple as a desire to go back or recover a lost paradise,” Dr. Raymundo D. Rovillos, chancellor of the University of the Philippines Baguio and chair of the forum The Baguio We Want, said when asked about the “sentimentality” of their manifesto against the construction of a podium parking at Burnham Park.

Stressing the relevance of some 7,000 signatories to the manifesto posted online at www.change.org, Rovillos said, “The Baguio of old is in the memory of those who believe in what the manifesto says. But the old Baguio is not some sentimental aspiration that we seek to go back to, but rather an inspiration for moves to rejuvenate and to prevent the city from moving towards the path of stagnation.”

He said that on the contrary, it is the tourists that might have feelings of sentimentality towards the city, regarding the place as “paradise found.” The fact that the city remains to be a huge crowd drawer and a source of enjoyment for tourists brings the city’s natural capacities to a tipping point, Rovillos said. “If we do not stabilize this, we create stagnation and decay.” He added, “As we continue to cater to tourists through various tourism-related activities, there should be rejuvenating mechanisms established for the environment.”

The challenges that confront the city’s natural capacities in fact translate into problems that are inherent in urbanization, Rovillos said. These include management of solid waste and wastewater, provisions for adequate potable water supply, traffic management and pollution mitigation. Acknowledging that the city deals with these problems every day, Rovillos, through the forum, suggests a better approach at managing the growth of the city.

Instead of an oppositional stance, however, Rovillos says, “we would really want to work with government.” Aware of his role as leader of an academic institution, he said there is a vast array of human resources in the academe that could be tapped to address the varied challenges confronting the city government. He said collaborative work with the academe might result to measures that would address the requirement of “sustainability” and “wellness” of a certain public undertaking.

A friend who never calls

Like a friend who never calls however, the city government has not gone back to the Burnham Park Master Development Plan prepared by the University of the Cordilleras (UC). The master plan was donated to the city government by the university during Baguio City’s centennial year in 2009. Had the city government consulted, they would have known that the master plan has a provision for vehicle parking at the Burnham Park complex but follows a design contrary to the one which was proposed in May this year.

The last time the master plan was used as a reference was when the Rose Garden at Burnham Park was refurbished through a funding from the Tourism and Infrastructure Economic Zone Authority (TIEZA) obtained through the intercession of former Baguio Rep. Bernardo M. Vergara.

Of the proposed podium parking, Arch. Robert V. Romero, mentor at the UC College of Engineering and Architecture, and project head of the Burnham Park Master Development Plan said, however, the plan only calls for a low-rise vehicle parking, which begins from a one-level basement. “This would have been located at the present site of the Ganza and Solibao restaurants,” Romero said in an interview on Aug. 16. In contrast, the city government proposal is reportedly at least a five-level high-rise building.

“It’s a ‘green’ building,” Romero said of the two-floor parking facility designed under the UC master plan. A staunch advocate of “green architecture,” Romero said the main feature of the parking facility would have been a roof garden. “For sure there ought to be no structures of any kind built at or on the football grounds because this is an aquifer,” Romero who is not a member of the “The Baguio We Want” movement explained. “The basement parking at the edges of the football field considers the idea that it is still on a level above the aquifer,” he added.

While there are still skeptics who find the principles of “green architecture” or basement parking inadequate, Romero stands by the outcome of his team’s designs. “We spent at least two months of public consultations,” he said. Field surveys also augmented data that were obtained from these consultations. “We did an actual vehicle count, thus the number of parking slots allotted in the (UC) design was based on present and future needs,” he said.

Between 500-vehicle allocations for one podium parking facility, Romero said their designs were based on a well thought-out plan and a product of sleepless nights spent at their design headquarters at UC.

A certain perspective and commitment

Dr. Rovillos agrees that a social and environmental problem like traffic congestion in the city must always be brought before the public’s attention through a series of consultations, as much as there should be “careful planning by experts.” Outside the city government’s proposal to establish multi-level parking facilities, the suggestion by some private citizens to pedestrianize the central business district might be endorsed in principle but must still be the result of the outcome of studies and consultations.

“For instance, how would the idea of a circumferential road be put in place?” Rovillos said of the proposal for vehicle passage to complement the idea of pedestrianization. “Aside from the number-coding system, should there be carless days, too, in some areas of the city?” Likewise, he said, the efficiency and environmental soundness of public transport should also be looked into.

Rovillos scored the city government’s oft-cited premise that a public facility like the proposed podium parking would generate revenues for the city because of the collection of parking fees. “There are more creative ways of obtaining resources,” he said. “A more progressive scheme of creating revenues might be, that big businesses should contribute more to the city’s revenues,” he said.

