October 4, 2023

The City of Baguio has been described by some planners as unplannable, characterized by urban sprawl and massive stifling congestion in many of its residential areas. The city daunts the most serious planner who seeks to impose order to the chaos and disorder within it.

It is not that the city was built and subsequently administered without plans; it was, as a matter of fact, an originally planned settlement – a colonial hill station designed by the world renowned urban planner, Arch. Daniel H. Burnham, who had been careful enough to note the existing circumstances then “point to the development in the near future of a town not exceeding 25,000 inhabitants.” However, Baguio City’s population as of 2022 has tremendously grown to more than 385,000 and is projected to increase by more than 468,000 by 2032.

Any attempt to rein the city’s population growth rate would be met with extreme difficulty due to the city’s functional roles, such as a hub for tourist destination, center of education, retail/wholesale center, health services, and real estate development.

Compounded by being established as a townsite reservation where most of its limited and topographically constrained lands may be classified as alienable and disposable with its advantage of a cooler and favorable climate may well be themselves responsible for the city’s huge transient population and high rate in-migration. Thus, despite vestiges of Burnham’s original plan still being perceived in its current urban morphology, a highly-urbanized Baguio City is now more reflective of an uncontrolled urban growth.

Concomitant to the city’s uncontrolled growth is that since the devastating 1990 earthquake took place, Baguio City had already showed signs of urban decay. This is against the prepositions that despite being a very serious public concern for many years, urban decay has not been given enough attention by its people, yet “just like a frog in a frying pan”, our citizenry seemed not to mind its negative consequences and its impending crisis.

These maps extracted from the study of Estoque and Murayama of 2011-Baguio City Profile provides us a clearer picture on how rapid urbanization impinge pressure on the land through the city’s comparative transformation of its built-up area over the past years from 1988,1998 to 2009, res-pectively.

URBAN GROWTH OF BAGUIO CITY (1988-2009). These maps were extracted from the land use/cover maps derived from 1988, 1998, and 2009 satellite images, with accuracy levels of 86.86 percent, 87.18 percent, and 89.10 percent, respectively. Source: Estoque and Murayama (2010).

By definition, urban decay describes a condition of observable indicators in the physical deterioration of the built environment resulting to some chronic conditions, such as prevailing daily traffic congestions, air, water pollutions, public and private infrastructure dilapidation and building obsolescence, included in it is the prevailing acute conditions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, earthquakes, and typhoons, to name a few.

These conditions may result in the decline of the city’s socio-economic activities and more so, on the exhaustion of its environmental absorptive capacity since more people and businesses may relocate to more favorable places in the future pushed by the pressures of inefficiency and inconvenience brought about by urban decay.

This brings forth a negative implication to Baguio City’s resiliency, owing to the fact that based on the 2019 study conducted by the National Economic Development Authority, the city had already breached the threshold for its environmental carrying capacity. Irreversible as it may sound, we may never achieve the quality of life each and every one of us are longing for.                 

For a clearer perspective of what urban decay is all about, allow me to present two major theoretical underpinnings from which urban decay can better be understood.

The first is the Spiral of Decline Theory by Prak and Priemus, 1986.

This theory argues urban decay is a result of three main aspects, namely social, econo-mic, and technical decline. These three are directly interconnected, considering that once economic decline occurs due to some structural shifts in the investment, household income comes along with it.

The rationale behind this is that, since the city depends largely on its retail and whole sale industry, the inefficiency factor can drive away investors to a better place for business.This is to the disadvantage of the city and it goes the same with large scale investors that once the vicious cycle of environmental degradation persists, as can be gleaned today, can result to a red line decision to back down as their investments may no longer tolerate a higher management and maintenance costs that a specific critical factor of urban decay may bring forth.

When a city, neighborhood, or part of it becomes less attractive, the high-income occupiers may move out leaving low-income households behind. This can lead to a weaker social control from which crimes may increase as have been experienced by other cities globally. Some of these cities never survived and continued to be immersed under the condition of urban blight and persistent crimes.

The second is the Broken Window Theory, which explains urban decay by looking at the disorderliness, infrastructure abandonment, social ills, and residential instability with rampant vices of people.

This theory posits that maintenance and management of the city’s public and private infrastructure together with its investment systems is of high priority, otherwise acceleration of decay can be imperative to the detriment of its property values.

Thus, a delay in maintenance and repair can fast-track the deterioration of the city or neighborhood.

This theory reminds our policymakers and private owners to take due cognizance of the areas that seemed to be deteriorating before the situation gets out of control. This can be done through a constitutionally acceptable urban decay study per district of the city presumed to be “deteriorating”.

From these theoretical precepts of urban decay comes the issue of urban resiliency. This is hinged on the ability or capacity of urban systems, communities, individuals, organizations and businesses to recover and maintain their functions and thrive in the aftermath of a shock or stress brought about by urban decay and or natural calamity.

The word “capacity” moves us forward to the importance of social foundation as a primordial component for a resilient urban development.

Social cohesion as a driving force of the city’s vision is still the best proposition in answering the question, “How can we be sustainable and resilient?” People’s integration in the mainstream of planning is an indispensable act. As such, our local government should promote for a more transparent public participation ensuring in return the public’s active cooperation and action in aid of legislation reinforced through an updated information system especially on the issues challenging our critical environment.

Reiterating the importance of social foundation, Ardill and Lemes de Olivelra, 2018, studied the categories of spatial and community planning, governance, and co-production as well as public service design. Their findings suggest social innovation process is as significant as the intended outcome and in connection with this, the role of place-specific practices cannot be undermined. This was also highlighted by Ulug and Horlings, 2019, upon which social innovation has been effective in terms of changing the mind set of our people towards resiliency and sustainability. This brings forth the value of social perceptions in terms on how our past and present historical antecedents are interwoven projecting in return the city’s image and identity.

Baguio City’s historicity that has led to its urban sprawl characteristics is not the result of planning. Borrowing from Petit, 2022, Baguio City’s problems are the legacy of historical stratification originating in the many independent political clusters as can be gleaned in its current urbanization pattern herein described as pervasive de facto eroded identification boundaries between its neighboring municipalities.

In terms of Baguio City’s geo-political positioning, its urbanization will affect largely the whole territory of La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba, and Tublay (LISTT) not only because it has no spatially organized continuity, but also because it is marked by the same habitation model conveyed by the notion of urbanity. The source of existing urban patterns is the result of human actions (consciously or unconsciously). Thus, the built environment is the outcome of socio-political and cultural processes.

Against this backdrop of a pervasive crisis known as urban decay, our focus should synchronously be on the value of our environment and optimum economy. The need for co-production between the government and its people in negotiating the space towards arresting the impending failure of resiliency is now more than ever urgent.

Amidst this current situation, the city’s potential for a sustainable and resilient development being one of the few great hill stations in Asia should remain a source of strong motivations and inspirations to keep it moving forward.

It is for these existential reasons upon which we should now realize that our beloved Baguio City can no longer expand within its territorial limits. It needs the cooperation of its neighboring municipalities through an Integrated Regional Development Approach known as the BLISTT Sustainable Development Framework Plan representing the key in promoting unity and cooperation among the people of Baguio City and the LISTT municipalities.

As we negotiate our space towards resiliency and sustainability, let me end my discourse by reminding the citizenry that our natural resources are limited, land is the only base, urban decay is evident, be part of the solution. (The writer is a professor at the School of Advance Studies and School of Engineering and Architecture at Saint Louis University).