Filipino cities will have to change in the time of COVID-19

Social distancing won’t be effective if there are no changes in structures and policies. Here, architects and urban planners reimagine our post-pandemic way of life.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, public spaces were valued as crucial breathing points for the city. Much has been said about the rapid development of Metro Manila and how little is left for parks, open, and green spaces that have not yet been claimed by big urban developing firms. It’s as if the city is for structures, not for the people. It is important to remember that the concretization of urban spaces goes beyond transforming it into high streets, basketball courts, or parking lots; it means less space for greenery (which can be argued as part of the city infrastructure) which plays an essential role in improving the overall health and social connectivity of the citizens. These places are not just for leisure; they exist because they serve as energizing nerve centers, giving life to an otherwise dreary sprawl.

But in the time of a pandemic, public spaces are emptied, stripped off of cars and pedestrians. Even in relaxed quarantine guidelines, these spaces appear menacing, a reminder that social distancing is close to impossible in a highly dense city like Metro Manila. The government’s policies revolve around the push for social distancing, but this won’t be possible if there are no efficient policies and solutions in place that address the reasons why people are still out there in the streets, trying to earn a living.

The Department of Transportation has released plans for the transport sector’s transition into a “new normal” set-up, which includes promotion of the use of shuttle services for students and employees; use of non-motorized transport, such as bicycles; consolidation of the transport industry; and a routes rationalization plan. The announcement came out with the proposed designs of the “New EDSA” where bus lanes, bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, and boarding areas are segregated.

Photo from DOTr/FACEBOOK

Photo from DOTr/FACEBOOK

“Structural changes would have to be implemented by both the government and the private sector,” says sociologist Josephine Dionisio, who chairs the Department of Sociology at the University of the Philippines Diliman. “[The] main challenge is the willingness (and maybe even capability) of both the government and the private sector to invest in restructuring.”

When asked whether Filipinos, who are particularly social and community-centric, will be prepared for a “new normal” where social distancing may become a norm, Dionisio says, “That we are a collaborative and community-centric nation is not the problem, but may even be the solution. The problem is that institutions are structured and operate in such a way that favor centralization of activities.”

In preparing for a “new normal,” changes must not be limited to the level of the individual, but more so focus on the larger scale: how public spaces are designed, and how these designs dictate people’s behaviors. CNN Philippines Life enlisted the help of architects and urban planners in reimagining a post-pandemic way of life, from schools, public transport, to places of leisure and worship. — Don Jaucian and Elizabeth Ruth Deyro

Reimagining places of worship
by Arts Serrano

Architecture in the post-pandemic era will likely pressure societies to be more self-sufficient. There will be less focus on material imports and more attention to what we can source and use locally. Architecture in the vernacular sense will be explored further, and hopefully this leads to a deeper understanding of our design identity.

That is not to say that globalization had nothing but negative effects to our understanding and practice of architecture. We see this pandemic as an opportunity to create unique approaches to materials, construction technologies, and standards of practice that are relevant and more applicable to our context, derived from the lessons globalization has taught us over the past few years.

Our studio, One/Zero wanted to explore answers to questions on the future of spirituality in architecture. What would a place of worship possibly look like after the pandemic? What is the value of spirituality in architecture and how would architecture respond to this need?

Global quarantine protocols have pressured governments to shut down economies and encourage people to stay at home to mitigate the spread of the virus. This has exacerbated feelings of existential emptiness and meaninglessness that stem from everyone being cut off from their daily routines and locked down in their own homes.

For this design exercise, the mound-like structure emulates the surrounding landscape and is a secular space for spirituality. Courtesy of ONE/ZERO

The ceiling is cladded with cogon grass, inspired by thatched roofs native to pre-hispanic Filipino vernacular architecture. Courtesy of ONE/ZERO

The structure is a thin shell reinforced concrete mound emulating the surrounding landscape as a nod to the creation story. Courtesy of ONE/ZERO

We focused more on the concept of “spirituality” rather than a specific religious practice because the effects of the pandemic are universal. Our mortality has never been highlighted more than in the first few months of 2020, and we believe spaces for reflection and “spiritual transcendence” could not be more relevant.

For this design exercise, the mound-like structure emulates the surrounding landscape and is a secular space for spirituality. An oculus connects the inside to the world around it, casting a ray of light inside that symbolizes the presence of a higher being and removes the conventional notion of a mediator in between.

