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.

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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.

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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.

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View from under the shade

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What is city?

City

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Actually, I had been waiting for the Daily Post to chose the topic of ‘City‘ for a long time too as I am continuously searching to better understand how people around the world relate to, understand and experience this, universal but very complex, notion. Cities bring so many different human and non-human elements together in a tightly packed space, forcing them to encounter each other, creating multiple connections. So when the Daily Post posted City, I seized the opportunity to get some insight into others’ experiences.

From the outcomes of the Daily Post, the notion of city was understood in so many interesting and curious ways. For Crushed by the City, it is a space of alienation; for City if is a place that is ‘like a disease’ that those who live within it cannot recognise; for City Burden it is a place that you need to get away from; for I still Found me in the Midst of the City it can be a meditative experience; but it is also a camouflaged evil for others Urban Evil.

Coincidently, around this time, a friend – Lou lou – also wrote to me about her experiences in different cities on her trip around the world, which you can follow in her blog, inward-outward.

“I am in California right now and to be frank LA and San Diego were not my thing. San Francisco is better but I need to explore some more to have a better idea. It occurred to me yesterday why I am not liking the cities in Cali so much…. They just feel quite individualistic and materialistic.

People talk about cool neighbourhoods that have nice cafes, shops and restaurants and I cannot help but think to myself: what if I do not want to eat/ drink and do not want to buy anything (traveller’s budget and not space in my backpack)? Is there anything more to it?

I have the strong suspicion that the life here (and in other places in the world) revolves largely around consumption and I am thinking that other places I have visited gave off a stronger sense of community due to their parks, communal spaces where people could interact and exchange. Also here people rely largely on cars to commute much more than they do on public transport.

So my questions I guess are: have you come across these phenomena during your studies? Do you think the atmosphere of a place and mentality of its people is shaped by how the city is mapped out? What can be done in terms of urbanism to create a stronger sense of community and connection between the people?

I just feel that in cities people can become so disconnected and since I have started my trip I feel this strong desire to connect and exchange, a feeling that a lot of travellers feel. But I do not see why this desire should be limited to travelling…

Anyhow as you can see I have been thinking quite a bit and just wondering about those things especially as I have visited quite a few cities now and gotten curious about how they function.” – lou lou

These are such important questions and I do not have an answer to them, in fact they are amongst the questions I seek to explore through this blog too. However, I think a part of the answer has everything to do with how cities are formed and constructed, and by ‘construction’ I don’t just mean laying bricks, I also mean how people like you and I contribute to shaping the city in our daily lives.

Our city

Small changes in the city can have a big impact and reach many people by altering their experiences as they walk through a city. One of my favourite examples it the Urban Knitting Graffiti or ‘Grandma Graffiti‘ movement. What better way to make the concrete jungle a more colourful experience?

You can also see some of my favourite examples in Bogotá visiting this post ¨The memory is on the walls¨. Bogotá is to me, out of the cities I have visited, one where I have seen the most inspiring examples of how people intervene in shaping their urban experience on a day to day basis. The memory is on the walls shows you some examples of urban graffiti that touch on the social and historical complexities of the city and of Colombia. Other, bigger changes, carried out by people that want to shape their cities can be through movements or political campaigns, for example Long Live Southbank. Have you ever been to London Southbank? It’s an area along the river Thames where you get a mixture of second hand book stalls, a wonderfully adapted skate park full of crazy colourful tags and many cafés and food stalls. However, slowly, gentrification is creeping up on it. Long Live Southbank (llsb), the movement, hopes to preserve the history, culture and dynamics of the area, protecting it from the effects of the increasingly rich and growing metropolis.

I think the more people that walk the streets, use the public spaces and dwell in the chaos of a city, are involved shaping it; the more they will engage with the ‘product’ and make it unique to their personal, cultural and societal needs rather than the standardised model of a ‘city’ that meets only the needs of the market like that which llsb is fighting.

Our spaces in the city

Public spaces are an example of what shaped lou lou’s experience and I was sad to hear, but also understood why she found that in cities, people disconnect. From TED, Amanda Burden tells us that a city and its public space is like a “fabulous party” in her talk on “how public spaces make cities work” . Open spaces in cities are opportunities, (1) for commercial investment, which is sadly often the leading principle of city developers. But the second is (2) for the common good of the city. These two things are often not in line with each other, Amanda argues, and therein lies the conflict. So as Lou lou points out, some spaces give off a stronger sense of community, as they have been formed following certain principles or unintentionally, by the common good of the city. These spaces have more things to do than to consume, because they are made for everyone. Something I have also felt is that these spaces, ‘communal’ spaces, are simply more inviting to the outsider, the explorer.

“A successful design always depends on that very individual experience” – Amanda Burden

I guess the parallel I am trying to build here is the link between how you and I, as individuals or collectively, shape the spaces around us in the city, and how Amanda the urban planner, argues that urban open spaces should be designed.

Having said that, there is something else that a different friend of mine keeps mentioning, which is the notion of ‘user-experience’. It’s something that not all those involved in the design of cities seem to be very aware of. At least, not those who designed spaces that are un-organic, supervised by security guards that shout at you when you walk on the grass, and surrounded by pristine grey walls that make them look like hospitals making you feel like a sickness in the city; yes, that is how I feel about some public spaces.

