Urban reform in the Philippines: Bridging our many divides

A redacted version of my usual ranting on the link between place-making and peace-building was published in today’s Philippine Star as part of its 33rd anniversary special. Some of this comes from talks given at the UrbanisMO session of the 2018 Artkitektura festival, and a few sessions with the Philippine Chevening alumni association.


I’m posting the original version here. 🙂

Making Space for Peace: 

Challenges and Opportunities for Place-making, Peace-Building, and Urban Reform in the Philippines


Ica Fernandez



‘Urban and regional planning’ and ‘peace and development’ are phrases that rarely go hand-in-hand. Planner-architects and engineers dealing with the built environment (hence the professional Philippine discipline of ‘environmental planning’) rarely engage with those tagged as ‘peacebuilders’: that is, lawyer-negotiators, political scientists, and members of the security sector, let alone economists, development workers, orlocal civic organizations. However, this is a false divide, as many of the nation’s fundamental challenges are embedded in its streets and buildings, in the urban fabric of our communities.  


There are serious implications when legal and political agreements—ranging from parameters for internal revenue allotments to peace deals to shifts to federal systems of government–are drafted and implemented without clarifying their implications in actual space and place. Similarly, beautifully-rendered designs for projects such revitalising EDSA or reconstructing a bombed-out city, will never become reality unless checked for area-specific political, cultural, and financial issues, and the necessary safeguards built in to address them.Many of the development challenges for the country connect both urban and rural settings, and a more place-based approach can provide an entry-point for developing new and more effective responses to those challenges. For the Philippines to reach its full potential, there is a need for area development that focuses not only on legalities, economic investment, or physical infrastructure, but also includes a full a range of targeted, human-scale processes and designs that can bridge relationships between and amongst people who live, work, and play in the most vulnerable communities.


Part of the problem lies in the misconception that the need for ‘peacebuilding’ is a niche issue that affects only people in the hinterlands. However, conflict and the social inequality that fuels it is a barrier to the entire country’s full socio-economic potential. The Philippines is one of the most risk-prone countriesin the world. In 2018, it ranked second globally in terms of internal displacement—eighty percent due to natural disasters, and twenty percent due to armed conflict. The country is also home to formal peace negotiations with at least five non-state armed-groups, from the Cordilleras of Northern Luzon to the islands of the Visayas to the marshlands and islands of Mindanao, all of which have roots in historical grievances and narratives of dispossession. While Luzon has historically generated roughly 55% of all economic growth, the poorest regions of CARAGA and the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) host the largest armed groups in the archipelago: the Communist Party of the Philippines / New People’s Army / National Democratic Front (popularly known as the NPA), and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its precursor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). While the MNLF and MILF have signed peace agreements for the transformation of governance in southern Philippines, the talks with the NPA remain unsuccessful. The same resource-rich yet income-poor areas are home to many indigenous peoples’ groups, who tend to be caught in the crossfire. The protracted, low-intensity and seemingly intractable nature of these localized and multiple conflicts means that social tensions are never fully resolved, and often spills into what is called horizontal conflicts related to political competition and the so-called ‘shadow economy’. 


No country with a running subnational conflict such as that experienced in the Philippines for the last six decades has achieved a Sustainable Development Goal. Estimates show that it costs a medium-sized developing country the equivalent of 30 years of GDP growth, and will take at least a generation to reverse. Although poverty is not a direct cause of conflict, it is clear that poverty is a driver of conflict, while conflict exacerbates poverty.


Although these contestations have traditionally been rural in nature, increasing urbanization is making a place-centered approach to peacebuilding, or a conflict-sensitive approach to placemaking, a more urgent issue. At present, half of all Filipinos live in cities. This is projected to reach 84% by 2050. Philippine cities generate 70% of the GDP, of which 36% is generated in Metro Manila alone.  Cities are conflictual by their very nature, but the density of people, infrastructure, goods, and services that characterises urban life ensures that the scale of urban violence and insecurity can easily eclipse that of open warfare, with high human and economic costs. This has implications not only on places such as Marawi, Cotabato, or Jolo, but even in areas such as Metro Davao or Metro Manilaitself—which in 2017 was the ranked the 10th most stressful city in the world, and the only one on the list without a traditional civil war. Although urban poverty incidence (12.5%) was less than half of the national poverty incidence (25.2%) in 2012, cities remain sites of deep and multidimensional poverty, where crushing traffic jams occur just outside closed-off subdivisions and gated communities sitting cheek-byjowl against sprawling slums.   In this light, armed conflicts—which translates in Tagalog as ‘hidwaan’, or separation—are just more dramatic reflections of the kind of disconnections we deal with on a day-to-day basis, or why our current systems of transportation,education, housing, health, livelihood, culture, and yes, politics, don’t seem to reflect our most fundamental needs and realities.