Light (or the absence of it), in this context, is used as an absolute representation of mortality. At a specific time of day, the structure casts rays of light to the ground as a “direct line to a higher being.” Along with physical markers etched on the concrete floor, this acts as visual markers for safe social distancing. The pandemic has challenged our notions of density in the places we build, and this will have huge impacts on places of mass gathering.

Through form, scale, materiality, and maybe a structure’s relationship with nature, spirituality can be explored and applied in architectural solutions. This does not necessarily call for a separate typology, rather something that hopefully our generation deems as “essential” in every place that we build.

Reimagining schools
By Keena Vazquez

When physical proximity is critical in mitigating viral transmissions, now more than ever, the built environment will be the essential shaper of our “new normal.” As an architect, what has fascinated me the most throughout this quite extreme period is the blurring power of virtualization. While we’ve spent the last weeks getting intimately acquainted with every corner of our homes, they have also experienced a sort of virtual expansion.

In as much as spaces can shape how we live our daily life, the quarantine (and exponential number of new home ventures) has empowered people to shape their spaces as well. The inherent challenge and agency of the weighted “new normal” is that, in most cases, we are not starting from scratch. We will essentially be retrofitting existing buildings and reimagining spaces as we know them — a challenge for business and designers alike, but we designers thrive on a good challenge.

Undeniably, one of the established archetypes that will require some creative reimagining are the traditional classrooms and schools. While the roll-out of e-learning and distance learning have temporarily replaced the four walls of a classroom, it has exposed some gaps in internet accessibility. Truth be told, in the midst of inadequate telecom infrastructure, a fully online education system is not quite feasible. Albeit limited, classroom time will still be far from extinct. If the virus has done anything, it has validated the value of face-to-face education. But until a viable cure or vaccine is developed, the classroom, as we know it, might be a thing of the past.

Schools now are faced with the challenge of creating a safe environment for students, without compromising the quality of their educational experiences. So from a design point of view, how do we imagine a post-COVID classroom? Some countries like Taiwan and China give us hints of what these might look like.

Illustration by JL JAVIER

Classrooms may start to look more like speech labs with partitions between students and teachers. Partitions may also pop up in spaces like libraries, laboratories, and cafeterias. Reading a book in the library or using a computer could look like conducting a test swab — accessing it behind partitions and rubber gloves. Bleacher and auditorium capacities may be halved or reduced to a third, with new prescribed seating arrangements.

To comply with calls for social distancing, schools may be motivated to reduce the volume of people at given points in time. Entry ways will be limited and become critical control points and first lines of defense. Entrances may expand to larger, more rigorous spaces, requiring high traffic disinfection areas, efficient temperature checking, and a substantial deal of social distancing.

With sanitation and hygiene at the forefront, hallway drinking fountains may evolve into handwashing stations. A focus will be put on minimizing contact with doors, faucets, and surfaces, among others, which may require upgrading to touchless fixtures.

Schools and offices may need to take cues from healthcare facilities to limit the spread of airborne pathogens. Improving ventilation and indoor air quality will be an essential to the checklist. It could mean the installation of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or fresh air intake fans in enclosed areas. Or it may just be a case of opening more windows.

Ultimately, what predicates the how’s and when’s of reopening is creating a safe and healthy space to reclaim some semblance of normalcy. And while acrylic partitions, masks, and gloves are far from our hard-wired normal, we have seen creative minds endeavor to make these once-foreign objects a little more joyful and hopeful. I manage to find comfort in the words of the great Bruce Lee: “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” So as we face the most torrential of winds, I am hopeful to see how our spaces evolve to bend with it.

Photo by JL JAVIER

Reimagining Filipino Malls
by Alanis Avenilla

The mall has become our marketplace, an air-conditioned “plaza,” or a third space we often go to besides our home and workplace. Though some of us may want to trade it for other public spaces, it is an existing convenient hub for our distribution networks.

Social distancing remains to be a challenge for consumers and mall operators despite safety measures, both physical and administrative, being in place. We are seeing the rise of acrylic counter shields and POS counters either covered with plastic or fronted by stanchions. Business owners are starting to adopt these strategies to comply with protocol, while the roles of design and space planning emerge more and more as vital.

From short-term to long-term interventions, there’s a lot we can do in increments to make our malls work better for our well-being.


Environmental graphics as manpower

One thing architects and designers can guide people with is in having a sense of measured space. What does two meters apart look like? We can look at the typical 2.1-meter-high door, or a row of four chairs side-by-side, for reference. It’s often difficult to estimate distance if not visualized. Environmental graphics, or EGD, as simple as a grid of dots covering the entire floor area of malls could effectively substitute manpower that’s required to enforce social distancing.

