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Urban Resiliency in Metro Manila: Q&A with Mary Anne Ocampo

As an urban designer and principal, Mary Anne Ocampo uses multidisciplinary training and experience to work across contexts and scales. She is also a lecturer in urban design at MIT, with a focus on urban resilience in socio-economically and environmentally vulnerable contexts. Her own research explores the urban development and contemporary use of Metropolitan Manila’s waterway system in the Philippines. When Typhoon Haiyan hit in 2013, Mary Anne was awarded a MIT travel grant to go to Metro Manila and put her research into practice. Here she tells us about her experience with MIT in Metro Manila: how she got involved, her experience co-leading a MIT studio and the contextual intricacies of solutions for urban resilience.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research on urban resilience in Metro Manila.

A: My research on urban resilience began with my graduate thesis at Cornell University, where I focused on the city histories and contemporary narratives of Metro Manila, and the significance of water in the urban identity, economic growth, and daily rituals of the Capital city. Being Filipino-American and educated as an architect and urban designer, I’m interested in the relationship of culture and urbanism. I investigated the physical structure of Metro Manila, which is closely tied to a dynamic water system that has influenced the evolution of urban development and public space.

Teaching at MIT, I circled back to my initial academic interests of studying Metro Manila’s urban conditions shaped by water, this time investigating urban resilience within the context of natural disasters (typhoons and tropical storms) and human activity. In fact, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall just one week after I presented research on the topic at the Center for Advanced Urbanism’s Elements of Intelligent Infrastructure Symposium in 2013. When MIT learned of the disaster, the Institute quickly formed a committee, the Philippines Recovery Working Group, devoted to finding ways for MIT to connect and help the devastated communities in the Philippines.

Q: What was the goal of MIT’s project in Manila?

A: The Philippines Recovery Working Group’s goal was to find organizations and institutions that MIT could collaborate with or support during the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Two travels grants were sponsored for representatives to travel to the Philippines. In my role, I was focused on long-term efforts around recovery and rebuilding. This means I was gathering data, mapping current flood mitigation projects and identifying ways MIT might be able to support future planning. Alison Laporte-Oshiro, a graduate student who also traveled to the Philippines for this project, was working to find immediate solutions in terms of supply chains, logistics and operations management.

Being in the Philippines, we were able to connect with other MIT affiliates on the ground. We had several meetings and established connections with several institutions, including Ateneo de Manila University, the University of the Philippines, the Philippine Red Cross, Save the Children, the United Nations Development Programme, the U.S. Embassy, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

Q: How did you continue your work once you returned to the United States?

A: When Alison and I returned to the U.S., we shared our stories and network with the Institute’s committee and MIT President Rafael Reif. We proposed a series of projects that included scaling a drone mapping service for emergency response operations with Ateneo Univeristy, helping the World Food Programme develop a new logistics strategy for emergency response and proactively planning and designing for vulnerable populations living in flood-prone areas with the World Bank.

For the next six months, these projects would come to fruition. Awarded a MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives Global Seed Grant, a planning and design studio practicum was created to study urban resilience in Metro Manila. The studio also received support from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Office of the Dean of Graduate Education, Provost, School of Architecture and Planning, Sasaki Associates, as well as sponsorship by local companies, ACM Landholdings and Philippine Transmarine Carriers. I co-instructed this studio with Stephen Gray, who also teaches urban design at MIT and Harvard. For the spring semester, the studio created strategic planning and design frameworks for informal settlements vulnerable to flooding in Muntinlupa City.

Q: Can you tell us more about the MIT studio’s work? What is the studio doing today to help the people of Metro Manila?

A: Collaborating with the World Bank and the University of the Philippines, this MIT studio practicum built on the World Bank’s ongoing effort of a “Citywide Development Approach” as a way to develop replicable resettlement and upgrade strategies for residents living along the lakeshore of Laguna de Bay in Muntinlupa City, the southernmost of sixteen cities that make up Metro Manila. Field observations, stakeholder interviews, community meetings and design charrettes were part of a two-week site visit that kick-started the studio. Following this, students analyzed physical and socio-economic conditions of informal settlements vulnerable to flooding in a multifaceted process that included engaging stakeholders, mapping the physical environment, documenting housing and land needs, researching financing opportunities and exploring methods for capacity building.

This knowledge was then used in the development of planning and design proposals that explore approaches to reducing human vulnerability to flooding and climate change, while addressing the equally challenging socio-economic concerns of Informal Settler Families living in Muntinlupa City. Working within the context of one of the world’s most densely populated and largest mega cities, and taking on the realities a growing population of increasingly vulnerable low-income populations, the studio asked: How can Metro Manila be better prepared for future storm events? Where should future development and redevelopment occur and where should it not? How can integrated resettlement strategies for Informal Settler Families balance considerations for natural systems, city form and socio-cultural dynamics? What are the benefits to public, private and non-profit sector collaborations?

The work of the studio addressed Metro Manila’s vulnerabilities through scenario modeling—testing ideas in relative isolation to determine priority to one or two key urban issues. This approach allowed students to explore untapped potential and to rethink existing unsustainable planning and development practices. Building upon ongoing work prepared by the World Bank, students questioned traditional zoning regulations, resettlement approaches and urban development policies. The studio collaborated with the University of the Philippines to engage with local communities and create an ethnographic snapshot illustrating how Informal Settler Families (ISFs) currently live and what is most important to them in their daily lives. Through their design proposals, students explored new formal relationships between low-lying informal settlement communities and their immediate surroundings. While student recommendations focused primarily on physical interventions, they took into account the complex realities of both social and economic bifurcations and devastating impacts of flood-related natural disasters—those that result from unclear and often unenforced regulations on private sector development activity.

