One of those days: A bamboo bridge in Davao City, Philippines

Where is this going?

Working in the ‘development’ sector is not easy. Not only is it questioned by many because it is not always clear why things are done in certain ways, where money comes from and goes to and what is actually being achieved; but it is also so diverse and messy that I sometimes feel like I am loosing track of where I am going with my work in it.

For example, I got into this (not sure if I want to define it yet) because I was inspired by the idea of the Right to the City. This is a concept I discovered at university and had little idea of how long I would spend trying to grasp what it really means…I’m still trying. I didn’t know how to use it or what to do with it, all I knew is that it excited me, I was intrigued and felt challenged. All I knew is that I wanted to work with it. However, much like the word ‘development’, the Right to the City is a widely used concept but also widely misunderstood and difficult to translate into actions.

Because of the risks – in development work – of making things worse, I know it’s important to question myself, and the impact I have, as an individual or/and as part of something bigger like an organisation for example. However, when I question myself too much I tend to lose focus, begin doubting my direction and start looking too much at my past actions and getting anxious about the future ones.

 As change doesn’t happen over night, it can take years of dialogue, debate and advocacy to feel like you are getting somewhere, it can be frustrating. It can also take the same amount of time and invested effort to realise that what you are doing is not actually helping and that you have to start again from zero. Even scarier is the idea that whatever impact you might be having is also very difficult to measure, and therefore, justify.

But then there are those days when, in the midst of the cloud of uncertainty, you come across something or someone that makes that cloud disappear in an instant; like a –welcomed- slap in the face. Monday was one of those days.

Working in the Philippines

Whilst most of my work has been based in Manila, Philippines, I am currently in Davao building a case study of the work that the Philippine Alliance or the Urban Poor Federation of the Philippines (UPFPI) – a member of the Alliance – has done with local urban poor communities.

UPFPI is built up of a network of people currently living in informal settlements or who have lived in such conditions in the past. They advocate for security of land tenure and, alongside other organisations that form the Alliance, the Federation is also connected to a wider web of community-action practitioners that form the Community Architects Network (CAN) a member of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR).

ACHR-CAN uses its web of organizations to gather knowledge, capacity and momentum and catalyze processes of transformation for urban communities in Asian cities. Its latest example is the CAN-CoCreate Workshop. You can read a full report here.

About the Bamboo Bridge

Unlike in other cities where I have worked, the notion of ‘community’ here in Davao, refers to organised community associations. What makes them an association is that they have appointed community leaders and are often registered as an organisation with local government councils.

Four community associations from Davao City, in Barangay 74-A, make up a collective network called the Matina Crossing Communities Federation Inc (BMFCI). Mainly, they live along the Pangi River, which floods regularly destroying locally made bridges and blocking people’s way to get around their neighbourhood and access the rest of the city, more importantly schools, hospitals and often, their workplace.


Pangi River flows down in between the Matina communities

Through a process of community surveys the BMFCI identified that the key issue for those living in the settlement was the lack of a sustainable, resistant and strong bridge that could take heavy loads and wouldn’t collapse every time the river overflowed. As a result, in February of 2010, with the help of HPFPI, the Philippine Action for Community-led Shelter Initiatives (PACSII) and ACHR the BMFCI organised a workshop, bringing together community members, technical professionals and people’s organisations to collectively design an affordable, strong and lasting. You can read more about the process of design here.

 Having identified the design and materials of the bridge the BMFCI applied for a materials loan from the Asian Coalition for Community-led Action (ACCA), that they would have to repay in five years with 6% interest.

14459900_10154093944501939_755961574_n“After weeks of construction activities and almost a year of participatory planning, the bamboo footbridge project paved way to demonstrate the power of community-driven upgrading. It helped the community gain solidarity, fortify their occupation on the area, and show that as a single community, they could design and implement a solution that addresses their need for safe access over a river tributary which has been their perennial problem for over a decade” – Community Upgrading Handbook, ACHR, 2016


One of those days

On Monday, we rode up to the bridge in a tricycle, through small alleys between rows of two-floor shop-houses. Looking straight ahead, at first, all I could see was bamboo trees. Tucked away within the bamboo was the entrance to the bridge, although I didn’t recognise it at first. I was distracted by about six children playing just outside the entrance, using what looked like the initial stages or left-overs of a drainage construction. The kids were using the concrete drainage blocks as tunnels, running in and out, laughing and shouting things I couldn’t understand. As they ran around the blocks, some would slip with one leg as they crossed the slope behind the blocks that led down to the river.

I slipped between them to reach the slope and try to slide down it to see the river and get a good look at the bridge from the riverside. It’s a majestic, beautifully built structure of thick bamboo and concrete flooring. It connects two of the communities at each side of the river, hidden behind rows of bushy, lush green bamboo trees. About 10m below flows the wide river, calmly carrying its murky green water.

