Bright lights, smart and inclusive cities

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I grew up in the city. A true-blue Manila boy if you will. I have memories of the capital coming to its own urban identity, buildings and urban spaces popping up here and there in the last 50 years. The urban jungle epitomizes a fast-paced, competitive way of life, luring dreamers to seek opportunities in the cities.

However, due to the endless traffic, air pollution and rising criminality, city dwellers are starting to rethink their place in the urban jungle. While moving to the countryside is also a viable option, there is no reason to abandon the city just yet. I think there is still hope for urbanization to thrive, if we can commit to making cities smart and inclusive.

Thankfully, there are efforts to recreate the cities to become more sustainable and inclusive, targeting poverty reduction, climate resiliency, enhanced connectivity and competitiveness, among others.

Just last year, the World Bank (WB) released a report on urbanization in the Philippines. According to said report, the Philippines is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the East Asia and the Pacific region, with the urban population at more than 50 million in the past five decades!

We have sure seen the rise of Metro Manila the past few years, with the influx of people coming from nearby cities in Luzon and as far as provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao. The further development of the central business districts of Makati and Bonifacio Global City also paved the way to more jobs, enticing workers to inhabit the city.

But with the demographics and the environment changing through the years, challenges in urbanization arise. Apart from our seemingly lacking appreciation for the importance of urban planning, issues on informal settlers double in numbers, air and waste pollution persist, congestion in the streets become commonplace and available jobs seem to dwindle down. What gives?

Inclusive cities drive growth?

How does a city become inclusive and why is it synonymous with growth?

According to the WB, around 80 percent of economic activities are concentrated in the cities. With United Nations Sustainable Development Goals highlighting the need for inclusive cities, it is important to make sure that growth incorporates everyone. Economic competitiveness is evident in cities where companies are setting up shop, creating the needed jobs for city dwellers.

In the Philippines, business process outsourcingcompanies have provided jobs and spurred competitiveness in urban areas and continue to develop other potential cities even in Manila’s neighboring provinces, such as Laguna and Pampanga.

While urbanization in the Philippines continue to develop, the WB study enumerated the key challenges from the areas of density — growing population and urban density lacking enough investments in urban infrastructure; distance — challenges in connectivity vis-à-vis our archipelagic structure and division — informal settlers living in poor conditions with limited access to basic services.

Government must look into resolving issues in the aforementioned areas to ensure that companies are able to offer enough jobs to people and that access to basic services are always available for those in the urban areas, especially the marginalized. For companies to be able to offer enough jobs, ease of doing business in the cities must also be harmonized and improved.

For one, soft and hard infrastructures in our urban areas are yet to reach their full potential, but thanks to the Build, Build, Build program of the government, the creation of new transport infrastructures are underway paving new opportunities for our cities.

The country is also susceptible to natural calamities and so, the government must enable its cities to be able to become more resilient by establishing disaster risk masterplans that can also be supported and implemented by the private sector.

Emergence of smart cities

Since urbanization has become intertwined with the idea of being unsustainable because of its vertical growth due to the lack of space and viable land use program, a call for smart and inclusive cities have surfaced.

Smart cities are described as using information and communication technology to better city management by capitalizing on the use of technology to connect to the citizenry and develop needed infrastructure in the urban areas while incorporating environmentally sustainable solutions. The development of smart cities must be supported and encouraged as the Internet of things is slowly but surely affecting the way we live. By the use of technology, we are also able to efficiently use the limited resources that we have, such as energy for example and effectively manage our day to day activities in the cities.

Hence, urbanization should be able to cascade effecting change that is mindful of the challenges that we currently live with. Exacerbating congestion and poverty by abstracted policies and lack of foresight in urban development can further hurt the otherwise beneficial and valuable gift of urbanization.

It is high time for a strengthened coordination between the government, the private sector, academe, and the civil society to make our cities shine bright more than ever.

What are your thoughts?

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