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In Philippines' 'city of the future,' smart planning goes green

Why We Wrote This

As the world's population grows, cities are grappling with new challenges – especially environmental ones. Early efforts to create greener, more climate-resilient cities may hold future lessons for the rest.

Benoit Morenne
More than 1,000 construction workers are at work on the Philippines’ first green, resilient, and smart city – being built from the ground up in northern Luzon.

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Sixty miles north of Metro Manila lies New Clark City, a $14 billion “smart city” 1-1/2 times the size of Manhattan, designed to be green and climate-resilient. That’s the plan, at least. Today, New Clark is under construction, with more than 1,000 blue helmet-wearing workers toiling in the scorching heat. When complete, the city is supposed to boast plenty of green space and urban farms, flood-proof buildings, and microgrids, which reduce how many residents are affected by natural disasters. It’s the first Philippine city built from scratch to cope with problems many fast-growing economies in Asia face after decades of growth and urbanization, as megacities’ environmental toll grows clearer – and as climate change leaves them more vulnerable. Some hope New Clark can serve as a model. Others say the flashy plan may overlook key issues, especially as investment drives up prices nearby. Too often, socioeconomic problems are viewed separately from climate change, says Val Bugnot, who works for an international network promoting green development. An effective response needs to consider related factors like migration and hunger, she says.

In 2013, Francis Tolentino, the head of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), sent American best-seller author Dan Brown an outraged open letter.

“We are greatly disappointed by your inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis,” Mr. Tolentino wrote. Mr. Brown’s latest book, “Inferno,” had described the Philippines’ capital as ridden with “six-hour traffic jams” and “suffocating pollution,” no less than “the gates of hell.”

“Truly, our place is an entry to heaven,” Tolentino retorted.  

Many a taxi driver in Manila might disagree. In one of the densest cities in the world, home to more than 13 million, walking can be faster than driving, with traffic jams that cost residents nearly $66 million per day.

When taxi driver Angelo Bertos finds himself stuck in traffic for hours on end, he thinks about the “retirement promise” he made to himself: move to New Clark City.

“It’s a dream for me,” he says.

Sixty miles north of Metro Manila, the Filipino government and private investors are building New Clark City: a $14 billion “smart city” 1.5 times the size of Manhattan, designed to be green and climate-resilient. It’s the country’s first significant effort to build a city to cope with pressing issues many fast-growing economies in Asia face after decades of demographic growth and unchecked urbanization. The continent is now home to half of the world’s megacities, and their environmental toll has grown clearer – while climate change, meanwhile, leaves many of them more vulnerable to natural disasters. 

The main challenge governments in the region have to tackle is developing economically in a way that safeguards the environment, and integrates climate change adaptation and mitigation into long-term plans, says Val Bugnot, a communications officer for ICLEI Southeast Asia, an international network that promotes green development.

For New Clark City, “the timing is just right,” she says. “The private investors are invested and fueling such kind of development projects, the government is pushing and is interested about environmental sustainability, and the people are actually becoming more aware of how their actions are influencing the environment that they’re living in.”

Green grid

By 2045, the Philippines’ population is projected to shoot up to 142 million, roughly 37 percent more than today. Sixty-five percent of Filipinos will live in cities by 2050, compared to 45 percent today, according to the World Bank. But major cities like Manila, like many metropolises in the region, have struggled to keep up, and are growing more vulnerable. The Philippines is among the countries most threatened by climate change, after India and Pakistan, according to an HSBC report released in March. Already, parts of Manila flood every year, and the city has been ranked the world’s most exposed to natural disasters.

New Clark is the country’s most ambitious attempt to date to plan a city able to withstand such calamities. The site, which is just miles from what was once the largest US military base overseas, sits at 184 feet above sea level, protecting it from floods, and mountain ranges act as natural barriers against typhoons.

Contracts for the development of the city’s electric and water infrastructure require that companies use more resilient technologies like microgrids, reducing the chances that an entire system will be affected by storms. Developers are working with Swedish firms to come up with more disaster-resilient features, like earthquake-resistant structures and flood-proof buildings, and road designs will better accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and public transit to reduce congestion. Numerous green spaces will stud a waterway running through the city.

“In a country as vulnerable as the Philippines and where the current cities are really challenged, it is fantastic to set an example of how a good city can work,” says Matthijs Bouw, a Rockefeller Urban Resilience Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who has consulted on the project as an independent expert for the Asian Development Bank, which is assisting the Filipino government. “New Clark City can as a wholly functioning city continue to function when, for instance, a disaster might strike Metro Manila.”

When completed, it will host an administrative center with backup offices for the national government, an academic district home to elite universities, a business district, industrial parks, urban farms, and green open spaces, with the latter two making up for two-thirds of its area.

“In the Philippines we haven't done a really good job at developing cities,” says Vivencio Dizon, the energetic president and CEO of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), a government-owned corporation which owns the land where the city will be developed over the next three decades.

“Regular cities are not enough,” says Mr. Dizon, glancing at maps of the future city hanging on conference room walls at his office. With little inspiration at home, planners have looked abroad. Dizon cites Shenzhen and Guangzhou, China, as successful attempts to spur economic growth outside of the “traditional cities” of Beijing and Shanghai. Putrajaya, Malaysia – the country’s federal administrative center, which was designed to decongest the capital – is a model for alleviating traffic jams in Manila. Yokohama, Japan, is widely admired amongst urban planners for its focus on building smart energy management systems.

Model, or exception?

On the construction site, more than 1,000 blue-helmeted workers are toiling in the scorching heat, broadening existing roads and laying concrete for new ones. At lunchtime, they walk along paddy fields to get fried noodles from food stalls in a neighboring community of rice farmers. Standing in the sun, amid countless metallic poles and mounds of dirt, a dozen cranes are building a 2,000-seat aquatic center ahead of the 2019 edition of the Southeast Asian Games, hosted in New Clark City. A 20,000-seat stadium and an athletes’ village should follow.

This opportunity to build a city from the ground up may not come twice, Mr. Bouw says, but numerous lessons can be applied again. “How do you design a functional transit system? How do you create, let’s say, a more robust energy network?” he asks. 

But to some critics, the project is more of a flashy one-off than a model. Paolo Alcazaren, a veteran urban planner and architect, calls New Clark City “low-hanging fruit”: building a city from scratch is easier than helping the Philippines’ 145 cities and nearly 1,500 towns “understand how they can better expand.”

Besides climate change and massive urbanization, another urban issue too often overlooked, he says, is inclusivity. Indeed, in Capas, a town of more than 100,000 that borders New Clark City, some residents worry the future hub might prove a bane rather than a boon. Land prices have multiplied as much as five times, according to its mayor, rice farmers have been displaced, and the cost of living may be next. “Is there enough diversity in terms of people who live there?” Mr. Alcazaren asks.

Too often, warns Ms. Bugnot of ILCEI, social issues like “hunger, poverty, displacement and migration” are seen as separate from climate change.

“The way forward for cities to become smart and sustainable cities is to look at climate change as one of the most effective ways to address other social problems,” she adds.

Mr. Dizon, of BCDA, says that all communities can benefit from New Clark City. “We don’t want to create an enclave of prosperity in that green area, and then poverty everywhere else,” he says. But while economic growth is one aim of the city, planners also say it can provide a template for other Filipino cities to replicate.

“That is our hope,” Dizon says. “That if we can do it right with this one, other cities will follow.”

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