The students were able to construct new ways of understanding urban resilience within the complexity of Metro Manila. Instead of proposing policy changes or only looking for hard solutions that focused on engineered proposals for flooding, the studio chose to create a series of strategies that synthesized key aspects of Filipino culture into visionary physical frameworks for a future city. What is amazing about this experience – working with MIT, Sasaki and the World Bank – is that we can create responses to urban resilience in ways that link academic inquiry to professional practice, blending the rigor and realities of practice with the creative inquiries of a studio that is not completely bound by political and economic pressures provided new ways of testing innovative ideas. This collaborative mixing influences both practice and education.

Q: What were the solutions that came out of the MIT studio?

A: Four themes emerged from the studio investigation:

1) Intelligent Infrastructure: Sharing Resources and Living Local

In the recent past, the primary strategy for reducing vulnerability for Informal Settler Families (ISFs) in flood-prone areas has been relocation and resettlement. This approach has had mixed results, being largely unsuccessful because relocation typically disconnects families from social and economic resources. A proposed strategy created in situ shared infrastructure upgrades and housing retrofits to protect existing neighborhoods from flooding, while enhancing basic services. When flood events occur and evacuation is necessary, strategic resettlement within the city on privately controlled vacant land allows for a temporary solution and is incentivized by strategic up-zoning along major highways, commuter rail lines and other mobility connections.

2) Environmental Zoning: Directing Settlement & Building Capacity

ISFs spend more than 60% of their income on food, but many recent migrants from the rural provinces of the country come with agricultural skills. Several areas in Muntinlupa where there are abundant streams and rivers go largely undeveloped and have relatively low land values. A new land use planning and development framework for the city anticipates a continued influx of ISFs and suggests directed resettlement in these ecologically rich areas. Dense clusters of mixed housing surrounded by agricultural land provides a framework for a shared economy around urban agriculture, formally employing ISFs, providing cheap land to secure tenure and protecting ecologically sensitive areas from blanket suburban and mall developments that increasingly and relentlessly proliferate in these areas.

3) Connect & Protect: Cleaning Water and Balancing Benefits

A recently authorized joint public-private venture to construct a lakeshore dike expressway and land reclamation as a series of islands is planned along the lakeshore of Muntinlupa. This not only disconnects ISFs living along the water’s edge from their primary sources of livelihood and food, but it will also result in concentrating highly contaminated water in a narrow channel between the inner edge of the dike expressway islands and the shore. Accepting this proposal as a given, the lakeshore and expressway are reconfigured to serve as a new landscape infrastructure for cleaning polluted water. Considerations for public open space, open air markets and fishing access build upon the existing fishing communities, bridging the fishing industry with new development and connecting ISFs to mutually beneficial opportunities and amenities.

4) Distinctly Filipino: Authentic Land Making and Development

Privatized and segmented development patterns mark the urban landscape, contributing to traffic congestion, privatization of amenities, and an undemocratic distribution of resources in Metro Manila. A 400 year-old colonial past further disconnects Filipinos from an authentic development pattern that responds to nature and local ways of life. Learning from proven patterns of living with water from generations of provincial planning, an urbanism can emerge that is uniquely Filipino. Infrastructure, buildings and transportation networks relative to existing and planned private development, expand the physical edge of Muntinlupa in a way that reintroduces a sustainable and responsive form of native island making.

Studio recommendations and projects for Muntinlupa’s Citywide Development Approach were documented in a report for city officials, local NGOs, and the World Bank with the intent of providing new strategies for informal settler families, flood mitigation, and urban development. The studio work was presented at the Community Architects Network Regional Conference and Workshop in Intramuros and Muntinlupa City. Sponsored by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and hosted by the Philippine Alliance organizations of HPFPI (Homeless People’s Federation Philippines Inc.), TAMPEI (Technical Assistance Movement for People and the Environment Inc.) and PACSII (Philippine Action for Community-led Shelter Initiatives, Inc.), the conference connected a network of designers, planners, academic institutions, builders and artists together to advocate for impoverished communities to play a central role in community planning and in finding solutions to improve settlements and build more inclusive cities. The MIT studio work and workshop recommendations were documented as a series of CAN digital pamphlets showcasing strategies, design ideas, and action items for city officials, NGOs and community leaders, with the intent of influencing city planning and design initiatives.

Q: What are some of the broad lessons you’ve learned in Metro Manila that you think can be applied to other projects?

A: There were many lessons learned from the Metro Manila studio that can certainly be applied to other projects confronting similar challenges. First, we believed in a socio-environmental approach that considers both the natural and human factors that make up the disasters in Metro Manila. 1 We investigated storm events, but also looked across the formal/informal and private/public spectrum—investigating the livelihoods and social networks of the informal settler families, to mapping dynamic environmental systems, to studying the hazards of formal urban development. Vulnerabilities to disasters must be considered in a comprehensive way. Second, we realized that working on a citywide development approach requires coordination across scales of government. From the barangay or village (the smallest political unit in the Philippines) to the city to region, decision making and coordination must be a collaborative effort. Last, we believe that as planners and designers we can react to disasters in a responsive way, but we would also like to be proactive in planning a more resilient city that creates an equitable and progressive urbanism that can evolve and adapt to change.

1Lawrence Vale, “Resilient Cities: Clarifying Concept or Catch-all ClichĂ©?” in Richard T. LeGates, et. al., The City Reader (New York: Routledge, 2016) 618.

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