Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Four Commandments For Cities Of The Future

By Bridge Telva Mapangdol - [I work in the Internet Marketing industry with specialization in content, social media, email marketing, and in Search Engine Optimization.]

In 2007, seven cities around the world made the longlist of the potential hosts for the 2016 Summer Olympics. These were Baku, Chicago, Doha, Madrid, Prague, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro. Following the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) analysis of the countries’ answers to the application questionnaire, it was announced that the forerunners were Chicago, Madrid, Rio, and Tokyo. After IOC members visited each of the candidate cities, they cast their votes: 66 went to Rio and 32 went to Madrid. What could have happened? How did a South American city prevail over what most of the public know as more progressive cities?

Eduardo Paes, the then-incumbent mayor said, ‘It was emotional and it wasn’t easy.’ He was in Long Beach addressing a TED Talk audience and emphasized that “Mayors have the political position to change people’s lives.” And I believe that that is true.

In his talk, he presented The Four Commandments for Cities in the Future. These are the commandments which he believed played a part in Rio’s eventual selection to host. He pointed out that for a place to become a city of the future, it has to be environmentally friendly, it has to deal with mobility and integration, it has to be socially integrated, and it has to use technology to be present.

A city of the future has to be environmentally-friendly. Simply put, a city must not do any harm to the environment. The thing is, that’s hardly ever the case, and we know that. Cities thrive through urbanization and industrialization and in the process, different kinds of wastes are created as a by-product. What these wastes are is a different discussion altogether. What matters is that something can be done about them.

In an effort to start a green initiative, Paes had to look for areas in a city of 7 million in order to create specks of open spaces. Sadly, Baguio City intends to do just the opposite. Burnham Park and Melvin Jones, including the smaller recreational parks in various parts of the city, are open and green spaces that ought to stay that way. Why?

Open spaces represent an urban area’s quest to preserve the natural environment. Yes, Burnham Park and Melvin Jones have undergone human-initiated improvements across the years, but the idea of obliterating a huge area in order to accommodate a man-made structure is ludicrous. Second, open spaces are the last frontiers of green space provision in a city where concrete structures sprout like mushrooms.

Third, open spaces are where the public can go to in order to recreate and escape the usual concrete visuals they encounter on a day-to-day basis. Fourth, open spaces are where people congregate in order to build a sense of community. To me, it wouldn’t make sense to build an ‘environmentally-friendly’ structure on a land that’s already considered environmentally-friendly.

A city of the future has to deal with mobility and integration of its people. Paes says that since majority of a country’s population are found in cities, there’s a need to prioritize mobility and integration. Now this issue is something that can be addressed by high-capacity transportation systems. The problem is, building it costs a lot of money. So what did he do?

Paes replicated what Jamie Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil has done: create the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). So he took a bus, transformed its interiors into a train car, and allotted an exclusive lane for it to move. Bus stations were also built at different points which gave rise to a high-capacity transportation network.

At the time of his talk, only 18% of Rio’s population are being moved by the BRT. When fully functional, Paes estimated that BRT will be able to move 63% of the city’s population. Beautiful, isn’t it?

The thing about Baguio and La Trinidad is that mobility shouldn’t be a problem if not for congestion. We lack the space to expand our roads but new vehicles continue to come about. Not to mention the fact that because we assert our freedom to own a private car, we don’t really see how that sense of entitlement becomes the very cause of our own inconvenience. And then we blame the government.

We fail to see that auto makers are now mass-producing vehicles for shipment to third world countries. In response, banks are now making it easier for people to get approved on an auto loan by partnering with auto dealerships. Their marketing is so attractive that people don’t realize they’re acquiring debt based on a depreciating commodity.

What we also fail to see is that the solution doesn’t lie in building additional parking lots. The solution lies in decongestion. Yes, the Number Coding Scheme is effective but only when I was in high school. Nor is the parking podium a solution. Build a 10-storey parking structure and it will only serve to displace congestion. When vehicles go back on the road, the same thing happens. It’s a Band-Aid solution.

So what about regulating the number of vehicles that run the streets especially on high-tourist seasons and on weekends? What about initiating an active campaign telling tourists to utilize local transportation when coming up here to visit and when leaving the city? After all, we’re very, very concerned about them, right?

What about reviewing the effectiveness of the existing Number Coding Scheme? What about starting an initiative that highlights the role of road discipline in uninterrupted flow of traffic?

A city of the future has to be socially integrated. Paes discussed this part by focusing on the favelas in Rio. Slums can be found in any city. For his part, Paes emphasized that favelas need not be a problem. Instead, they can be a solution. So instead of having people go to the heart of the city to avail of educational, health, and social services, Paes brought these services to the heart of the favelas by looking for existing structures and transforming them into habitable spaces. I call this the social integration counter flow.

This is something that we already have. We have health centers, day care centers, and primary schools in local communities. And although there are communities in far-flung areas, we have dedicated people who go on their way to serve. I call this social integration in progress. We’ll get there as we learn from what we do.

A city of the future has to use technology to be present. During his talk, Paes called his secretary of urban affairs in Rio’s Operation Center to see what’s going on. His secretary gave him an update on the weather, the traffic condition, and even where the garbage collection trucks were at that moment. It was wonderful.

Now, for the majority of us, one of the best indications of technological integration is the installment of CCTVs in strategic areas in the city. This is a great beginning only if it’s used to respond to something sneaky real-time and not after it happened. Yep, that means enforcement visibility not only when it’s time to shut the bars down for curfew or when it’s time to manage the traffic flow.

The Internet is also now lending a hand in terms of making communication and networking a lot faster. And so is the prevalence of GPS. But do you know what we lack in this space? Responsiveness, and the perfect example is social media.

Very rarely do social media pages attributed to government organizations and political or public figures entertain the comments on their pages or posts. I’m not sure why but in my field, this reflects on the quality of engagement from the person or organization represented by the page. The same applies to websites that lists an email address. You send an email but no one responds. So I’m not sure now what that email address is for. So there’s the challenge in technology. If it’s expertise that’s lacking, there’s a lot of people in the city who I know are tech-savvy enough to man the digital space. And mind you, if these spaces are optimized, we won’t have to wait for the radio announcer to announce that classes have been cancelled because of an impending storm. With technology, we can actually feel that our local leaders are with us and not above us.

The miniscule land areas of Baguio and La Trinidad offer a huge challenge. I’m clearly aware of that. But challenges have their own accompanying solutions now or later. We may never get a shot at hosting the Olympics but it’s the out-of-the-box solutions that we implement that takes us a step closer to greatness. We can be cities of the future only if we go beyond the bounds imposed by our own dull way of thinking.

[Update: The plan to construct a multi-level parking lot in Burnham Park has been rejected by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Read the article here.]