The Magic is in the Mundane: Evolving role of landscape architecture in greening Metro Manila amidst rapid urbanisation

Pasig City Completely Devoid of Trees; Photo by Daphne Oseña-Paez

Pasig City Completely Devoid of Trees; Photo by Daphne Oseña-Paez


“Within its moss-covered walls, hoary with the scars of centuries, are contained a priceless collection of objects of high historic value, beautiful shrines, and age-defying temples – things which the tourist in his search for the strangely new, strangely old, will discover in no other part of the world”. - Daniel O’Connell, 1908

This is a quote from Manila, The Pearl of the Orient, a tourist guide book published in the early part of the 20th century by the Manila Merchants’ Association, which described Manila in the most interesting light (O’Connell, 1908). In stark contrast to the culturally rich, elegant, and vibrant city described in the early 20th century, Manila is currently afflicted with urban planning issues. It’s hard to ignore the sight of billboards lining the thoroughfares, disjointed and inefficient public transportation system, and deteriorating architectural heritage (Alcazaren, 2013). For the most part, the burden to preempt or solve these highly-complex, multifaceted, and deeply rooted problems have rested on the shoulders of policy makers, urban planners, architects, and landscape architects. Unfortunately, this has met little success in the past century, primarily because of masterplans that were seldom implemented effectively despite the grandiose intentions of previous colonial governments, famous architects, and ambitious government leaders (Ballesteros, 2000; Alcazaren, 2013). In light of this, questions arise like despite all the preparation why is present-day Metro Manila the way it is now? Are practitioners doing enough to aid the situation and more importantly, how else can the city be improved?

El Hogar: One of the Last Remaining Testaments to American-Era Architecture;  Photo by Paulo Alcazaren

El Hogar: One of the Last Remaining Testaments to American-Era Architecture; Photo by Paulo Alcazaren

The Urban Disease

Metro Manila is the center of commercial, economic, and political power in the Philippines. Not only does it serve as the seat of the national government, it also hosts the country’s most vibrant Central Business Districts (CBDs). The National Capital Region alone accounts for 36.6% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2017). Incomes in urban areas are estimated to be at least 2.3 times larger than that of rural areas (Lagman, 2011). As a megacity, despite Metro Manila already being one of the densest cities on Earth, many people still immigrate in droves to the big city (Caballero and Pereira Roders, 2014). It is where most job opportunities are found and socioeconomic mobility is achieved (Lagman, 2011). There is no sign of this trend of migration abating any time soon. The urban population in Metro Manila, which accounts for 12.88 million people (based on the latest Philippine Statistics Authority census) is projected to rise at an annual average rate of 2.26% from 2011-2025 (UN DESA, 2012). If the estimates are correct, the urban population of Metro Manila is expected to reach a staggering 16.3 million people by 2025.

Accommodating the constant immigration often comes at a heavy price. Residential land use in Metro Manila has already increased by a staggering 54.7% within a span of fourteen years from 29.4% in 1980 to 65.0% in 1994 (Ballesteros, 2000). Open spaces and forest lands/parks have also been dramatically reduced from 24.3% and 20.2% respectively to 4.0% and 1.0% during the same time period (Ibid). Meanwhile, the city has not yet provided universally safe water access, sanitation, proper solid waste disposal, and high-quality housing to a considerable portion its continuously growing urban population (Asian Development Bank, 2014).

Although many new developments are happening in certain parts of the metropolitan region, some areas of Metro Manila still experience urban blight. Such a vicious cycle of industrialization, urban population growth, and environmental decay as what Frederick J. Osborn (1942), referred to as the ‘Urban Disease’, which he detailed in his book New Towns After the War. The burden of providing basic services of infrastructure such as running water, sewage, and enough dwelling spaces to the city’s inhabitants are the first priority of urban planners, while the idyllic greenbelts and park nodes picturesquely woven into Metro Manila’s urban fabric only serve a secondary planning priority anchored to aesthetic and associated social benefits for the public.

