Philippines plans a city bigger and greener than Manhattan

The aim is to build a city equipped to deal with climate shocks in one of the world's most cyclone-affected regions. But many hope New Clark City will simply ease the pressure on Manila's congested and polluted streets.

Dondi Tawatao/Reuters
Cars, buses, and public utility vehicles pass through a main thoroughfare during rush hour at Cubao, Quezon City, metro Manila, Philippines on Feb. 23, 2018. The Philippines is fast tracking a new, green and high-tech metropolis called New Clark City which many hope will ease the pressure on Manila's congested and polluted streets.

He may never set foot in New Clark City, but taxi driver Edgard Labitag hopes the Philippines' first green, disaster-resilient, high-tech metropolis will ease the pressure on Manila – meaning fewer hours stuck in traffic and more time with his children.

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, the man at the wheel bemoaned another shift spent inching along the infamously congested streets of the capital city of 13 million people.

"Crowding, pollution and traffic – this is what people say about Manila," he said, gesturing at the gridlock.

"But luckily the government has a plan ... and [President Rodrigo] Duterte is the right man to see it through."

That plan is New Clark, a 9,450-hectare (23,350-acre) city that government officials say will be bigger than New York's Manhattan by the time it is completed in 25 to 30 years – with an expected population of more than 1.2 million.

The aim is to build a city equipped to deal with climate shocks in one of the world's most cyclone-affected regions, and to promote healthy, eco-friendly, and sustainable living by putting nature at the heart of development, urban experts say.

Reflecting a rising trend from Japan and India to the United States, New Clark seeks to challenge conventional urban planning by uniting government, developers, business, and the public – and proving that green and resilient cities can be cost-effective.

"The objective is not simply to build a disaster-resilient city, but rather a successful, innovative, and economically competitive city that is also disaster-resilient," said Benjamin Preston, a researcher at RAND Corporation, a global think tank.

New Clark is still in its infancy, but officials say Mr. Duterte is fast-tracking the project as the Philippines, one of Asia's fastest-growing economies in 2017, seeks to boost spending on infrastructure to create jobs and attract more foreign firms.

Yet even as the government races to build New Clark and tackle Manila's booming population, density, and congestion, it must plan the new city with care and avoid past mistakes, says the state-run Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA).

"We need to strike a balance between fast-paced development that maximizes value for the private sector, and protecting open spaces and making the city walkable, green, and resilient," said Vince Dizon, president of the BCDA, which oversees the project.

"Traditional development cannot overwhelm or overpower the area," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "For New Clark City, here lies the challenge."

Green agenda

Situated about 100 km (62 miles) north of Manila in Tarlac province near Clark International Airport, one of the country's busiest hubs, New Clark will be home to several government departments, an agro-industrial park and a huge sports complex.

Yet despite the range of planned infrastructure, only a third of the $14-billion city's land will be developed, with two-thirds reserved for green spaces and agriculture, the government said.

Houston in Texas and nearby Singapore have provided inspiration on how to plan the city in an integrated manner where water management and green spaces are linked closely to all urban systems, according to Dutch architect Matthijs Bouw.

By focusing on nature and allowing plenty of open space along rivers, for example, New Clark can benefit beyond protecting itself from floods, said Mr. Bouw, who has worked on the master plan for the city with the government.

"Putting green areas on the agenda not only helps with water storage and drainage, but creates community spaces and guides street design in a way that benefits pedestrians and bikes ... so social resilience also gets strengthened," Bouw said.

Yet the rapid pace of development and large number of actors working on different structures and systems means some aspects could "fall through the cracks resilience-wise," he warned.

Making the case

Another challenge in designing and developing such a city is changing the mindsets of officials used to traditional planning approaches, who may be wary of going green, urban experts say.

"How do you do this in a regional context in Asia where there is massive and widespread corruption, and where elected representatives change in the short term?" asked Harini Nagendra, an author and academic based in southern India.

The answer: convince politicians and bureaucrats that making a city stronger and safer against modern-day threats will not slow down development, and will save their governments money in the long run, said Oesha Thakoerdin of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is backing the New Clark project.

Economists at RAND are seeking to demonstrate the social, environmental, and economic gains from building resilience and are developing a business case to prove that green urban planning is not only an option for wealthy economies.

"Increasingly we are seeing middle-income countries realize that planning and investing in green areas in cities is critical for their development – and cost-competitive," Mr. Thakoerdin said.

Infrastructure gap

Urban experts say New Clark City could not only set a shining example for Southeast Asia in terms of balancing rapid economic development with social and environmental policies, but may also mark a turning point closer to home.

"[It] has the potential to take pressure off Manila so that Manila can also invest in building a more resilient future," said Lauren Sorkin, director for Asia-Pacific with 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), a network backed by The Rockefeller Foundation.

Manila is one of the world's densest cities, with 14,500 people per square kilometer, almost triple London's level, United Nations data shows. Congestion could cost the capital $155 million a day in lost productivity by 2030, a Japanese government study found.

Cities across the Philippines generate more than 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), while the percentage of urban dwellers is set to rise by 2050 to 65 percent – representing 102 million people – up from 45 percent today, the World Bank says.

While New Clark has been hailed for its vision, experts warn the push for resilience in Asia may be sacrificed in the rush to invest the $1.7 trillion per year through 2030 the ADB estimates is required to keep up with the region's infrastructure demand.

"We're facing a huge infrastructure gap ... and a rapidly growing urban population," Ms. Sorkin said.

"It's going to be enormously difficult to make up deficits, and plan for and meet emerging needs at the same time."

This story was reported by The Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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