Ragene Palma is an urbanist and researcher. She studied MA International Planning and Sustainable Development at the University of Westminster as a Chevening scholar. She also immersed in Northampton, Massachusetts to study placemaking and public spaces through the YSEALI Professional Fellowship - Spring 2018. Opinions expressed in this essay are the author's.
Ana Patricia Non’s community pantry in Maginhawa became a nationwide movement overnight. Numerous pantries, in the form of wooden shelves, Monoblock tables under trees or beach umbrellas, cartons and boxes, baskets and rice sacks, and even motorcycles and the insides of a tricycle, now take up sidewalks, corners, and streets, among other spaces.
Claiming corners, streets, sidewalks
It’s not surprising how Maginhawa became the epicenter of the movement; the street has long been identified to be a creative hub of sorts, thriving with its food establishments, a place dynamic with an urban beat resonating with goings-on in UP Diliman.
The first pantry was set up under a tree, and the succeeding models took the liberty of innovating as to the items and spaces used. Some organizers gathered in parks and covered courts, because they have the space. Some made use of waiting sheds. Others included books, feminine products, and pet food in their pantries.
But across the myriad photos shared on social media, what is apparent is that people claimed space, however small or temporary, and created pantries rapidly. Passers-by and people queuing to take, or to share, suddenly shared affinity with everybody else through commonly passed corners and street spaces.
Employing the ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’ placemaking model
The community pantries are a form of placemaking, which, in the language of planning and urban studies, means creating places for general welfare by tapping community potential. Specifically, the project employs techniques from the ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’ model in placemaking, which has allowed its exponential replication. As a movement, this can join projects around the world using the same strategy: Simple, low-cost, doable, immediate, tactile, and flexible.
Situating the pantry initiative in a larger urban perspective, we can ask: How tactical, and how transformative is this movement? There is certainly an opportunity to allow it to progress. But first we look into what the community pantry movement entails.
Many laud the bayanihan spirit that is put into the pantries, but many also remind how the manifestation of the projects is due to the failure of government to adequately manage the pandemic. Some see the movement as a form of solidarity and resistance, even likening it to a modern ‘people power,’ while others avoid a political stance.
However, spaces are produced relationally, and are also political. As Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett wrote about politics of the city in “Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City,” “...we cannot talk about freedom without talking about power.” A sense of powerlessness, which comes from the constraints and perils of the country’s pandemic management, has triggered a response, shared by many, therefore creating collective action.
We have experienced collective action from Filipinos since the pandemic started, from sewing PPEs to the development of test kits. However, the current quarantine measures continue to be rigid, and hamper how collective action can grow: Checkpoints and imaginary borders of the metro ‘bubble,’ curfews, and even a literal concrete wall built in the middle of a road all restrict urban vitality.
Beyond the pandemic, our systems and legislation can also become nooses. For example, social welfare guidelines sanction donations, while existing local ordinances disallow a variety of pedestrian activities. On social media, users have reported how barangay leaders in some places have prohibited the creation of new pantries. The practice of red-tagging and intimidation — and even the process of formalizing through permits — can quell the spirit and instinct that come with pop-up initiatives.
In “Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change,” Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia quote Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil: “The lack of resources is no longer an excuse not to act. The idea that action should only be taken after all of the answers and the resources have been found is a sure recipe for paralysis. The planning of a city is a process that allows for corrections; it is supremely arrogant to believe that planning can be done only after every variable has been controlled.”
Yes, urban design, planning, can allow disorder, too
In an interview for One News, Non shared, “Ang mga tao, gusto lang din po siguro tumulong pero wala lang pong nakikitang venue. Hindi naman kailangan magarbong effort para makatulong. Kahit sa simpleng paraan lang.”
There is much to unpack from her statement, especially about the absence of space. Cities, through urban managers, have the potential to address this, and in the process, find balance between a thirst for rigid, orderly ‘discipline’ and the natural dissonance of society. There is potential to integrate community pantries and other grassroots placemaking projects into our city plans, and in efforts that shape our built environment.
Urban design and planning can allow ‘disorder’ as well. Through assemblage of social space and social infrastructure, with the open city concept in mind, places can encourage creativity and unplanned activities. Community pantries may be temporary, but they spark ideas for new projects; people have already brought up community libraries, community gardens, and more pop-up activities, which can guide future, more permanent efforts and spaces that cater to people’s needs, behavior, and uses.
Here's a link to how you can help the Maginhawa Community Pantry.