October 7, 2022

Anyone born before the Internet and who has probably visited or stayed in Baguio City would always be nostalgic about the city they used to know – pine-scented air, wide roads, few crimes, a vibrant business climate, and a close knit community.

It was this vibe that made Baguio a melting pot and a second home to many. As early as the late 1960s, the rapid urbanization of the city as a result of a robust tourism industry was already evident. As can be gleaned in the resolutions and ordinances passed by the past and current city council, there have been countless measures passed to address the early stages of unregulated development and population growth largely attributed to in-migration.

The devastation of Baguio during the 1990 earthquake has exposed what unregulated development can do to a city that crammed buildings and people into a community designed only to accommodate about 20,000 people.

The public is fully aware of these facts. But population growth and changes in government policies compounded by political interventions have slowly made what Baguio is today.

In his inaugural speech in June, Mayor Benjamin Magalong has declared that his top agenda on his second term will be to address the urban decay that Baguio is experiencing.

Magalong said if urban decay is not addressed now, there will no longer be a “Summer Capital” or a “City of Pines” in the next 20 to 25 years.

He said whatever is left of Baguio should be conserved for the future generation.

MANAGING WHAT IS LEFT — Buildings, instead of trees, dot the hillsides of Baguio. A study commissioned by the National Economic Development Authority in 2019 states Baguio would no longer be a livable city in 20 to 25 years if nothing is done to address urban decay that is slowly gnawing a city once known for its pine-scented air and abundant trees. — Harley F. Palangchao

BLISTT, Senate probe, Baguio-Boracay Task Force, RevBloom

Even before urban decay became an oft repeated term, several measures have been instituted to address the uncontrolled urbanization of Baguio.

Shortly after the 1990 earthquake, a study funded by the European Union recommended that development should be dispersed in the neighboring towns of La Trinidad-Itogon-Sablan-Tuba (BLIST) in order to “depopulate” Baguio and to spread economic activities to the city’s outskirts. The BLIST Development Council later added Tublay in the list.

Realization of the BLISTT development plan took off slowly as development concentrated in Baguio and La Trinidad while the rest of the outlying Benguet towns have remained agricultural. It was only recently when the Metro BLISTT Development Authority – a permanent body that would implement the development plan lapsed into law.

Republic Act 11932, which created  Metro BLISTT Development Authority as a government entity with corporate powers, seeks to formulate plans and implement basic area-wide services without diminishing the local government unit’s autonomy on local matters.

Under RA 11932, Baguio City and LISTT will be assigned as a special development and administrative area. The MBLISTTDA will be placed under the administrative supervision of the Office of the President.

The establishment of MBLISTTDA, aside from promo-ting the efficient delivery of basic services, will foster sustainable development in the city and Benguet towns.

Meantime, it is still unclear how the current set of officials will mobilize to realize the goals of the BLISTT development plan.

The Senate has also taken interest when the late Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed a resolution calling for an inquiry, in aid of legislation, about the uncontrolled development in Baguio.

Former Sen. Rodolfo Biazon led the inquiry where although he and those who attended the inquiry agreed that overdevelopment is happening in Baguio, the city is not yet experiencing an urban decay. “Depopulation” or the substantial reduction of the population resulting in weakening of the economy was his primary gauge then.

The Senate however, recommended for the local government unit, to come up with policies to curb urban decat

But even with reports of a deteriorating Baguio, the city has continued to be a favored destination in the country largely due to the cool climate.

To save what remains of Baguio, then President Benigno Aquino III formed the inter-agency Baguio-Boracay Task Force.

The task force started by tackling the issuance of titles over ancestral lands, which encroached on delineated areas for government needs and on forest reservations and watersheds.

A Baguio Ancestral Lands Claim Committee (BALCC) was created to solely handle issues about the conversion of ancestral lands into commercial areas and subsequently, cases have been filed for the revocation of some of certificates of ancestral land titles (CALT). The city’s stand was if the CALTs, which are considered private properties were cancelled, some areas can at least be spared from overdevelopment.

It took years before Baguio won its cases against dubious ancestral land claims but even then, circumstances such as the opening of the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway, which hastened travel to Baguio and the rest of Northern Luzon; the amendments to the National Building Code that allowed the construction of buildings to a maximum of 12 stories as long as these pass ground and structural stability, and expansion of economic activities outside of the central business district all the more made the city a magnet for businesses and therefore conducive for people to congregate or even stay here for good. 

The BALCC has since been inactive after the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples said it is the sole government agency lodged with the function of screening ancestral land claims.

Efforts at addressing issues besetting Baguio continued with the Department of Tourism’s RevBloom (Rev up, Revive, Revisit, Revitalize) urban rehabilitation and tourism campaign led by former DOT-Cordillera Director Marie Venus Tan.

Launched in 2015, RevBloom is an urban rehabilitation tourism campaign that has immediate, practical, and long-term responses to the growing “unpleasantness” of Baguio. The project aimed to “rebloom” Baguio into a sustainable mountain resort.

The proposed projects and programs then were the Baguio Reblooming and Regreening Project, sustainable traffic management system and development of environmentally sustainable integrated mass rapid transport system, among others.

Of the three programs, only the reblooming and the regreening project took off but only partially. Overpasses and houses in the city’s hillsides have been repainted, and flowers have been planted at the strategic areas around Baguio in an effort to make the city look pleasant.