“Perhaps we can regulate the entry of tourists through taxation,” he added. “After all, tourists need to pay for environmental services.” Rovillos explained “measures like these calls for a certain perspective, but then stakeholders should also commit to it.”

A power center?

The problem is that hardly any city government official shows up in forums organized by the “The Baguio We Want” movement and this “problem” does not just refer to City Hall officials and politicians. Rovillos understands that as an interest group, the forum creates a counter-narrative to the government’s position and “perhaps by not attending the forums, the government is sending the message that they do not want another power center,” Rovillos said.

Government, however, has scarcely clarified important questions of public consequence, and instead adopts a dismissive attitude to views outside of their circle in effect saying “you are not the first to say that.”

This situation is exemplified in an Aug. 4 forum organized by the “The Baguio We Want” movement on the Bulk Water Supply Project. The Baguio Water District, exceedingly a primary stakeholder in the issue, merely sent an underling tasked only to note the proceedings of the forum but with strict instructions from the BWD management not to comment on issues raised.

While private project proponents were present to include one that has had preliminary dealings with the BWD, this proponent said they are bound by a confidentiality agreement with the BWD that prevent them from issuing further comments on the specifics of the project.

The absence of top leadership and decision makers from a public utility like the BWD in the forum held at UP Baguio’s Sarmiento Hall prevents clarification of issues of public interest like matters raised in a paper titled “Water Security and Urban Resilience: The Case of Baguio City Philippines” written by University of the Philippines Baguio professors Alejandro N. Ciencia, Jr., Lorelei C. Mendoza, Gladys A. Cruz, Maileenita A. Peñalba, Nimreh L. Calde, and Michael R. Cabalfin.

The outcome of their research includes the finding that only 68.6 of Baguio households are connected with the BWD system contrary to the management’s claim that 94 percent of Baguio residents have metered connections. Interestingly, however, more than a third of those with metered connections have claimed that the water supply delivered by the BWD is “more than adequate.”

The research went on to say that “56.6 percent of non-BWD connected households are not interested in getting a BWD connection. Among the reasons given are: their water source (outside of the BWD system) provides unlimited and better quality water; the BWD’s water distribution system is unpredictable and unreliable; BWD application fees are expensive; and water delivery is cheaper.”

What is certain is that when a person or entity seeks a water connection with the BWD, the application is subject to an inspection process to ensure that the district is able to supply water to this new entity. This probably explains why the researchers were able to draw on responses of “adequacy” when it comes to water supply.

Again, however, despite the claim of 94 percent service coverage, the research’s findings of less than 70 percent service coverage indicates that the BWD falls short of their mandate of serving the city with adequate, potable water.

The Bulk Water Supply Project appears to be a ray of hope for the city’s future water supply, and the present need to close the gap in the city’s service connections. But if they take the trouble to address the concerns raised in the research, the BWD may not be that quick to stake the city’s water future on this measure alone. Baguio City receives one of the highest amounts of rainfall in the country, according to the research, “yet its water district implements water rationing.”

Premised from this, the research asserted that in terms of vulnerabilities, water as a natural resource is susceptible to climate change, which “is expected to exacerbate fluctuations in Baguio City’s water supply. It may result in periods marked by extreme amounts of rainfall, flooding and landslides; it may also result in periods of drought and extremely hot weather.” Outside of the bulk water concept, the question is thus poised: “how is the water district prepared for the effects of such extreme climactic conditions?”

Whether sourced from bulk water or rainwater harvesting, water’s vulnerability to climate change needs to be addressed, including bulk water’s potential economic implication on consumers. But it is also not clear from the Aug. 4 forum or from a public pronouncement whether the BWD has plans to mitigate the effects of climate change or whether these plans are also subject to a confidentiality clause.

A declarative

“The Baguio We Want” is not just a multi-sectoral forum but also a statement couched in declarative terms. Thus, the forum led by Dr. Rovillos may not necessarily claim exclusivity for its use. There are other groups not affiliated with the forum that have their own visions which may not agree with, or are entirely contrary to the one espoused by the forum.

“I understand that the word ‘we’ may also be seen as excluding other people or entities,” Rovillos said. “This is the reason why the forum’s aim is to articulate the significance of the word ‘want,’” he added.

“The constant holding of public forums in the city and the efforts poured into research and educating the public on pressing issues affecting the city has had an impact on the public’s perception of the issues since the group organized a forum on Mt. Santo Tomas in 2015,” Rovillos said.

“As a result, the engagement of the group is now far-reaching even obtaining the support of the more mainstream organizations such as the Baguio Market Vendors Association and the Rotary clubs,” Rovillos added.
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