In 2018, the Research and Development Division of the National Economic Development Authority has commissioned a group of researchers to determine the carrying capacity of Baguio. The rationale of said research was to compare the current status of the city’s urban ecology and public perception about standard carrying capacity indicators. Results of the study which was released in 2019 were to be used as reference for planners in the local government to craft policies that will address issues and concerns detailed in the study.
One of those who conducted the study, now the Planning and Sustainability Officer of Baguio, Arch. Donna Tabangin summarized the findings – that Baguio has long exceeded its carrying capacity and if nothing is done to reverse the findings, the Summer Capital of the Philippines 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 that ideally, each person would need 1.9 hectares for sustainable living. But for a city with a land area of 57.51 square kilometers (km2) and a population of 366,358 as of 2020, Baguio is one of the densely populated cities in the country with around 6,400 individuals per km2.
Tabangin said at least 122 Baguios is needed to meet this ideal balance between people and environment.
In 2021, the Watershed and Water Resources Research Development and Extension Center (WWRRDEC) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources did a similar study focusing on the city’s tourism carrying capacity.
The WWRDEC study showed that residents of Baguio are experiencing tourism fatigue because of the overcrowding they experience every time there is a surge of tourist arrivals especially during peak tourism season.
The study said the tourism fatigue is due to the residents need to “share” already limited resources and facilities in the city such as space, roads, and domestic water.
Ideal versus reality
But the ideal is not the reality in Baguio.
Human settlements have encroached on vital reservations, water is rationed, road networks are narrow to accommodate the increasing number of public and private vehicles, there is lack of housing infrastructure to accommodate a growing population, the current infrastructure and facilities to accommodate solid and liquid wastes are no longer enough, and the once pristine creeks and rivers and the air are polluted.
Tabangin said a large population can also result in government not being able to provide for all the needs of the public such as health care, education, and peace and order concerns.
She said the reality is Baguio has long been experien-cing urban decay but actions to solve the indicators of decay have not been fully and properly addressed, which is why problems of the past continue to haunt the present and if left unsolved, even the future ge-nerations.
Another Baguio-based urban planner, Arch. Rafael Chan, has concurred that the “picture-perfect” image of Baguio in the past is no longer the same today, but disagreed with how some people predict that the city is bound to its doom.
“I agree that we are experiencing urban decay but our situation is not that bad compared to other cities that have similar characteristics with that of Baguio,” Chan said showing comparative data of Pasig, Imus, Caloocan, Lapu-Lapu, Angeles, Tagaytay, and Manila.
In terms of land area, Lapu-Lapu City is closest at 58.10 km2 yet their population density is far higher than Baguio.
With a population of 497,604 as of the 2020 official census of the Philippine Statistics Authority, Lapu-Lapu City has a population density of 8,565 persons per km2.
Except for Tagaytay City, which showed a more ideal population of 85,330 and a population density of 1,313 persons per km2 in its 65 km2 area, Chan considers Baguio’s population density as “not too serious,” although he admits that the city has issues and problems unique to its characteristics in terms of community values, geographical makeup, and climate, among others.
“The carrying capacity agenda is not a major problem for Baguio because resource availability is unlikely depletable, while technological advances continue to be harnessed as our appropriate response. Population density comparison of Philippine cities will reinforce this,” Chan said.
However, he agrees that the city’s population – both the transient and birth population have to be managed in order to achieve a better quality of life as spelled out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“The population should not be left alone to take care of itself,” Chan said but appealed to fellow experts to refrain from painting doomsday scenarios because there are solutions to these problems if there is careful and proper planning.
Baguio’s future under a revised charter
On top of appointive positions mandated in the Local Government Code, the revised charter of Baguio created new positions that are said to be vital especially in a changing landscape driven by smart technology, artificial intelligence, and climate change.
The new positions or departments created are City Population Officer, City Tourism Officer, City Traffic and Transportation Management Officer, City Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Officer, and City Solid and Liquid Wastes Management Officer. The revised charter also included “sustainability” as an additional function of the City Planning and Development Office.
Functions of the six officers, where several are already existing but attached to some city departments are interconnected as they will specifically deal with the most pressing issues in Baguio at present – birth rate, tourism, disaster reduction and management, traffic and transportation management, and sustainable development planning.
Tabangin said even as the revised charter is yet to be fully implemented as some sectors have questioned some of its provisions, the City Planning and Sustainability Office in 2021 started auditing the city in preparation for the updating of the 21-year-old Zoning and Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
The audit focused on the carrying capacity of Baguio compared to population growth and physical development of the city.
She revealed that of the developments implemented from 2001 and 2011, 20 percent have been done based on exemptions by the Local Zoning Board or national government agencies resulting in the construction of structures in areas that do not correspond to their zonal classifications.
To prevent the proliferation of structures on regulated or prohibited zones, Tabangin’s office, along with the City Buildings and Architecture Office, has implemented a stricter policy on the issuance of permits to construct. Both offices require a zonal clearance and a land title as prerequisites in the issuance of a permit to ensure that no new structures will be built on protected areas, or construction of new structures should be in accordance with an area’s zonal classification.
Tabangin said this measure protects remaining forest co-vers, prevents the proliferation of illegal settlers, and allows breathing spaces to remain open.
The NEDA-commissioned study may have painted a dismal outlook for Baguio but Tabangin clarified this is not the case because there are solutions that can be adopted to avoid the consequences of unaddressed problems of Baguio.
She said the carrying capa-city can be increased by dispersing the population in areas that are less dense. This can be done if government will provide the facilities and infrastructure that will convince the public to stay at less populated areas.