So what can be done to connect and not divide? Much of the established conflict economics toolkits are at the national, regional, and provincial levels (which are crucial for strategic planning), but the nuances of these areas can be best understood and therefore implemented at the level of the city and the architectural shape of neighborhoods, in the praxis of what people in cities do. This means combining the toolkits of both peacebuilding and urban design to encourage healthy spaces and linkages between economically lagging and leading areas. This means national policies that allow for regional and provincial and local integration, while dealing with the specific challenges of each place.  


For people in working as urban planners, engineers, or architects, this means shifting from the dominant Philippine misconception of spatial planning as a purely technocratic or physical design exercise but something closer to what scholars describe as ‘place-governance’.  As written by Mumford in 1938, cities are the ‘point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community,’ and that one of the chief functions of the city is to ‘convert power into form.’ Part of this is acknowledging that the state of our cities, its design and infrastructure is but a reflection of social realities. Whileplanning at its best can and should be a tool for inclusive economic growth and redistributive justice, it is often complicit in the power structures that propagate inequalities themselves. 


A useful guidephrase is â€˜conflict-sensitivity’, which is operationally defined as a contextual understanding of the conflict topography unique to a given area that should inform programs and  project interventions. It is a term typically used in tandem with the principle of ‘do no harm’, meaning that development decisions should not cause further damage to a community or a society that has been ravaged by conflict.  This highlights that there are no â€˜one-size-fits-all’ solutions, and so interventions must be nuanced based on the specific drivers and challenges in the area. 


This asks for a multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral framework, not sectoral silos, which will then be grounded in space and place. An approach with a place-governance lens demands a balance between both short-term condence-building requirements and longterm broad developmental outcomes, which cannot be limited by traditional three-year political terms. Similarly, this means that culture and identity is not just a question of aesthetic design, but asks how people use places and spaces to live, work, and play. 


This also means gradually building a homegrown conception of Philippine archipelagic urban politics, given that the planning concepts and land ownership laws presently in use and taught in schools are legacies of our Spanish and American colonial pasts. As shown in our car-centric transport system, these foreign models are often stacked towards the middle-class and upper-middle class. The Philippines has no national urban or general land use policy or plan, and is hampered by fractured institutional authorities and disjointed coordination and integration amongst city, province, and national administrations. 


Whilst Environmental Planning is licensed by the Professional Regulation Commission, few local governments have trained personnel that are able to harness the various interdisciplinary inputs required for effective urban planning and design. An average city planning officer is tasked to draft at least a dozen area and sectoral plans, despite attempts by the Department of Interior and Local Government, the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (soon to be transformed into the Department of Human Settlements), and the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) to harmonise and simplify these processes. Very few institutions, whether public, private, or academic, are able to provide adequate training, let alone generate policy options for decision-makers. As such, many planning processes end up as checklist exercises for compliance; cut-and-paste CLUPs and CDPs are not unusual. Although community consultation is a requirement for local planning processes, meaningful participation in urbanization–particularly of the most marginalized and vulnerable–remains to be fully realized.


A peacebuilding approach to place-making means thatdevelopment is not just delivering hard infrastructure, but designing processes that can build confidence and stability and promote ‘social cohesion’, or what is defined as the “norms, values, and social relations that bond communities together, as well as form bridges between communal groups and the state”.This is important in the implementation of peace agreement themselves, which have major components related to land, housing, and property. It is equally important when dealing with informal settler families and small-scale vendors in cities, whotraditional development paradigms dismiss as eyesores although global evidence now acknowledges the major role of the so-called informal economy in driving the engines of growth. 


The unfinished talks with the CPP/NPA/NDFP should have led to the drafting of the so-called CASER, or a Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms, which includes substantive provisions on agrarian reform, ancestral land, environmental protection, and industrialization. The GPH-MILF Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro acknowledges the historical marginalization and land dispossession of the non-Christianized peoples of the region, and guarantees the area development of six major camps of the MILF, as well as the potential provision of programs such as housing for demobilized former combatants. Again, these issues cannot be seen from just a counterinsurgent or physical infrastructure lens—we forget atour peril that these mujahideen and mujahidat did not fight for handouts or raw concrete, but something much more dignified.The major place-making-as-peace-building challenge of the last five years, however, is the 250hectares of destroyed urban corein the Islamic City of Marawi, and the fundamental request of residents for government to finish clearing bombs and unexploded ordinance to allow them to finally go home.