Baguio got good press as a result of the projects to revitalize the city but the community did not entirely welcome some of the plans such as the repainting of houses at Carabao Hill (commonly known as Quirino Hill). In some of the consultations called by the DOT, some did not welcome the fact that there will be a uniform color of houses. Others also complained that the revitalization project were geared towards pleasing the tourists – not the residents; that the project was superficial but does not address the deep-seated problems of Baguio.

Upon the assumption of a new administration in 2016, no plans about continuing Baguio’s rehabilitation has been downloaded to the local government.

Reversing the trend:

Baguio in 2043

Another attempt to address overdevelopment was broached in 2019 when then newly-elected mayor Benjamin Magalong and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources-Cordillera asked then President Rodrigo Duterte to issue an executive order for a moratorium on the construction of new buildings and treecutting.

Malacanang did not reply to the request although former DENR secretary Roy Cimatu has ordered the DENR-Cordillera to inventory trees in the city where results will be used in charting a new and better direction for Baguio.

An official of the DENR-Cordillera in one press briefing deduced that Baguio’s classification as a townsite reservation where lands, unless, delineated by Presidential proclamation or issued an ancestral land title, are alienable and disposable and therefore considered private property.

Magalong also planned on abolishing the Local Zoning Board of Adjustments and Appeals saying the exemptions granted by the body resulted in a disorderly zoning system in Baguio.

“Marami sana tayong lupa pero nabahayan na,” Magalong lamented in the recently concluded environmental summit where he said while several areas have been delineated as government reservations, these are not titled, which means government has not perfected ownership which exposes these properties to claims by private claimants.

City Planning and Development Officer Arch. Donna Tabangin said lack of understanding and appreciation by the public and concerned officials, and failure to cascade to the communities the many studies done about the environmental state of Baguio are factors why the projects to address the city’s deterioration are fragmented, not in sync with the projects of other agencies, and have not been sustained for the long term.

Tabangin said the CPDO strategy is to gather data, interpret, then present it to stakeholders – from the top to bottom in order to educate them about the real state the city is in.

She said the daily traffic congestion, rationing of water, diminishing open spaces and forest covers, air and water pollution, and overloaded sanitation facilities are indications of urban decay.

She said this happens when facilities, infrastructure, and space are no longer enough to accommodate the needs of the population. 

“It is like climate change. Nobody believes it until it happens. Urban decay is unfolding right before our eyes,” Tabangin said.

Citing the 2019 study of the University of the Philippines-Diliman as commissioned by the National Economic Development Authority, Tabangin said if nothing is done to reverse the findings that said Baguio has already exceeded its carrying capacity, the city will no longer be livable in the next 20 to 25 years.

Carrying capacity is the maximum number of individuals that the environment can carry or sustain.

Tabangin said ideally, each person would need 1.9 hectares for sustainable living. With a population of 366,358 as of 2020, this means at least 122 Baguios is needed to meet this ideal balance between people and environment.

But given the circumstances we are in, Tabangin said the remedy is to increase the city’s carrying capacity by managing the population – particularly immigrant population.

Based on data of the Population Commission, Baguio’s annual population growth rate from 2010 to 2020 is 1.40 percent, which is higher than the ideal national growth rate of 1.3 percent.

Tabangin said the city government’s primary concern are transient residents.

“Population increase by birth is natural. Our main concern is in-migration and transient residents who live here for a short while but who also use up our already scarce resources.”

To address the symptoms of urban decay, the CPDO started auditing buildings in the city. The initial audit showed that out of 51,000 structures counted, only 10,000 have been issued building permits. This means the rest of the other structures could have been built on prohibited locations such as geohazard areas, ancestral lands, and government reservations.

Tabangin said it is also probable that some of these buildings, especially boarding houses, have exceeded their carrying capacity, which means inhabitants are also overloading the use of facilities in a building, such as its sewage and water system.

City Hall also implemented a regulation where businesses need to secure a locational clearance as one of the pre-requisites in the issuance of a business permit.

This way, those who construct buildings for commercial purposes are regulated, Tabangin said.

She said the carrying capacity of buildings, infrastructure, and facilities should also be defined for people to appreciate and understand why regulations have to be in place.

“We need empirical data as proof,” she said.  

Tabangin said the City Tourism Office also has to strengthen the Visita program – the tourist registration portal of Baguio which was developed before the declaration of the pandemic as part of the city government’s plan to regulate the entry of tourists to avoid congestion of roads and most visited areas especially during peak tourism season.

She also agrees with the re-commendation of the DENR for the LGU to make tourism in Baguio expensive.

As a pioneer tourist destination, Tabangin said Baguio should set the benchmark of making tourism sustainable by limiting the number of visitors but ensurng that their visit is convenient and worth remembering.

She said even schools, which is also the biggest economic contributor of Baguio have to know their carrying capacity in order to come up with a conducive learning environment.

Tabangin admits the path being carved out by the CPDO is audacious but the symptoms of urban decay have to be treated now before it gets worse.

She said the central element to achieving these are the people. Without the public’s cooperation, plans and programs to make Baguio better now and for the future generations will not be realized.

Instead of being pessimistic, she said the current generation should think about those who will inherit this city and strive to make Baguio a livable city.

“It takes 100 years for a forest to regenerate. We only have 20 to 25 years.”

She said people should choose which Baguio of 2043 they wish to live in – a city in shambles or the city of their dreams.