14542630_10154101813496939_1962009839_n.jpgAs I walked, almost in all fours, back up the slope to the entrance of the bridge, I noticed how many people were crossing it, by foot, by bike, by tricycle. Some other less obvious users were a man, sitting on his motorbike, enjoying the shade offered by the bridge’s entrance. Two kids were also using its structure as if they were some kind of monkey bars.

 I walked through to the other side and I felt like I was in some form of Chinese garden. The palm-leaf roof creates a fresh shade, a welcoming feeling in comparison to the one you get under the scorching sun of this city. The bamboo structure lets the breeze, which funnels down the river pass through the structure, again, a welcoming sensation.

Meeting the community leader that heads the BMFCI, she explains how they have met with some challenges in repaying the loan they got for the construction. Initially, all community members had agreed to contribute a small daily sum to their savings, which could be used to repay the loan. Today they are two years past the first three-year repayment period and are still struggling to repay it. So, since 2014 they have been trying a different plan. Every month, one of the four community associations is responsible for guarding the bridge and collecting 1PHP ($0.021 USD) per head that crosses the bridge. Each person only pays once a day. Every end of the month, the money is collected and managed by the leaders and the charge of guarding the bridge is rotated to the next of the four communities. The larger sum of the money is collected for the loan and a smaller sum is used for maintenance costs of the bridge. Every three months, all four communities meet at the bridge to varnish it to ensure the protection of the bamboo.


Woman and her children collecting entrance fee

Finding the Right to the City

I’m not sure whether it was the fresh breeze or the peaceful ambience that I felt as I walked across it, but I felt like any mist of uncertainty that I had had in recent months, lift.

Not only was the structure itself inspiring but also, how the communities have organised themselves and their lifestyle around the bridge, which in its own way, unites them not only physically but also organisationally. Despite the challenges, the bridge motivates them to work together. It is part of their daily routines and is integrated into a way of life.

This bridge shows the strength of the relationship between the physical, built environment and the social dynamics of society. But only because it is the members of the communities that have built it, thus society itself that has shaped its environment.

 I’m not sure if this is what Lefebvre dreamt of when he spoke of the “Right to the City” or anyone else who has used the term, but to me I feel like, seeing and experiencing this, gets me a little closer to understanding that strange idea that fascinates me so much.

 “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” – David Harvey, The Right to the City, 2008

A hard concept to grasp – and even harder to materialise – but here, I think, people are one step closer.


View from under the shade


Chess, Life & the City: from Bogotá to Geneva

Do you know how to play chess?

Some people would classify it as an ‘intellectual’ game. Apparently chess is very much like life, it teaches you to think, plan, organise your thoughts, and take action.

“The modern game—essentially unchanged now for about 500 years—is perfectly designed to stretch the human mind to its outermost limits, but not beyond.”Spanier, 2013

So chess is not just any game, it has been worked and re-worked throughout history. Within those small black and white statues, there is a dense process of thought, based on logic and power structures that reflect on many aspects of society, even today; allowing it to be an interesting strategy to educate people, not just on how to play the game of chess but also how to play the game of life.

Quora asks, how is chess similar or dissimilar to life?

Here are a couple of motivational interpretations from Sudhir Srinivisan…

  • Pawn promotions: The smallest people can become the greatest, with perseverance
  • Forethought: To succeed in the long-term, it’s crucial to plan well in advance
  • Rook in the End Game: The quietest and the most unexpected people can often be the most loyal and the most useful during trying times
  • Placement: A knight in a corner is a knight wasted. If you don’t give your assets what they need, they’ll be useless and perhaps leave you eventually

…and some critiques…

  • Queen: Women, despite being far more powerful than men, are encouraged to be selfless and keep the man’s well-being at the back of their mind at all times
  • Pawn unity: If there’s bickering and no solidarity in the economically weakest sections, it’s a recipe for impending ruin
  • Pawn play: The poorest and the smallest are often the first to be sacrificed, and suffer the greatest loss

And then there is also a more reflective position which Joe Blitzstein holds…

“Pattern recognition: Both in life and in chess, reasoning well about complicated problems requires recognizing patterns, structures, and analogies, so that the situation can be chunked into simpler pieces and to make it easier to effectively use past experience.” – 

Or again, as Joe Blitzstein shows us…


Chess is one of the things I inherited from my grandfather, who died shortly after he taught me. I was about 6 when I learnt, but now thinking back it feels like he was trying to teach me something much more important than a game. It was about teaching to have patience and to think. Something that people in our world sometimes forget to do, particularly within the context of busy, hectic or chaotic cities where you barely have time to think!

