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Bacolod City, Philippines Friday, July 12, 2019
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Come To Think Of It
with Carlos Antonio L. Leonardia



Newly elected Manila Mayor Isko Moreno seems to be the media’s current darling. While the attention on him and his activities are starting to be borderline grating and for cynics like me, worrying; the good news is that he has successfully shifted the attention from that other formerly interesting mayor who turned intolerably annoying after bamboozling his way to a promotion.

One of the most visible and talked-about achievements of Mayor Moreno is the clearing operations conducted against the illegal vendors of super congested and chaotic areas of his city such as Divisoria, Recto and Carriedo. These areas that used to be overflowing with street vendors since time immemorial, were suddenly and magically cleared by sheer force of political will and the public was treated to photographs of concrete pavements, cleared streets and sidewalks.

Nobody thought this would be possible because they’ve been lording over those public spaces for what feels like forever because of city officials who value the power of the vendor bloc’s perceived votes over duty towards the city and its other residents who aren’t thick faced and desperate enough to appropriate public spaces for themselves.

If you come to think of it, Mayor Moreno was only doing his job, rather the part of the job that most other mayors in the country conveniently ignore because they are laser-focused on other “more important” matters when he led the clearing of those streets and sidewalks of illegal vendors. It is amazing how minimum compliance has become a revolutionary act enough to impress many Filipinos. Perhaps seeing an elected official doing actual work instead of power napping is a new thing for us.

Are we easily impressed because we have such low standards for public officials, or is it because we are generally ignorant of the duties and responsibilities of these people who supposedly earned the public trust through the ballot and whose salaries and budgets are shouldered by taxpayers’ money? We treat them as feudal lords instead of public servants and when one does serve the community in the manner this country’s founding fathers intended, we are flabbergasted.

Hopefully, the country’s other more seasoned public officials take the cue from this neophyte mayor who is singlehandedly making them all look bad, and everybody gets to work on “transforming” their communities by actually doing their jobs. That would be a sight to see and such transformation would prove that our form of government does not need to be changed for us to see tangible improvements in society.

While we are on the topic of Mayor Isko Moreno’s famous clearing act, let’s take this opportunity to talk about the affected vendors.

There are two schools of thought as far as the street vendors are concerned. The first group wants them cleared out and kept from returning while the other wants city officials to find a way to let them earn a living.

If you asked me about the issue a couple of years ago, there would’ve been no hesitation and I would even lead the chorus to reclaim our streets and sidewalks and rid the city of these eyesores and congesters who have somehow been bestowed with the right to own and profit from their use of public property in the form of streets and sidewalks more than any other subset of citizens just because they are “poor.”

Now that I walk more and my views on urban and city planning have shifted from a car/driver-centric one to walkable communities, I have come to appreciate their role and purpose in integrated and walkable communities a little bit more and would see all that cleared space as having more potential as mixed use rather than fully dedicated to vehicles.

With all the newly freed up public space, Mayors that somehow summoned the political will to remove squatting vendors will now have to find ways to make use of it. The easiest solution would be to rest on your laurels, bask in the glow of the applauding public, and do nothing. After a few weeks, the vendors will sneak back, law enforcers will look the other way, and everything will back to “normal.”

If there is an excess of bravado but a deficit of competence, a city that is unwilling to do the task of regulating vendors can take the draconian and keep the streets and sidewalks free and clear of their presence indefinitely through the use of force. A war on vendors can be declared and any poor shmuck who insists on vending can be shot dead, planted with goods or vegetables, and nanlaban can be invoked. Easy peasy.

If the city is a little more ambitious, regulated vending areas can be established and vendors that comply with the requirements, secure the permits, and pay the fees/taxes can be allowed back in. A foolproof system to make all this regulation easy should be put in place to ensure it works properly but any bureaucrat worth his salt should be able to pull that off. Vendors will be free to return if they comply with requirements and the rules should keep enough of the sidewalks free for pedestrian use.

Those who want to go all out and really go about the task of planning and building communities of the future can consider not just regulated vending space, coexisting with sidewalks and roads, but add protected bike lanes and public park-like spaces, taking from the streets if necessary. Anyway those streets had already been occupied by chaos so why not make them better after reclaiming them? This will prove to be extremely challenging, especially in the Philippines where chaos rules and rules don’t matter but if you’re going to top the famous Isko Moreno, why not go all out and go for broke. A mayor with vision and ambitious shouldn’t just aim to beat Mayor Isko’s Divisoria, but compete for the best planned and internationally recognized urban planning trophies out there.

This sort of ambitious urban vision and transformation should prove to be a daunting challenge in crowded cities like Metro Manila but for up and comers like Bacolod, Iloilo and Dumaguete, it should be something worth aiming for.

But first our leaders will have to dig deep down inside to find the will and determination to take that first step, like Mayor Isko Moreno has been doing in the past few weeks.*  

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