In Baguio, the densely populated areas are usually the small barangays such as San Antonio Village, South Sanitary Camp, Lower Quirino Hill, City Camp Central, and Upper Market Subdivision.
Barangays South Drive, Sto. Tomas School Area, Happy Hallow, Session Road, and Harrison-Claudio-Carantes are the least densely populated barangays.
In the ongoing consultations for the CLUP, Tabangin said one option being consi-dered to increase the city’s carrying capacity is to allow the construction of buildings for residential needs to as high as 15 stories from the former eight-storey limit.
But this has to conform with other ordinances and laws. Apart from the soil stabi-lity test which is currently one of the requirements for permit to construct, a seismic test issued by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology is also being planned.
“Para alam natin kung saang lugar ang makaka-accommodate ng mataas na building,” Tabangin said, stressing that the proposal would have to be planned with other indicators such as current and project traffic movement, zonal classification, and current and projected population in the location.
A seismic test measures soil-to-structure resonance to determine if a building will be able to withstand a strong earthquake.
The plan is also similar to the recommendation of the WWRRDEC that Baguio should regulate construction of future tourism structures especially on geohazard areas.
To balance vertical development, Tabangin said the developer will be required to put in more “greens” in the total land area, as she cited as example the city government’s Luna Terraces permaculture socialized housing project where 60 percent is devoted to vegetation and only 40 percent for the structure.
To have more open spaces, areas currently used as jeepney loading areas will be reclaimed and multi-level parking buildings will be strategically built outside the city center.
The city government is planning to build eight multi-level parking buildings, which is projected to have 30,000 parking slots.
Mayor Benjamin Magalong said at present, Baguio only has 2,007 parking slots as opposed to the current demand of 22,000 slots.
In coordination with the Traffic and Transportation Division, Tabangin said the plan is from the outskirts of the city, people will be transported to the CBD using mass transportation coordinated through a smart mobility transportation system.
“Lahat interconnected. Hindi isang sector lang para ma-manage ang movement ng tao,” Tabangin said.
Believing that smart technology is now an essential tool in planning, she said the city’s smart city command center was designed primarily to interconnect operations all over the city.
“Crowd control”: The VISITA, Bhutan, Singapore, and London models
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the city government started developing the Visitor and Travel Assistant (Visita) online registration portal for tourists and travelers coming up to Baguio.
The city started to implement the Visita when the national government permitted the gradual reopening of tourism. The portal, primarily designed for bookings to manage access to the most frequented tourist spots in Baguio, became the contact tracing system for tourists and travelers.
But Tabangin said the Visita has been proven as an effective tool to count and manage the number of people entering Baguio. She said the city is perfecting the system and intends to continue using it in conjunction with other regulatory mechanisms such as collection of fees.
“If tourists are pre-re-gistered, we can manage how many tourists will be allowed in our parks at a certain time so we are able to avoid crowding. We will also be able to know if they will be riding in a bus or a private vehicle so we are able to keep track of the number of vehicles on our roads, again through the aid of the smart mobility tool,” Tabangin said.
Collection of such fees is pending at the city council but Tabangin said to achieve sustainable tourism, a visit to Baguio should be considered a premium. Like Bhutan which is able to regulate entry of tourists by imposing a cap on a tourists’ daily expenditure, Baguio can do something similar such as by collecting green fees or access fees, which she recommends should be steep.
Chan has proposed a similar regulatory measure for vehicles which is the “congestion charge” collected by the city of London on vehicles that enter their central business district or “congestion zone” on certain hours of the day and during holidays.
Singapore has a similar system called the electronic road pricing system where vehicles installed with radio frequency identification (RFID) automatically collects fees from vehicles that enter the CBD.
“Such strategies not only help reduce high traffic flow in city streets, but also reduces air and noise pollution,” Chan said.
To further reduce the vo-lume of vehicles on city roads, the city government can also consider adding an odd-even scheme to the number coding scheme. Chan said the odd-even scheme can be implemented on weekends as currently, the number coding scheme permits all vehicles on the road during weekends.
What about population increase by birth?
Immigration is the main driver of population growth in Baguio. But this does not mean that family planning should be set aside.
Department of Health-Cordillera’s focal person on family planning, Nurse V Glenda Dacanay, said uncontrolled population growth has repercussions not just on a person or the fa-mily, but the environment, society, and economy as well.
She said more people mean an increase demand for the use of resources which are limited, hence the need to plan pregnancies.
Dacanay added a planned pregnancy guarantees that a mother is able to care for and recover her strength from childbirth.
She said while birth population is not much of a problem in Baguio, the campaign on res-ponsible parenthood should be strengthened as the Philippines has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Southeast Asia.
She added the campaign on family planning should include men not just women who, for the longest time have always been expected to plan the spa-cing of births usually through the use of artificial or natural contraception.
This is the job description of the Population Officer as stated in the revised charter of Baguio: provide technical assistance and support to the mayor in carrying out measures to ensure the delivery of basic services and the provision of adequate facilities relative to the integration of the population development principles and in providing access to services and facilities.
At present, the function of population management is designated with the City Health Services Office.
Regardless of the issues lodged against the revised charter, those at the forefront of family planning campaign should strengthen the advocacy on shared parenting responsibility.
One advocacy that should be strengthened is to make men share the burden of planning the family.
“We have to ease the burden on women,” Dacanay said.
She said more men should be convinced to also undergo vasectomy as their share in “easing the burden on women.”
For an urban planner, Chan agrees that birth population should still be managed and stressed that the campaign for responsible parenthood should continue and strengthened along with proper community planning so that the future generations will be able to inherit a better Baguio. ¢