Heritage preservation key to a ‘liveable Iloilo City’

Architect Paulo Alcazaren speaks during the Creating Liveable and Resilient Cities forum on May 19, 2023. (Joseph B.A. Marzan)

By Joseph B.A. Marzan

A renowned Filipino architect on Friday said Iloilo City has an opportunity to further improve the “friendliness” of its streets to pedestrians and bicycle commuters by preserving its culture and history, similar to the metropolitan areas of Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.

The Australian Embassy kicked off its Philippines-Australia Friendship Day celebrations in the city on Friday, May 19, through a forum on Creating Liveable and Resilient Cities with an emphasis on perspectives from the two countries.

Architect Paulo Alcazaren, who is credited for the iconic Iloilo River Esplanade, shared how the city can copy the effective urban planning in Australia’s metropolitan areas.

Alcazaren shared the histories of how iconic Australian architectures such as the Sydney Opera House, Darling Harbour, and linear parks in Melbourne were a result of government efforts in conservation and looking at the importance of waterways like their rivers.

“Unlike Philippine cities where we’ve all turned our backs to our rivers and streams and turned them into sewers, Australian cities use these rivers as a connector two sides rather than a division in the middle of the city. So, we’ve had to take that strategy to help revive, regenerate, and reconnect parts of the city together, it’s also very pleasing to the eyes, and provides linear parks, as you’ve seen with Iloilo,” Alcazaren said.

He said that the challenge for the Philippine cities was how to create cities that are liveable and that support the public’s economic, social, religious, and educational endeavors, with lessons from the recent COVID pandemic.

He cited the contrasts between the 58-hectare Rizal Park serving Metro Manila’s 12 million residents and the 315-hectare Central Park in New York City which serves only around 2.5 million residents.

“The reality of the Philippines, despite us being independent since 1946, is that population has grown from 6 million in the turn of the 19th to the 20th century to 100 million and we have to find shelter for Filipinos in our cities,” he shared.

“Manila has 630 square kilometers in area and 12.8 million residents. […] There is inadequate land use planning, [an] inefficient transport system, […] and a lot of parks and open green space. Despite the fact that Metro Manila has had 12 Comprehensive Land Use Plans over 100+ years, none of which were completed,” he added.

“The situation is not much better in Metro Cebu. It has 2.8 million residents. Although there was a massive plan in the 1910s under the [then] Bureau of Public Works, and another plan after independence, everything is incremental and unplanned, and thus an inefficient transportation system and a lot of plazas, parks, and open green space.”

Alcazaren shared his experience living in Melbourne and having designed some of the parks in Singapore and tied it to his lamentation of how Metro Manila provides less importance to open green spaces.

He highlighted how many parks in the capital region were closed to the public despite their potential to be attractive both to residents and visitors.

He cited the park between Guadalupe Bridge in Makati City and its interchanges with J.P. Rizal Street in Makati City, which sits near the banks of the Pasig River.

“[Metro] Manila only has 200 hectares of parks, this included the little multi-purpose courts and little plazas which are essentially just traffic islands with few tries, aside from Rizal Park and Quezon Memorial [Circle],” he said.

Alcazaren shared throwbacks of how the Iloilo River Esplanade was converted into a walking-only park from a service road, as well as the conversion of 40 percent of the Benigno Aquino Jr. Avenue to a mixed-use bike path and sidewalk, and the improvement and expansion of the cities parks and plazas.

He said the designs were taken from his experiences in Australia and Singapore, where the local government also made efforts to increase walking and cycling traffic.

He also mentioned that he was currently working on plans with local stakeholders, including further restorations of American colonial era-buildings along the city’s downtown, and segregation of the city’s bike lanes along General Luna Street which will extend to Iznart and J.M. Basa streets to Plaza Libertad.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned […] is that investment on public land will give benefits not just to the people who use these amenities but also to the landowners, and the city gets more revenue,” he shared.

“Hopefully, for the improvements of Iznart and [J.M.] Basa, all the way to [Plaza] Libertad, we can show that [segregated bike lanes] can work. […] There is always a way to find space in Iloilo for both pedestrians and bikes. […] Bike lanes are a bit more [of a] challenge, the idea would be segregated bike lanes, and that would hopefully come in the future,” he added.

He emphasized the importance of rivers to a place’s history, citing Iloilo City’s experience as a major trading dock for domestic and international trade since before the Spanish conquerors came to the islands.

“It’s always important to design public spaces for (sic) recreation, for romance, for economic, and also for heritage conservation to acknowledge the history that went into these rivers, because they were avenues of economic development, like in Iloilo, where goods were offloaded from ships that came from Manila and overseas, so the economic history of Iloilo and many port cities in the Philippines is very tied to their river sides and their water sides,” he said.

But Alcazaren ultimately said that the city should not aim to become Sydney or Melbourne, but should aim to be closer to the identity of its own culture and serve the public rather than vehicles.

He said that there must be more investments in cultural mapping, the results of which must be factored into further improvement and development plans of cities, not just Iloilo City.

“[Y]ou have a rich heritage of architecture in a built environment in all of Australia’s cities which they conserved and adaptively reused. The greenest building is the building that’s already there, because in the computation for values, the embedded energy of effort that went into the original building must be put into the equation,” he remarked.

“All cities and what we try to discover is the people, their essence, and find it. One of the important things we find when we go to the cities is not the physical design first, it’s understanding the people in it, their cultures, we recommend cultural mapping, and this is to document tangible and intangible practices and somehow filter that into the physical design of the cities,” he added.