The way I understand this game is that it’s about forcing, and eventually when they see the benefits, encouraging, people to think before they act. A lesson which is also very valuable in life.

So what does this have to do with cities?  Well, in my experience cities are like primary school playgrounds during playtime. They are chaotic, they are versatile, they have so many activities going on all at the same time. They are spaces with tensions and for exercising power amongst each other in both positive and negative ways.

But playgrounds are also a space of exploring and learning. They are a space where we learn about relating to other people, about sharing and taking turns on the swings; about nature and getting dirty; about balance, taking care not to trip over, or slip off the monkey bars; they are also about identity, developing your identity, what do you like doing? What other kids do you like to hang out with? etc.

So like playgrounds, cities are also spaces of learning. I’m not saying its all positive learning, cities can also expose people to violence and crime which some learn from and reproduce. But this is even more of a reason to take the opportunity that cities represent, to teach society, young and old about respect, discipline, thought, creativity and solidarity.

Through a game of chess for example.


Chess in Bogotá

Bogotá, Colombia

7ma Chess players, Bogotá, Colombia

This photograph is taken on the 7ma street in Bogotá, at about 6p.m. Hundreds of individuals pass by this place every day, many of them stop to watch men, women, girls and boys playing the game of thought. I have also stopped here many times, I get a warm feeling of excited pride for the city… and it also makes me think of my grandfather.

Adolfo Paéz came to this point on the 7ma about seven years ago, carrying three tables and three chessboards. Every day he and others who have taken part in this activity for many years, teach others how to play, encourage anyone to participate and organise and run tournaments. People from all walks of life come together in this space. It is maintained from people’s contributions which are voluntary, usually no more than 500 Colombian pesos ($USD 0.15), which is used to maintain the clocks, buy replacements for lost pieces and store the boards and tables.

Adolfo has been nicknamed the ‘Profe’ (Teacher). You can meet him in the following video (in Spanish)

“Chess is like a universal language” – 


However, despite this vibrant space that is open to teach people about thinking before acting, it is unclear what will happen to it as Bogotá’s historical centre and 7ma become pedestrianised and gentrified. Although the change is welcome and actually quite positive, one can already notice the diminishing activities along it.


Pedestrianised section of the 7ma, November 2015, Bogotá, Colombia

So the question remains, what will happen to Adolfo and his tables? To his intervention, which has for so many years encouraged people in the city to stop and venture in to a different form of thought?


Chess in Geneva

So let’s jump across the Atlantic for a second and visit the city of Geneva in Switzerland. I was walking along the lake the other day and I came across this…


Chess by the lake, Geneva, Switzerland

Yes, a chessboard has been engraved in to the rock. I swear, I touched it just to make sure. When I saw this, I couldn’t help thinking about Bogotá.


Maybe some people might be thinking I’m heading toward a classic example of neo-colonial mentality, suggesting that a Swiss model of public space should be implemented in Bogotá’s public space. But no, I am conscious of that reality and even so, I think good ideas should be shared.

The truth is that having walked past the chess players in the 7ma on so many occasions, I would be very sad to see them go. I know there are many benefits resulting from pedestrianising the 7ma in Bogotá, but as a mere observer I had gradually noticed how on the side that had been pedestrianised there were fewer people on the streets, eating, laughing, dancing, drawing, playing. On the other hand, the side that had yet to be pedestrianised was vibrant and packed with people doing all sorts of beautiful and creative things. It seemed to me that the essence of Bogotá´s city centre was being pushed aside a little.

Probably because with pedestrianised spaces comes gentrification, with gentrification comes changes in the market and value of services, with changes in the value of services comes changes in the people who use that space.

So I have been thinking about how, what chess playing brings to the city of Bogotá, could still be salvaged by taking one good idea from a city and trying it out in the context of another, something along the lines of…

Chess, Life and the City

Valuing and acknowledging the contrast between two spaces and their activities…


A sketch of people playing chess on the 7ma, Bogotá, Colombia



The 7ma after pedestrianisation, November 2015, Bogotá, Colombia

And engaging with these two spaces to cherish and encourage the positive aspects of both these spaces….


Chess in the city, Parc des Bastions, Geneva, Switzerland. Source: TripAdvisor

Can you imagine it?


Chess board on the pavemement


Re-imagining this space, chess board on the pedestrianised 7ma.


So if we want our cities to teach us about life, to teach our children to have patience in life and think about their actions, chess should be cherished, and so should actions like Adolfo’s.

Not only because it provides a space for learning in the city but also because its popularity and positive effects on people is a way of showing city planners about what kind of city Bogotá is, and what kind of city Bogotá (not only the built city but also its people) wants to be. Listening to the people who use and appropriate themselves of its public space should be at the centre of the gentrification process.