Much like a life-sized instructional guide for keeping distance, straightforward EGD at key locations can keep our activities low-contact by means of constant guidance. We users are considered a part of any environment we occupy, now more than ever, when everyone’s wellness affects everyone else’s. Store aisles, seating areas, and all sorts of touchpoints can be a lot safer with low-impact design like this, where less material is required and execution is quick.


A portal for crowd control

Social distancing protocols within malls will be of no use if influx isn’t controlled strictly and counted down to the last person. Apart from being reduced to a few active entrances, the typical mall entryway may soon adjust in the limbo of old and new activity. We’ve been in one of those lines that take forever. Entrances can adopt already existing technology to allow smoother and safer monitoring of our malls.

A new type of door assembly can integrate a thermal scanning portal and counter, much like parking slot counters using sensors — to display real-time numbers of allowable capacity thereby automating what’s currently done manually by security personnel.


The best mall redesign is a retrofit

We can rethink mall design post-COVID; but I will not propose for the construction of new malls in our cities. SMEs and the re-emergence of local mom-and-pop shops are what needs support. In countries where malls have died, the shells of which are repurposed for community-serving uses — some reused as offices and apartments, others for medical and educational purposes, and even a number for religious groups. And where parks and wetlands were reconstructed, property values of then abandoned structures increased.

Many Filipinos may tell you that they’re mall-goers for this reason: comfort, in an air-conditioned environment. And I’m sure most of us know this firsthand; the heat is no joke. What we’ve always been craving for might simply be comfortable public spaces, and not “freemium” spaces that ask us to spend money in exchange for space in the city. Retrofitting existing buildings for our thermal comfort will need less. And waste less. All we need next is a more thoughtful analysis of our cities and stronger political will.

The modified Filipino mall experience can go many different directions, and I hope we find ourselves in one that’s more community-serving and self-sustaining.

Photo by JL JAVIER

Reimaging the public transport
by Benjie Dela Pena

Metro Manila runs on privately provided public transportation. The jeepneys and buses receive no government money but earn all their income from their fares. This is par for the course for most cities in the Global South.

The coronavirus lockdown and the full ban on public transportation in Metro Manila means that all of the drivers, owners, and operators of these vehicles have no income.

Up to 80 percent of the commuters in Metro Manila travel by public transport. This includes essential workers, and medical and emergency personnel. Anything we can do to improve public transportation improves the city for the vast majority of its residents and workers.

What if I told you that we could save the livelihoods of jeepney operators and drivers, provide efficient and free public transportation, enforce social distancing, change driver behavior, and reform the transportation sector?

The key is to use the economic rescue package to pay operators and drivers to run their routes.

Here’s how we can do it:

1. Government should pay jeepney drivers to run their routes.

This would be part of the economic rescue package.

The government pays the equivalent daily income of the bus or jeep. This would not be too expensive relative to the costs of the lockdown and the total economic rescue.

Jeepneys account for 40 percent of all our trips in the mega city. There are 55,000 franchised jeepneys and 8,000 buses in Metro Manila. A jeepney brings in about ₱5,000 a day, of which the driver takes home about ₱700. The lion’s share goes to the boundary (or vehicle rent, which is the operator’s revenue), the rest to fuel and maintenance.

Considering the aforementioned estimate of the number of jeeps in Metro Manila, the total daily cost of buying jeepney service would be ₱275 M. That’s just .08 percent of the total coronavirus economic stimulus package for the Philippines, which is at ₱330 B.

If we ran the program for 90 days, it would cost ₱24.75 B, or less than 7.5 percent of the total stimulus. If you add in the buses at about $10K per day, then the total bill would just be north of ₱32 B. I think that is well worth the cost of keeping Metro Manila running.

While income numbers for buses are currently unavailable, it would likely be a fraction of the total cost of buying jeepney service.

Buying the daily routes gives the government leverage to do the next steps.

2. Make public transportation free.

The jeepneys don’t have to charge fares because the government is paying them to run the routes. The free fare is money back into the pockets of commuters.

3. Effect social distancing rules in public transport by reducing the number of riders.

The government can then effectively prescribe limits to ridership, e.g. only 10 people allowed on a jeepney that can carry 18. The drivers will comply because it will not affect their income.

4. Change driver (and system) behavior.

Because we break the income link between passenger and driver, drivers will not be swerving in and out of traffic to pick up passengers (and earn fares). The government can impose performance standards that could include:

Organized stops: We can designate jeepney stops along the routes and require drop-offs and pick-ups only in the stops.

