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


What is 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.

Moving Layers of Manila

Manila is a city formed of multiple layers…

A layer for motor creatures

Whatever lies beneath the ground remains unknown to me, although I sometimes get a glimpse of it as I pass over open drains or sinking tarmac.

At the ground level, the fumes from the traffic cloud your vision, although you can still see the once colourful, but now greyed, jeepneys, shop houses, cars and publicity boards. Perhaps the one thing that is constantly clean and of striking colours are the clothes that Filipinos wear. All the same, each cloud of new emission fumes pumped in front of you consistently disrupts your vision of the city.

The sounds around you are a mixture of loud screeching engines, swerving wheels, beeping drivers and music. There is always music playing in the distance.

Occasionally, the smell of fried pork, chicken and calamari accompanied by a complementary cocktail of Toyo (soya sauce) and coconut vinegar taint the air. From many houses, shop houses particularly, escapes a pungent scent of dried salted fish. As I walk along the street and accidentally inhale these scents, escaping through open doors and windows, I get a slight migraine. To add to the experience, the open garbage bags, with clouds of hovering flies over them, also reek.

The combination of these multiple smells can make your nose go numb.

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Walking alongside many creatures

At this level you walk alongside all forms of creatures, both human and non-human. There is one type of creature that dominates, the motor creature. If there is no space for it in the lanes of the roads, it will mount the pavement. So all human and other non-motor creatures should be careful.

The dominance of the motor-creature seems to dilute as you, the human creature, ascend to the second layer of the city.

A layer for human creatures

This layer is formed of a network of tunnels and bridges. They meander high over the tarmac, traffic-congested, streets and through the air-conditioned malls, of which there are many. If you wanted to, you could spend an entire day walking through sections of the city, having only touched the ground level twice, on entry and on departure from this layer.


Outside of the Inside, Trinoma, Manila

This layer has somewhat lighter air, breezier weather and the scents are less pungent than those of the first layer. Here on this level, you can recognise the shampoo that the lady who has just walked past you has used, despite the ever-present scent of fumes.

You can also hear the muttering words of a young boy who approaches you, asking for some change. You can hear the quiet music from the vendors’ phone as you walk past their display of multicoloured phone covers laid out on plastic sheeting.

On this level you rarely stop to look around, except after hours. During the day, people rush past you fully relishing the freedom to walk without the risk of being mulled over by motor creatures.


“McView” –  Source: David Hoffmann @davidhoff_mann


A layer for gliding through the cityscape

Then, there is a third layer, a layer which allows you to glide through the city, overlooking the layers beneath you as they diverge and converge. Overlooking the human and non-human creatures that encounter each other in the first two layers, the essence of the city’s serendipity.

From this layer, you can look across the cityscape at eye-level. The concrete forest is frequently disrupted by the tall palm trees that spring up and colour the scape with a diverse range of greens.

But to be at this level, you must access entrance to an giant, electric, man-made creature, the ‘MRT’ or Manila Metro Rail Transit System. Within this creature, there is little or no breeze, except that coming from the air-conditioning vent on the roof of the creature. Here the scents are bland. There is perhaps a lingering smell of perfume from the most recent passenger that just walked out or from the creature that sits next to you. But both scents are quickly diffused or blanked out by the cold or the AC, I’m not sure which.

So at this level, there are fewer distractions. Your nose is not numb but perhaps a little bored, having been disposed of its role.

As your eyes scan the city and then look down at those dwindling in the lower layers, you might get a guilty feeling of superiority from being able to look down on the city as if you own it. A feeling you might not be too open about.

The third level is where this journey ends. Any higher and I might disconnect from the city.

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Layers of mobility, Manila