When I heard that Bacolod City is toying with the idea of hiring world renowned master urban planner Felino “Jun” Palafox to help redesign the city, my first reaction was to be excited for the city. An urban plan for Bacolod would be awesome and if the mayors of the cities of the Metro Bacolod area could somehow pitch in, a bigger and more comprehensive plan for that area which should include all the cities sandwiched by Victorias and Bago would improve our chances of avoiding an unplanned and mishmash future embroiled in irreversible urban blight.
It may seem impossible right now but if a properly prepared master plan and an agreement between our bickering politicos to stick to that plan no matter who is in charge somehow managed to become a reality, Metro Bacolod could have green public spaces, clean rivers, improved zoning, and maybe even a modern and efficient road network and public transportation system.
Ongoing talks with a master urban planner is a good sign but even if a deal is signed, a study conducted, and a plan actually turned over to the people of Metro Bacolod through the current leadership without any snags from the Commission on Audit or petty cases being filed at the Office of the Ombudsman, we should know better than to expect too much.
First of all, urban planning covers a period of more than nine years and local officials, if they are lucky, get only nine years in power. If an opponent kicks them out of office midway or at the end of their third three-year term, that master plan, no matter how beautiful or how much tax money has been spent on it will most likely be shelved. The new guy in charge will either deem himself better than some washed up master planner or commission a newer and better master plan because anything from the old regime, even if it worked, is never good enough for such people.
Aside from the problem of continuity, there is also the issue of getting started. The best laid plans of the world's best master urban planner will never come to fruition without a group that can implement those plans. How can we expect local officials who cannot even follow through on their own campaign promises or act upon the complaints and suggestions of their closest allies to follow through on the plans of some expert who doesn't even live in the city?
There are many well-meant plans, laws, or regulations that have been created in the past but nothing has been done because the ones who are supposed to make those plans come true either cannot or will not execute those plans because no matter how hard you try, voters, constituents, and influential groups or people will always be affected and the people in charge do not want to step on toes. What if the master urban plan calls for a park in the middle of the city? Or wants to phase out jeepneys and ban trisikad terminals from sprouting within 100 meters of the city's main thoroughfares? People and businesses will be affected by plans to improve any city and our leaders who are not willing to rock the boat or step on toes might find grandiose and ambitious urban plans to be counterproductive for their political plans.
If you come to think of it, the cities in the Metro Bacolod area are among the better designed cities in the country. The grid-type layout of most streets and the zoning is mostly practical and intuitive. We may need more green and open spaces but that is a luxury we can work on after we get the basics to work properly. Our towns and cities may need an urban planner to identify future growth areas and map out how the transition unfolds but what we have right now, while it may seem terrible because of the chaos, isn't fundamentally shabby at all.
If we cannot afford the services of a master urban planner or if our leaders think that they and their counterparts are not yet mature enough to commit to a long term relationship with a third party, we can still do without one for now. Focusing on existing “master plans”, laws, guidelines and rules to see which ones can be enforced properly or improved with minor tweaks can still allow our cities to make significant improvements. Perhaps we should try this tack instead of going for the master urban planner as a magic bullet to solve our woes. It will require the same political will and determination, probably achieve the same results, but cost millions of pesos less. The greatest thing about this strategy is that our politicians can even take full credit if things do improve.
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