Or perhaps they are aware of it but they can’t be everyone, be everywhere and think of everything at the same time. I guess nobody is perfect. But the best part is, designers, architects and engineers don’t have to do it all alone, they have thousands of citizens that are interested in making their cities better; more people-, pedestrian- and child-friendly for example. I have explored some examples of this in Bogotá, ColombiaBristol, UK and Bangkok, Thailand where people have taken the re-shaping of urban spaces in to their own hands.

The most recent – and most basic yet most human – example that I have explored is in a small informal settlement on the edges of Valenzuela City, Manila. Here people make a public space theirs and in doing so make it obvious what they need and want from the space too. I was bemused by how many different uses for the same space, were found by the community living there.

I walked in to a market in desperate need for a towel to wipe the drips of heat off my face and was greeted by someone who pointed out to me exactly where I could find one. Looking around, the kids where running through and amongst the stalls, the young and old men and women were all involved in organising the stands and unloading the merchandise. On the other side of the market was the community hall, which was where I was going at the time. Within the hour I was back outside, walking in the same place where the market had been, but this time it was a basketball court. Through, I went, trying to dodge the young and adult men playing ball.

In my three or four visits later that day, the same space had been transformed to a school playground for the nursery, to a car park, to a garbage collection point and back to a playground. What in other places in the city takes up vast quantities of space and resources, here the same space, with the contribution of the local community was meeting the needs of many different people, of all shapes and sizes.

“Everything you desire in 30 by 15 sq. meters…”

‘City’ to me

Open spaces in cities are highly contested, which is why they are so complex and very difficult to design. Yet in this case the space is shared by many living in the surrounding, and very dense, urban slum and there is hardly any need for ‘design’ seeing as people have taken design in to their own hands in a highly organised way. But as the above examples show, open spaces and the city as a whole is an opportunity; An opportunity to shape individual and collective experiences.

Perhaps I have a romanticised vision of cities, however the fact that they are shaped by people and that people are shaped by cities creates an interdependent relationship that gives us the power to have a greater say in how our cities are made. That is, if we take the opportunity. This is why to me, ‘city’ is a magical phenomenon, a powerful but also dangerous energy and an incredible opportunity. But it is up to us to make it so.

Riding the city: Manila, Philippines

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Vacaciones ConcienBiciate Album

“La bici es un gestor de cambios tanto personales como colectivos” [“The bike is a generator of change, both personal and collective”] – Interview with Natalia Eudocia Olivares, Moksha Journal

One of the things I most miss about my life in Colombia is my bike.

Every time I see a bike now I get a jolt of yearning deep down inside me and I want to get back to those streets. Winding through the traffic at 9 a.m. or gliding smoothly down the wet roads at 9 p.m., I always felt like I owned the city.

As if I was flying through and over it, completley free from time.

So I now realise how important this feeling is for me and why cycling has profound consequences on my general happiness. Being part of ConcienBiciate was a particularly important part of getting this experience and discovering this feeling, if you ever want to try it out.

Embracing fluidity…

Cycling is a way of experiencing the city. The relationship you have with the city changes once you get on a bike and ride it. You are not only riding your bike, you are riding your city. That is a beautiful thing.

Thinking about this got me thinking about mobility in the city more generally. How your experience shifts and changes radically according to the different ways you move through it. In fact, cities are so fluid that I feel that restricting myself from embracing this fluidity and being mindful about it would be a lost opportunity.

So I’ve decided to start a new series in this blog about the different forms of riding through the cities I discover and how my experience of these wonderful places shifts according to how I chose to move through them.

…with the Jeepney

The streets of Manila are chaotic, steaming, overheated and densely populated by cars, motorbikes, tricycles, buses, bikers, pedestrians, dogs and all forms of floating waste remnants.

I recently passed my driving test and I can assure you it is a rare thing to find a driver that follows any version of the ‘MSM’ (mirrors, signal & move off) routine we are drilled on in the UK. Most drivers move on and assume whatever is coming will move out the way and if they don’t, honking somehow magically solves the problem.

From this chaos, mainly coloured with different shades of grey either from the concrete or the colouring that the smog has left on the cars and buildings along the street, emerge the jeepneys or ‘jeeps’ as they are more commonly referred to.

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Brightly coloured with shiny lights and loud honks, jeepneys are a legacy from WWII. They have been re-designed from their original function as American army jeeps. Thousands of them roam the city, as they have become the main form of public transport and are constantly filled with passengers.

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If you are travelling for a distance of less than 4 km you have to pay 7 pesos (which is about USD $0.15 or £0.10).

Jeepneys line up by the side of the road at specific key locations and wait to be filled. So forget about schedules. Their drivers will shout or honk at you, in the hope that you will be their next customer.  If you are, and there is still space, the drivers will stick around optimistically hoping that the next passengers are just around the corner.

Dive in through the backdoor, crouch down as you walk down the middle and slide in the furthest forward possible to squeeze in to a seat. By a seat I mean a tiny space on a side-like bench.

The best view of the city when on a jeepney is through the back. Try looking through any other side or front window and you’ll find yourself getting neck ache within about 20 seconds. Add this to the fact that you will be squeezed in to a very tight space in 35*C and it can be a very uncomfortable experience.

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Instead, try and sneak your seat by the back door where you can get a little more breeze, entertain yourself by observing what is happening on the street behind the jeep and enjoy being able to see the person sitting across from you. You could even strike up a conversation with them as Philippinoes are some of the friendliest people in the world (according to every guidebook and based on personal experience) and in Manila they mostly speak a good level of English to fit your attempted Tagalogish.