MANILA: Roaring up in front of the National Housing Authority, thousands of protestors completely block off traffic as they shout their demands. Dozens of police officers stand by, controlling the mob while standing in formation, batons on standby but not required.
Many of the demonstrators – most of whom are women – are angry; others seem bemused by the spectacle that they find themselves part of.
This is a mobilisation of the urban poor – there is no shortage of them in Metro Manila, as land prices continue soar and with it the number of informal settlers.
They have brought a fight of desperation to the street.
Two protesters, one young, one older, march for housing rights in Manila.
On this day, they want the president to continue talks to improve housing rights in the country and end the destruction of their homes. But their longer-term issues are part of a wider problem – one that has divided the capital along economic lines.
Many of these communities have been established for years in so-called danger zones in the metro – along polluted canals, near garbage dumps, along shorelines or anywhere that can provide some refuge for society’s poorest.
They have also occupied highly valuable land – both public and private – in parts of Metro Manila ripe for development. As a result, demolition of these “squatter colonies” happens regularly, in the name of progress. What comes in their place are normally mega malls and condominiums.
High-end construction is going up at rapid pace throughout the city.
Manila is modernising – the national government has aspirations to make the city a desirable place to invest as well as more aesthetically pleasing and liveable.
“The high rise construction is happening left and right. Whenever you see one, you will just imagine there have been people who have been displaced,” said Prof Hazel Dizon, an expert of urban landscapes from the University of the Philippines Diliman.
“This has been happening at a faster rate. In a way it’s a paradox because you are building condominiums but then you are displacing people.”
In 2010, the Metro Development Authority estimated there were 2.8 million informal settlers, out of a population of 11.9 million. Both figures are expected to have accelerated sharply since then.
Informal settlers in San Roque have been fighting forced evictions for years.
One of them is 26-year-old Jeselyn Asadon, a former informal resident in San Roque, an area that became a construction site for a shopping mall, following forced evictions. Like thousands of families right throughout the city, she was relocated to Bulacan, a province to the north.
It is a situation she says is unacceptable.
“In the relocation site, there’s no food. Children steal food from others; most of the relocated people do that, that’s how they survive,” she said at the protest.
“You will steal from your own neighbour so that you have something to eat.”
The problems there are “classic” – a lack of services and opportunities, which in turn force people to return to wherever they came from to seek employment. It is an unhealthy cycle Manila has to contend with.
“If you’re going to resettle people you have to do it complete with the public utilities, electricity and water, school and hospitals and of course employment because that’s the main reason they were here in the first place,” Prof Dizon said.
Resettling the urban poor has become a crisis issue for authorities.
Urban planner Paul Alcazaren says private developers are largely shaping the look and feel of the city by building what local government units (LGUs) cannot afford. But he argues the LGUs “don’t get a free pass” for not building critical infrastructure for residents.
“You’re always playing catch up to a problem that should have been solved by thinking ahead,” he said. “Modernity is relative – we need to address just the basics first because once you address the basics you build a city that can accommodate equally.”
The government, however, is studying a proposal to create a city planning commission that would look into the feasibility of mass in-city housing projects for the urban poor.
It is what many evictees want – and possibly precisely what Manila needs.
‘WE’RE NOT GETTING MORE SPACE’
The idea has the support of the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS). The organisation’s president Mark Evidente believes such a concept would actually drive revenues for local government units and ensure that gentrification does not price out the very people who need housing the most.
HCS is also leading efforts to restore “value” in older parts of the city, which are often being used by informal settlers and seen as derelict. This type of privately owned land becomes a prime target for developers.
“All of these are at risk because land values are increasing and the home owner can derive much more from building a 50-storey condo on top of it,” said Mark Evidente, the organisation’s president.
“The owner himself would find it very hard to say no to a deal. Heritage becomes a very difficult proposition to protect.”
It can be hard for land owners to say no to big developers, Mark Evidente says.
He argues that in the pursuit of modernisation, identity is being lost, through the displacement of people and loss of structures that “contribute to a sense of what the city is”. Trying to save the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex is top of their agenda.
“If you lose your heritage structures, what makes your city or town different from the next one? If we manage to save our heritage structures then we can tell a story about our towns,” he said.
They are not the only ones trying to change the narrative. There is a growing movement to reclaim spaces to be used or enjoyed by the public. And art is central to the idea of a more sustainable future.
Creating more green space for residents to enjoy can make a city feel more liveable.
“Obviously the cities are getting bigger and bigger but we’re not getting more space,” said Lai del Rosario, the head of arts and creative industries at the British Council, Philippines.
“Creative projects are very important in urban life, not just as a source of inspiration but also they add to our quality of life.”
She is leading a project to regenerate Pasig River, a major artery through Metro Manila that was traditionally a transport route and water source, but has become heavily polluted and neglected.
Canals and rivers in Manila are often heavily polluted, and are under utilised public spaces.
Within months, art installations will adorn a series of flood pumping stations along the waterway, ideally providing a boost to local culture and enriching neighbourhoods.
In a similar way, the artist-run space 98B COLLABoratory has set up its operations in the old downtown district of Escolta, an area that is rundown but slowly being revived by such alternate ventures.
The group’s executive director Marika Constantino believes they have the power to reach local residents, rather than push them away as the area gentrifies. “Accessibility is very important – the common misconception is that art is for the educated or the elite. We try and create projects that can engage the wider population,” she said.
When engaged, public restoration projects have already been proven to work in some residential areas. In Estero de Paco, a canal of “dark grime and filth” where “the stench of water sticks to your skin” has been transformed into a leafy waterside recreation area for local residents.
“River warriors”, a group of locals who clean up the small river daily are proud of their local environment, while others enjoy community gardens.
River warrior Lourdes Isaac says she feels pride keeping her community clean.
But once again, it also meant that shanties along the canal were removed and their occupants sent to outer districts. For now, even positive developments still come with a cost.
While the situation may not be perfect, it is something tangible for a poorer community to build upon. For them, it is far more valuable than any number of new malls.