A place-governance approach does not necessarily require separate urbanization programs. Place-governance involves lenses and principles that can be applied to pre-existing economic and social development initiatives, encouraging a shift from place-breaking to a place-making culture. There are a number of options for engagement, which can be with regional governments such as the BARMM or direct with local governments at the provincial, municipal, and barangay levels; national and regional agencies and instrumentalities; and most especially, engaging the private sector, the academe, and home-owners and community members everywhere.  Part of the challenge of urban policy reform is attitudinal; because it’s seen as too large, difficult, or abstract to engage. What will be needed is grounding this perspective in very targeted programs, allowing local stakeholders to have a clear and personal stake.


At its core, the toolkit for place-making for peace-building is driven by two things: ensuring connections, not divisions, and â€œdealing with the past”, or the things that make people hurt and angry—in tangible form. It also hearkens back in many ways to the model of peace-building as a spiritual and ethical act, particularly to the root work of religion, re-ligiere, which means reconnection. It is not about dogma or right or wrong, butbringing together what has been severed. By helping design and strengthen processes that can support sustainable and inclusive places, we may ripen to models of local governance and place-leadership that can bridge our many divides. 








Maratabat: Dignity and Displacement after Marawi and Vinta

How do we make sure that frontline service delivery after a natural or human-induced disaster respects the dignity of affected communities? What happens when the same communities are hit by both?
A case study I wrote in 2018 on maratabat as an expanded concept of dignity in the context of post-Marawi crisis and Typhoon Vinta displacement has just been published by the Overseas Development Institute. This is part of a comparative volume on dignity in displacement featuring cases from Afghanistan, South Sudan, Colombia, and the Philippines. Thanks to the many workers and communities on the ground who helped me understand this a little more including Assad Baunto, Maharlika Alonto, Dr Hamid Barra, Dr Bebot Rodil, Ysmael Mangorsi, Salic Ibrahim, Ivan Ledesma, and the frontline service providers of the ARMM, Lanao del Sur, and Marawi City Governments. Features one map by JR Dizon.
The full publication, edited by Dr Kerrie Holloway, is available for download through the link below:


We are pleased to launch OpenBangsamoro.com, an open-source portal for geospatial, statistical, and administrative regional data in support of the transformation of the ARMM to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The portal is a result of the ARMM-Bangsamoro Transition Datathon, an initiative spearheaded by the ARMM Regional Government through its Regional Planning and Development Office (ARMM-RPDO) to consolidate and evaluate available administrative, statistical, and framework geospatial data as well as existing development plans and studies about the region.
As a citizen accompaniment to the 34-volume ARMM Transition Report turned over by the ARG to the Bangsamoro Transition Authority last February 26, 2019, OpenBangsamoro.com contains an initial set of maps, technical data, and policy recommendations, many of which are found in the ARMM Transition Report and its digital mirror at armmtransition.ph.
Initial work on the datasets was authorized by the ARMM Regional Government and was facilitated by a technical team supported by The Asia Foundation and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is a work-in-progress and more information will be uploaded as they become available.
OpenBangsamoro.com is also accompanied by a technical paper that presents options for the practical use of open geospatial, statistical, and participatory data for decision-making as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) transitions into the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Recommendations cover three key points:
1. Decision-making for regional transformation should be based on usable and open information.
2. To be fully usable for decision-making, development-related data must be spatial, multi-scale, cross-sectoral, culture-and-conflict sensitive, and open and shared.
3. The Bangsamoro transition from 2019 to 2022 is an opportunity to establish systems built on open data as the cornerstone of open governance as the BTA, national government, and citizens need to make simultaneous decisions across multiple plans and platforms at the same time.
Ultimately, establishing a culture of open data for decision-making is a concrete way of delivering on the MILF’s commitment to shift from traditional transactional politics to a truly transformative governance that reflects Bangsamoro aspirations for meaningful self-rule.
We thank the outgoing ARMM Regional Government led by former Regional Governor Mujiv Sabbihi Hataman, former Executive Secretary Atty Laisa Masuhud Alamia, former Rpdo Armm Executive Director and ARMM Transition Team lead Engr. Baintan Adil-Ampatuan, and all the other leaders and technical officers of the ARMM for facilitating the release of datasets for open use. We also thank the members of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, OPAPP, NEDA, HUDCC, and the provincial governments who participated in datathon activities.
We pray that these maps, datasets, and reports can be useful for the many decisions that the Bangsamoro need to make in the weeks, months, and years to come.
Download briefer here: http://bit.ly/openbangsamoro



How should Marawi be rebuilt? For whom? And with whom?


