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Open spaces: The calm in the urban jungle

Access to outdoor recreational spaces is limited, prompting people to be stuck within cramped confines.

Nestled a street away from the hustle of Taft is Paco Park. Besides the occasional roar of passing jeepneys, a drowsy peace lingers there. Birds chirp, leaves blanket the ground, and the metropolitan heat gives way to lush gardens and wide walkways.

Open outdoor spaces like this are a welcome escape from the packed streets of the city. “You need to relax your mind. And whether now or before, it’s been found that open spaces will relax people, especially if there are trees,” shares Allen Surla, a senior faculty from the Department of Political Science and Development Studies. Cramped into wooden or concrete boxes for most of the day, residents of densely populated areas long for places like Paco Park to—quite literally—stretch their legs. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, this yearning has only deepened with people being forced to stay at home.

But Paco Park is an exception to the norm, as outdoor recreational spaces are a rarity in the country. Surla observes that the difference is especially stark when compared to neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Despite a similarly tropical climate, the abundance of greenery and parks make their capitals much more walkable. On the other hand, the Philippines routinely sacrifices these spaces in favor of urban developments like malls.

This lack of open recreational spaces may sound inconsequential on the surface. Oftentimes, however, the way that cities and parks are planned can be reflective of underlying issues. As these land prices soar, the underprivileged are disenfranchised from the benefits of having such places—being entombed in a crowd of skyscrapers and a sliver of open sky.

Land, locked in 

In some places, greenery finds some sanctuary in government-protected areas like Arroceros Park and in the gardens of private developments like Ayala Center Cebu. After all, open recreational spaces are enshrined in laws like Presidential Decree No. 957 and Batas Pambansa No. 220, which require private sector developments to allot at least 30 percent of the total area for roads and open spaces.

However, in many areas, open recreational spaces are still mostly overlooked by the state. Julius Dalay, a licensed environmental planner specializing in transportation, laments, “[They don’t] have that initial plan of putting in vast parks…resulting [in a] mix and match of development with little to no regard [for] open spaces for recreational purposes.” 

One culprit, both Surla and Dalay cite, are the loopholes in regulations. “Developers can actually apply for exceptions on zoning and planning,” Dalay explains. Surla adds that these same regulations allow developers to skip the required 30-percent allotment in the city by simply setting up housing in outlying areas with more space like Cavite and Tarlac. 

Another reason is the price of land. ”Would you rather build a condominium or leave this multimillion-[peso] open space for people to appreciate?” Surla asks, citing the government priority for business-generating structures. Due to the constant maintenance needed for parks, it is much more practical to use these areas for business purposes. “The planners are dreamers and the budget people are realists. They don’t meet eye to eye,” he points out.

But premium developments are also usually designed with open recreational spaces. Meanwhile, more affordable developments are only designed with the bare minimum in mind. “Given that these amenities have become such a luxury, it now becomes a factor in the increasing prices of properties and land,” Dalay adds. Thus, properties near these developments have become more expensive to live in.

Compulsion of commerce

In the absence of these open areas, private sectors take advantage of the land to create income-generating enterprises, particularly shopping malls. Often, these spaces are marketed as the place where people can meet, dine, shop, and interact all under one roof. 

Surla notes that while the completeness of Filipino malls is an enjoyable experience for the public, he laments that these are the only public spaces that Filipinos have in cities. Unlike parks, malls are designed with the intent of coercing sales rather than providing a slow, relaxing environment. In fact, “Your blood pressure rises in the mall because you want to buy something,” he says. ”There’s so much to buy, so much to look at.”

Furthermore, malls discriminate against people, as Surla quips, “by the virtue of their wallets.” The bright red sale signs and the abundance of material objects subconsciously filter goers into their socioeconomic classes. In his words, the typical Filipino mall has become “a very enclosed space guarded by people with guns.” In this way, citizens that so much as look like they can’t afford to be inside a mall are barred—often with a threat of violence—from the only recreational spaces available.

With the advent of the pandemic, safety concerns have also popped up with malls. Most malls are air-conditioned and closed, leaving little to no room for air circulation that’s vital to preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission which causes COVID-19. With the pressure to purchase, many cram into small shops, risking the virus. Larger malls with strict health protocols effectively lock out anyone who cannot afford the hidden costs of masks, face shields, and cellphones with contact tracing apps.

On the other hand, parks are designed with the clear intent of being an open recreational space. With fresh air and enough space to socially distance, parks allow individuals to use the space freely. Everyone can safely enjoy nature and retreat from the bustle of the city in these places, yet they remain scarce.

The long road ahead

Dalay is hopeful that improved regulations and incentives for both the public and private sector to develop recreational spaces will allow for the development of more outdoor recreational spaces. He stresses, “We need to look at how to put it, and how to put it strategically.” 

Dalay also believes that improving the mode of transportation to open spaces can improve their accessibility amid their poor distribution in cities. “It becomes an equalizer, wherein you may be far from a center, but transportation basically gets you there at a minimal cost,” he says.

As for Surla, he not only promotes the use of open spaces, but also urges sectors to prioritize better maintenance of them. This allows Filipinos to get rid of the stigma that these spaces are unkempt and unsafe, achieving some peace of mind to patronize these spaces. “People value those things, and we really need [more of] those things.” Simply put, everyone has an equal right to access parks and be free to use these spaces as they please.

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