Required trip completion times: We can impose an average time to complete a one-way route (depending on the route) and require the drivers to comply.

Safe driving standards: By suspending or barring any driver caught violating road rules. We can even impose speed limits based on trip completion times.

Set headways and controlled dispatching: We can control the time between jeepneys by defining and imposing headways at the start of the routes (e.g., depending on demand: 1 jeepney every 3 minutes at peak, 1 jeepney every 5 or 7 minutes off-peak). We can set up dispatches at the either end of the route; they will need it to verify route completion anyway.

Use GPS-based tracking and verification: Drivers will be required to check in at the start and end of every route to confirm that they ran the route. It will be easy enough to put together a proximity based phone app and require drivers to upload an app that traces their routes and “clocks” them into the route. Dispatchers with compatible apps can check them in and check them out of the route.

Get passenger counts: We can require drivers to complete simple forms at the end of each route to give a close estimate of the number of riders they carried. Later on, this system can be digitized and automated so we get more accurate (and daily) origin and destination data.

Setting up the system above sets the stage for better management of our public transportation system and, in the post-pandemic world, allows us to finally do the final objective.

5. Fully reform public transportation.

This pilot will show us that reforming the economics of privately provided public transportation will change the behavior of the system. We would have changed the incentives that drive the system.

Drivers will drive safer. Trips will be much more predictable. Commuters will save time and money.

We would have changed the way we think about what is possible and open us to neways of funding transportation. Buying jeepney trips for a whole year, paying the drivers and operators out of government funds, will cost about ₱170 B. That is just a fraction of the total GDP of Metro Manila (₱ 6 trillion) and just about 12 to 15 days of the supposed economic cost of traffic congestion.

Later on, we would be able to add more stringent performance standards (including emissions controls), fixed salaries and labor standards, cashless fare collection, and electric vehicles.

Illustration by JL JAVIER

Reimagining commute in the metro
by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro

How exactly can social distancing be observed given the existing issues of transport in Metro Manila? Work-from-home setups can aid in resolving the problem, but they raise other concerns in terms of unequal internet access among Filipinos. “In the event that one cannot find a way to work from home, the only way to control overcrowding [in Metro Manila] is providing more ways to get to their destination safely and efficiently,” says Zaxx Abraham, an urban planner working on community development and member of transport advocacy group AltMobility.

The most commonly promoted means of transportation are cycling and traveling on foot — options that should be practical especially to the common commuter. Metro Manila is far from being a cycling- and pedestrian-friendly region even when 88 percent of households in the Philippines have no access to private vehicles, says Abraham.

Mirick Paala, a transport planner and fellow AltMobility advocate, says that the region’s current road design is “car-centric” and does not address the needs of pedestrians and users of non-motorized vehicles.

Since the pandemic, there has been an increase of cyclists all over the country due to the lack of public transportation vehicles under ECQ. Severe crash fatalities involving cyclists were also reported, some of which were frontliners and medical workers.

This makes safe and inclusive infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists all the more necessary, say Paala and Abraham. Ragene Palma, an environmental planner, also calls for changes in the urban environment, which would include street redesign: providing wider sidewalks, putting up bike lanes, building public bus stops and setting routes inside neighborhoods, and practicing greening.

Once Metro Manila is put under GCQ and public transport is reopened for commuters, it is likely for those with access to other modes of transport to avoid its use and opt for private vehicles or motorcycles in fear of getting infected.

Abraham says, "Unless strict measures are taken to make our public transportation safe, we will see more people shift to private cars." By investing in permanent infrastructure for long-term use, the government can encourage commuters to shift to more sustainable modes of transport, says Paala.

The situation also calls for innovative measures. “Ultimately, we don’t just want a new normal. This is the time for creativity," Abraham says.

Palma suggests developing systematized top-up cards that commuters can use for different modes of transport and pay for online, as well as focusing on integration to land uses, which can be done by “connecting transport routes with walking paths, markets, and communities.”

But more important than these points is the need to realign priorities when talking about public transport. Abraham says that the biggest factor to consider at this time should be the people, which Palma echoes as she points out that a crucial change needed in the restructuring of the transport system is that its orientation must be shifted towards commuters’ needs, behaviors, and environment.

Noting that urban planning and transport policy must align with public health and the needs of every sector, Paala says, “The pandemic magnified the crisis that we have already been experiencing before, and it has shown us that we are only as strong as the most vulnerable parts of our community.”

Cover illustration and design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA