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


Re-imaginando los espacios de la ciudad: Desaparecer o Articular?

Hace como un mes, en una pieza llamada Clear out or Collaborate les conte sobre un chico, Jhonatan, que trabaja vendiendo arepas en el norte de Bogotá. Les conté en íngles, entonces puede ser que no lo hayan leído, o puede ser que s’i, pero les quería recordar de él, ya que sabemos que Peñalosa será el alcalde de la ciudad en el 2016.

Para resumir un poco, la razón por la cuál les escribí sobre Jhonatan se debe a los muchos cambios que vienen con el nuevo alcalde, muchos ciudadanos se beneficiarán y otros no tanto. Entonces les escribo nuevamente para reiterar una llamada con la esperanza, de que poco a poco se reduzca el numero de personas que son parte del segundo grupo, los que no se beneficiarán tanto.

Jhonatan, Clle 100 con carrera18, Bogotá, Colombia

Jhonatan, Clle 100 con carrera18, Bogotá, Colombia


En la esquina de la calle 100 con carrera 18 trabaja Jhonatan. Vende arepas rellenas de queso, jamón, huevo revuelto con o sin cebolla y tomate, lo que usted diga, él se lo prepara. Dependiendo los ingredientes, cuestan como $3,000 COL ($1.00 USD) cada una.

De lunes a sábado, Jhonatan se despierta antes del amanecer cruza la ciudad, se demora mas o menos una hora, y llega a las 5.a.m con suficiente tiempo para servirle el desayuno al público a las 6.a.m.

Al otro lado del anden, una señora vende jugo de naranja, ensalada de fruta o yogurt con cereales. Para que se antoje y desayune completo.

A unos cuantos metros sobre el mismo anden esta el puesto de un viejo amigo, ‘el mono’ quien antés vendía sanduches. Ahora el puesto lo tiene su cuñado.

Durante una epoca tuve la fortune de ser uno de los que madrugan y desayunan las arepas de Jhonatan con el juguito de naranja, acompañado con una buena plática sobre el último chisme o la útlima noticia.

En estos momentos de dialogo con Jhonatan, me introdujo al sistema informal pero efectivamente organizado que mantienen estos vendedores -supervisados por los policías de la zona- que privatizan el espacio público.

Como muchos de ustedes saben, la privatización del espacio público es un tema sensible. Mientras que los vendedores se organizan, rentando los metros cuadrados del anden para poder sobrevivir, los peatones se quejan por que los puestos interrumpen la movilidad del peatón en la ciudad.

No lo voy a negar, la transformación del anden, de un espacio banal que solo sirve a la función de tránsito a un espacio mucho más orgánico donde la gente se demora unos cuantos minutos más serpenteando entre el laberinto de personas y puestos, es dramática.

En este caso, y uno supondría que es igual a muchos otros, el nivel de organización es sorprendente. Las actividades de los vendedores son supervisadas por los policías a través de un contrato mutuo entre policía y vendedor, teóricamente bajo la presencia de ´la ley´.

No solo están organizados, si no que también, a través de sus actividades, estos vendedores transforman un espacio en la ciudad y su dinámica social, cosa que en una ciudad de inequidad como la de Bogotá es algo increíblemente valioso y necesario.

En estos 4 metros cuadrados del anden, gracias a las actividades de Jhonatan y la vendedora de jugos, el significado del espacio público tiene una re-significación. Hoy, no solo es un anden pisado por cientos de personas que pasan afanados a sus destinos. Hoy es un lugar donde los ciudadanos pausan, toman un momento de su día para aprovechar el contacto y la diferencia que crea la densidad de la ciudad. Se exponen a un momento de intercambio, gracias al apetito que tienen y al servicio que les da las arepas de Jhonatan.

Entonces estos 4 metros cuadrados cada mañana, se convierten en un desayunadero temporal y un espacio donde muchas personas que de otra manera podrían ser desempleados, responden a sus necesidades por sus propias iniciativas. Funciona como un espacio de socialización, entre personas que puede ser que en otro contexto nunca se cruzarían. Al parar y observar este espacio, uno se da cuenta de que aquí las estructuras sociales que fragmentan muchas sociedades, como la clase o el genero, se disuelven por un momento a través de la conversación. ¿No me creen? Intenten, y de una, saluden a Jhonatan de mi parte.

Intenten y de una vez comparen. Con el Starbucks de la 85 o los Dunkin´ Donuts de la 100 con 19. En estos otros espacios, no se sientes observados? Entre nosotras las mujeres, no sienten que al entrar a un café la gente te analiza, a ver si eres de la categoría social adecuada para estar en ese lugar. Al entrar a un restaurante, café o bar mi relación con la puerta que cierro detrás mío, el mesero que me atiende y el vecino sentado en la mesa de junto esta ensombrecida por estas estructuras o más bien, barreras sociales. En los 4 metros cuadrados de los que les cuento, no hay una puerta, no hay un mesero y no hay otra mesa. Me entiendes?

En fin, junto con muchos otros vendedores que forman estos espacios de interacción, quienes podrían ser una gran oportunidad para la ciudad de Bogotá, Jhonatan muestra algunas preocupaciones.

En realidad, mirando el Plan para Bogotá 2020 de Peñalosa, uno tiene que buscar bastante para encontrar lo que dice sobre el empleo, mucha de la iniciativa se enfoca en la educación de los futuros jóvenes. A primera vista, no habla mucho de los jóvenes que ya están empleados de manera informal.

Antes de ver su entrevista, me gustaría que consideres, ¿que se podría hacer? ¿Desaparecer a todos los vendedores (quienes nos hace sonreír y nos llenan las panzas para tener días de trabajo mucho mas productivos) de las calles de Bogotá?; O ¿articular su organización (aun que es informal, es un modelo que demuestra funcionamiento) y su conocimiento sobre las dinámicas de la ciudad (visto que pasan la mayor parte de la mañana, de lunes a sábado, en su espacio público) para colaborar, incidir en política pública y no solo apoyar la disminución del desempleo, de lo que sufren muchas personas en esta ciudad? sino que también ¿apoyar la re-imaginación del espacio hecho por la misma gente que lo habita? ¿Podría ser?

La entrevista:

Vida Digna

Vida Digna, Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia

Vida Digna, Ciudad Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia

Te invito a pausar en tu camino, a mirar esta vista, a buscar en ella el mensaje que te he dejado sobre este muro.

“Cuando transitamos en la calle, dejamos trazas y huellas que son susceptibles de ser leídas por otros, y por eso activamos relaciones que puedes ser introducidas…en la vida cotidiana” – Trixi A. Bloch, 2015