Since the dawn of civilization, humanity has constantly found ways to shape and reshape the environment to suit its ever-evolving needs. Throughout history, humanity has anchored societal and economic progress on modernization projects that were aimed at providing the best solutions to different issues, bringing about widespread change to society as a whole.
The need for fast and reliable mass transportation, for example, spurred the construction of airports and railways across the globe to keep up with the development of commercial aviation and trains. Meanwhile, the demand for cleaner energy sparked the development and adoption of renewable alternatives.
This ingenuity has been one of the reasons that allowed humanity to thrive for centuries. Though many communities, like Philippines’ very own indigenous groups, continue to prosper with the more traditional ways of living, most contemporary societies have chosen to slowly embrace the technological advances pervading our present world.
Although progress and modernization seem to go hand-in-hand, progress in the context of one society may not always reconcile with another’s vision of progress. While modernization, in the most mainstream sense of the word, has brought about rapid change and advancements in urban cities, this type of progress may have a different impact altogether on indigenous cultures—one that may even be detrimental, as is especially apparent when urban modernization projects encroach into lands that hold great significance for them.
This begs the question: will humanity ever reach the end goal of modernization—and at what price?
For urban planner Karlos Ballesteros (BS-FIN, ‘06), modernization is a dynamic process “[of] updating to contemporary” circumstances. “When you say ‘contemporary’, that means now. So, you must update [to] what is demanded of today,” he explains.
Modernization has had many different meanings throughout history, evolving to meet the needs of the society. As a result, modernization projects are often linked to economic growth and prosperity, and, coupled with all the benefits that they promise, it isn’t difficult to see why such projects are often the big-ticket items in a government’s bucket list.
With the perpetually shifting sands that the needs of the modern world represent, improvements in infrastructure and systems become almost a necessity.
Impeding on communities
While this romanticized view of modernization is prevalent in society, there are still some drawbacks and unintended consequences to these initiatives—especially to communities and their surrounding environment. Limited planning and forethought given to some man-made projects can potentially worsen the conditions of already disaster-prone areas.
Brgy. Sto. Niño Sur, situated on the southern coastline of Panay Island, is susceptible to storm surges and floods brought about by seasonal typhoons. The barangay is one of many places in Iloilo where road construction projects had been underway but have since been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vasilia Genanda, a resident of Brgy. Sto. Niño Sur, relays the problems she faces due to the ongoing road widening construction project. “More than just an inconvenience, it is actually dangerous. Back then, when the tide rises, I would usually move closer to the streets so that we wouldn’t get flooded,” she shares in Hiligaynon—Iloilo’s local language. With the newly-widened roads replacing the houses that the residents of Brgy. Sto. Niño Sur once called home, Genanda and many other families have chosen to relocate closer to the shoreline despite the dangerous circumstances.
Marianne*, another affected resident, expresses her concerns regarding the impact of the construction project to the community. She narrates how the wells and water pumps, which are the community’s main sources of potable water, are at risk of being removed to make way for the widening road. As such, members of the community have decided to voice out their apprehension.
“Unless [the officials] can provide an immediate alternative water source during the construction of the project, we will refuse to move. We are willing to move as long as they can provide us water,” Marianne asserts in Hiligaynon. Clean water, of course, is a crucial resource for survival, and a steady supply is necessary for drinking, food preparation, and hygiene.
Modernization meant for the sake of “progress” alone can produce harmful consequences. Stories like Vasilia’s and Marianne’s are crucial reminders why urbanization projects require careful planning—to think a few more steps ahead—to minimize and avoid the repercussions.
Ideally, modernization must be inclusive to all parties—from the government and the contractors, to the people living in that space—involving the local communities especially in the decision-making process.
As individuals and families can be significantly affected by planned construction projects, compensation and proper support must be provided, especially since these projects can take years to complete and can obstruct existing community resources. “You have to do something about that [so] that you may be able to help [those affected] recuperate from that particular loss,” Karlos says.
It starts with establishing communication with the local communities; those behind a project should, as Karlos puts it, “always be sensitive enough to inform and educate.” “You cannot modernize without telling the constituents that we are going to modernize,” he explains, stressing the importance of negotiating with both the community and with the contractors.
To allow citizens to adjust to the project, the government may implement the National Housing Authority’s low-cost housing program for the affected communities, ensuring that basic needs are met while providing land for small businesses to adapt to another location. On the other hand, general contractors may provide monetary support or construction job opportunities. Karlos maintains that compensation “must always be beneficial to both parties; it’s always a two-way relationship—a give-and-take manner.”
Dialogue is important: to listen to the needs and even the suggested solutions of the people most directly impacted, and devise urbanization projects to help meet those needs rather than oppose them. In this way, communities are empowered to be wholly involved from start to end.
Thus, development can only be achieved when different sectors of society are in sync with one another. For Karlos, the end goal of modernization is discipline through peace, progress, and order, culminating into a character for the city. “It’s always a change of character to the highest level,” he says.
However, modernization and progress don’t always have to be synonymous with technological advancements or city development. Beyond the futuristic expectations we have for our cities are the people within the space who struggle to get by day-by-day and whose concerns must not be neglected in search of development.
For Marianne, progress happens if everyone is included in the process. “It’s great that our city is progressing, but it would be even better if they considered the feelings and needs of the people as well so that the plans are clear for both sides,” she says, expressing hope that these plans may become “more clear and substantial” to include proper support to “sustain [their] basic needs”.
As the push for the development comes in the form of expanding the urban space and new technologies, a little empathy goes a long way.
*Names with asterisks(*) are pseudonyms.