Redeveloped Boardwalk along Roxas Boulevard, Manila; Photo by Paulo Alcazaren

Redeveloped Boardwalk along Roxas Boulevard, Manila; Photo by Paulo Alcazaren

The Role of Landscape Architecture in Metro Manila

This imbalanced urban development has not dissuaded everybody. Landscape architects are in a unique position to make big impacts and leave behind lasting impressions on the cityscape of Metro Manila. As part of the ethos of practitioners, landscape architects strive to improve the quality of life in urban areas by crafting spaces that balance the built and natural environments for the benefit of inhabitants and users. It has long been an advocacy of landscape architecture in the Philippines to create more healthy open spaces in urban areas (Brito and Caballero, 2015). For the most part, this is being done through the design and improvement of a myriad of spaces, ranging from streetscapes to entire transportation corridors. One design project at a time, landscape architects are uplifting the city and its inhabitants through carefully designed landscape projects at par with world-class standards.

The redevelopment of Roxas Boulevard in the City of Manila is one of those major public realm projects. The boulevard was once a stretch of Manila Bay’s coast littered with mismatched lamp posts, obscure monuments, and vagrants, which has slowly transformed into a dignified public space reminiscent of Burle Marx’s Copacabana Beach Boardwalk (Department of Tourism, 2013). Another project, the Bonifacio Global City Greenway Project, has repurposed an idle stretch of land overgrown with weeds and bushes into Metro Manila’s longest linear park (Marvida, 2016). Perhaps one of the more ambitious projects in the city would be the Ortigas Greenways Project, which aims to develop an elevated green pedestrian corridor linking major areas in the Ortigas CBD to the nearest mass transport station, the Ortigas MRT (PGAA Creative Design, 2012).

These three example projects are good for the city but they are primarily focused on areas of commercial/economic importance. Although freely accessible, these public open spaces are viewed by many, as ‘amenities’ or ‘luxuries’ afforded to those with space and money, not treated as essential elements of the urban fabric. Well maintained green spaces and parks freely accessible to the public are not very abundant in the city.

Given Metro Manila’s rapid urbanization, the priority of public projects for infrastructure works and the focus of private developers in creating green spaces that are economically viable, landscape architects, despite their noble intentions, have limitations to promoting urban greenery. The breadth and scope of what is currently being done by many practitioners may not be enough to benefit the full spectrum of society. Aside from that, a majority of the public have limited capacity to demand healthy open spaces in the city, enough to push the local governments and representatives into action. There is a need to expand the role of landscape architecture in order to be more holistic in promoting urban greenery not just to great public areas but also to smaller spaces within homes and lower income communities in the city.

PALA members LArch. Sharron Azuela and LArch. Eunice Collera with community garden workshop in Bohol.

PALA members LArch. Sharron Azuela and LArch. Eunice Collera with community garden workshop last 2016 for Luntiang Pook.

Holistic Thinking and Seeing the Smaller Things

Christopher Alexander, an influential architect, design theorist, and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley said:

“This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.” (Alexander et al, 2013).

Alexander believes that practitioners, aside from contextualizing design approaches, must take into consideration physical, socioeconomic, and cultural conditions. He opines that every element should be treated as part of a complex, interdependent whole. As any ecologist or systems engineer would say, the key lies in the behavior and interactions of a system, not its parts or combinations thereof, to be treated in isolation (Mehaffy, 2016). The solution lies not in the “things” being designed, but in the ability of the designer to recognize the subtle interactions between the “things” and their connections between different relationships and values. In the same way, cities must never be organized into rigid and inflexible structures for the sake of organization and tidiness. Instead, the focus should be on creating an open structure that allows the partial or complete overlaps and interaction between elements of varying orders of scale. Every element in a set must be designed to support and enhance each other, regardless of scale (Alexander & Mehaffy, 2015).

If the interaction between things of varying scales and the relationships between the interactions is the answer to Metro Manila’s urban greenery, then an important relationship that design professionals need to be reminded of would be that physical connections need to follow social connections. When practitioners build physical connections where there are no social connections, they only create a space dissociated from its users (Alexander & Mehaffy, 2015). Landscapes only become relevant to people when they become the venue of meaningful experiences, connections with the place, and appreciation of the land, regardless of whether this is a built or natural landscape. If the users have no social or emotional connection to a landscape, it becomes irrelevant to people, no matter how beautifully designed it is, and thus it is taken for granted.

