Dan Lichauco tells us what Ondoy can teach us about urban planning

What Ondoy can teach us about urban planning
By Walter Ang
Oct. 5, 2009
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Via Inquirer.net
As Manila and the cities surrounding it slowly attempt to recover from the Ondoy catastrophe that struck last week, discussions and debates about accountability and blame have been (and still are) raging.

There are so many factors to consider: an extraordinary weather incident (and so, we also consider the climate changes that have been happening), lack of government and civic foresight and vigilance in relation to monitoring the warnings from Pagasa, waste management (if the creeks and rivers had not been clogged, would they have allowed the a way for the released waters from the dams and the flood waters to have somehow drain out faster?), environmental issues (denuded watersheds), and locations of property development (why are communities allowed to grow near creeks, rivers and dams anyway?). These, among many others.

Architect and urban planner Dan Lichauco, associate professor in the College of Architecture of University of Sto. Tomas, points out that while urban planning is a factor in the disaster, the situation also needs to be evaluated against the fact that the weather incident that day was extreme.

"News reports said that it was the worst storm in forty years and that it was the equivalent of one month's worth of rain falling within twelve hours," he says. "The existing infrastructure that Manila has for water control and drainage just really could not deal with that much water," he says.

"We should also remember that all of us are contributors to this disaster, from the plastic bags we throw into the sewers, to the trash in the streets, to the indiscriminate abuse of unsustainable resources and our reliance on a government that is not working, we all play a part in this disaster. The sewers and drain systems are like the veins in our body, if you feed it junk, it will give you a heart attack! There are only so many bypasses that can be performed," he adds.

While Lichauco understands the current state of public emotion that is looking to pin the blame on something or someone, he hopes that, eventually, that the process results in finding out how we can move forward. "Let's ask the right questions, get the answers, propose changes and execute those changes," he says.

"Parts of Manila were designed using American architect Daniel Burnham's master plan that was created in the early 1900s. It was an aesthetic plan, but now we can see that engineering goes hand in hand with aesthetics. Also, Manila was razed by bombs after World War II and the reconstruction of the city did not follow any urban planning.

"Ultimately, the flooding problems and water drainage problems of Manila is an engineering problem."

Lichauco says that urban planning standards are developed based on historical and existing data and are created to withstand destructive risks only until certain parameters.

"Forty years ago, the population and waste of Manila was vastly different from what it is now. The infrastructure that has been built since then and are in place now was not built to anticipate this kind of situation. The drain systems were designed based on a standard and average amount of rainfall. In recent years, all these averages were thrown out the window.

"Yes, better planning could have possibly mitigated the effects of this calamity, but then, it's also possible you cannot completely stop a storm of this nature," he says.

He notes that urban planning standards will have to be changed in accordance with the new data provided by this situation. "In the same way that the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco in 1906 changed the standards of that city's urban planning, Manila will have to reevaluate and revise its standards, too," he says. "The risks have changed, in this case, we now experience super typhoons, so the solutions will now also have to be modified.

"New standards should take into consideration the advances in construction technology and new ideas introduced by the environmental movement."

A leading proponent of green architecture in the country, Lichauco notes that possible solutions for water drainage could include non-traditional methods. "Concrete does not allow water to pass through, so perhaps we can start using permeable materials to line the streets to allow water to leach through into the ground," he says. "Also, flood-prone areas could incorporate the development of parks that will serve as draining fields. The parks can be used by the public whenever it is not needed as a retaining pond."

"Now we know for a fact that the city's systems are unable to sustain something of this magnitude, the question now is, how and will we be able to upgrade these systems?" he says. "We have to use this disaster as an opportunity to evaluate and change the necessary building and urban designs in the country."

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