The task of Filipino landscape architects goes beyond the technical skills of designing spaces. They need to provide areas for people to build on their social connections, perhaps even forge these connections as part of their design process as individual practitioners. Landscape architecture needs to permeate into the quick-paced lives of city dwellers for it to become more relevant and relatable to the lives of the different demographics of urban dwellers in Metro Manila. This may require practitioners to operate at much smaller less glamorous, even community-based or individual scale that is not the usual target clients of landscape architects. This is not to say that there have not been exercises into this direction. Government institutions and landscape architects have already begun to focus more on the modest spheres of small and micro-landscapes.

For example, the Quezon City local government started the Joy of Urban Farming Programme in 2010. This program was aimed to promote urban farming and greenery among the different small communities (barangay) in Quezon City and its inhabitants. The local government does this by providing participating barangays technical and funding assistance in setting up their urban farms. From an initial 3 pilot farms, the program now boasts an impressive 84 farms interspersed throughout Quezon City (Rodriguez, 2014).

The Philippine Association of Landscape Architects’ Luntiang Pook Programme, which aims to provide healthy environments through the design and construction of edible community gardens, is also another step in this direction. By democratizing the landscape design and construction process through community participation, Luntiang Pook is able to provide communities and its constituents the opportunity to collectively work together on something, all while providing them additional food and income (Brito and Caballero, 2015).

Qubo DIY Garden Kits; Photo by Urban Harvestry, Inc.

Qubo DIY Garden Kits; Photo by Urban Harvestry, Inc.

There are even some initiative which aim to promote the tenets of Landscape Architecture at even smaller spaces for patios and interior gardens. Qubo DIY Garden Kits is an attempt to apply landscape architectural concepts on a micro-landscape. The garden kit fits everything needed to create an edible herb garden and it inspires people with the basic tools and knowledge to create miniature gardens with limited space. A majority of the people who purchase Qubos include enthusiastic first-time gardeners and city-dwellers who live in cramped condominiums, shared flats and apartments; Individual urban farmers with spatial limitations become the target group of Qubo which is usually beyond the reach of the typical landscape architects in the Philippines.

With more exercises like the Joy of Urban Farming Program, Luntiang Pook, and Qubo DIY Garden Kits, Filipino landscape architects can strengthen their social connections to establish meaningful, accessible and lasting green space the city. It is these ground level connection to people that can serve as the foundation upon which practitioners promote urban greenery.

Landscape Architects need to find creative opportunities to get in touch with the everyday lives of city dwellers in order for urban greenery to permeate into the Manila’s collective consciousness. Although there are many ways to accomplish this, it is through the application of a landscape architect’s technical skills, knowledge, and passion for creating meaningful, thoughtfully designed spaces on not only the large and impressionable but also the very small and ordinary that the thriving city, once considered the pearl of the orient, can be built upon. The importance of beautiful, functional and memorable landscapes should be incorporated in various scales and pockets of the city. This will allow the magic of nature to be found in the mundane.



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IMG_8067Manuel Francisco Bretaña is a registered landscape architect based in Metro Manila who received his bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. He is currently the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Urban Harvestry Inc., a startup social enterprise dedicated to pushing for urban greenery and agriculture in Metro Manila through the Qubo Garden Kits brand, as well as a full-time Landscape Architect for the Rockwell Land Corporation. He can be contacted through his email at


Gabriel-Caballero-320x480Gabriel Victor Caballero is a landscape architect from the Philippines, who has worked for leading landscape design practices in Asia for the last decade. Gabriel came back to Asia in 2015, following two years of graduate studies in Germany focused on providing strategies for diverse issues of World Heritage Sites. He has worked on a variety of projects, including a design competition for the revitalization of the National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens; an architectural and landscape conservation strategy of the historic settlement of Hellerau in Germany and a masterplanning  for a sustainable leisure destination in Hamilo Coast in the Philippines.