This is what the last few months have come to.

  1. All available statistical and geospatial data on Marawi and Lanao del Sur have been uploaded on www.openmarawi.com. Free, open source, and to be constantly updated in the coming weeks.
  2. Almost a year after the Siege and six months after the last bomb fell on the city,  Assad Baunto, David Garcia, and I have finally released a policy note summarizing options for decision-making on land, housing, property, and urban design. Maps were made with JR Dizon, Mikko Tamura, Bj Bantog Gochoco, Ysmael Mangorsi, and representatives from Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Download briefer here: https://goo.gl/iRYXkS


Thank you to the many jedis in government, the academe, and civil society who made this possible, along with The Asia Foundation and DFAT-Australia.

To the leadership of the city government of Marawi, the provincial government of Lanao del Sur, and the Regional Government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao–my deepest gratitude for letting us outsiders work with you.

Island Wilayat Rising? Stemming the tide of violent extremism after Marawi

Thanks to a few twists of fate, I’ve got a short (read: heavily redacted) piece on Marawi  published by the Australian National University’s East Asia Forum. It comes in several weeks later than I’d like, but at any rate, I’m posting here an earlier unedited and less circumspect version, written roughly two, three weeks ago.

Marawi was a victory for Islamist extremism in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. The next choices taken by the Philippine government will determine the extent of its spread.


It has been more than sixty days since the outbreak of violence in the Islamic City of Marawi, just over 500 miles south of Manila, and kilometre zero of the island-region of Mindanao. What started in the morning of May 23 has led to over 314,000 persons displaced. More than half of the lakeside city is in ruins; approximately 100 civilians and hostages are still trapped in the crossfire. Aerial bombardments and house-to-house fighting continue. As the first widespread incident of urban violence in the Philippines—its partial precursors being Zamboanga in 2013, Ipil in 1995 and the razing of Jolo in 1974—the impact of the Marawi siege is unprecedented, not least in its implications to the rise of violent extremism in the region.

While the reported death of Abu Bakr Baghdadi and the jihadi group’s losses at Mosul and Raqqa signal a transformation of Daesh presence in the Middle East, Marawi by all accounts was a victory for islamist terrorism in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. From a ragtag group of ‘black flag wannabes’ that could barely stage a bomb attack on the US Embassy in Manila in 2016, the Maute group now has enough street cred to attract international interest and support. They have achieved what others have failed to do: signal to the disgruntled and marginalised that violent extremism, particularly through urban warfare, is a viable path forward.

Continue reading “Island Wilayat Rising? Stemming the tide of violent extremism after Marawi”

Conflict in Cities and the Contested Philippine State: Notes After Marawi

Originally a FB post but migrated here because the maps and photos wouldn’t show.

Dahil ako’y taga Maynila lamang, hanggang mabilisang sulat lang ako. Para sa minamahal na mga kaibigan at katrabahong Meranaw, kung mamarapatin.

It has been over a week since the May 23 Maute Group attack on the Islamic City of Marawi, and President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao. Skirmishes to clear and control the city are still ongoing. The majority of its 201,785 recorded citizens have since fled on foot, leaving behind combatants, journalists, and the occasional terrified resident trapped in the crossfire or attempting to protect their homes and businesses from looting.

Many questions remain. Was it truly a botched military operation against Abu Sayyaf Group leader Isnilon Hapilon, who had purportedly ventured out of Basilan to operate in the mainland, unifying the disaffected under the black flag? Or was it well planned in advance, this scene of least fifty young fighters emerging from Lake Lanao, occupying and damaging key installations—hospitals, churches, university buildings, city hall, the local jail? Was the Chief of Police truly beheaded (despite photos emerging of him appearing alive and with head intact)? Can we call them ISIS or IS-Ranao? Why is Marawi City being shelled? How will the airstrikes affect power dynamics on the ground? Will the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao set the stage for nationwide policy?

What is established is that as of May 31, at least 22 civilians, 30 security personnel and sixty-odd Maute and ASG fighters have been killed. Over 44,000 families have been recorded as displaced across Northern Mindanao, taking uncertain shelter during the Holy Month of Ramadan in evacuation centres and the homes of friends and relatives. Only twenty percent of the metropolitan area has power restored; food in surrounding communities is scarce. Tensions have spilt over to neighbouring towns. It will take weeks before comprehensive damage assessments can be conducted but one wonders if Marawi, with its rich 400-year-old history and its role as the economic, political, and cultural heart of Lanao del Sur, can fully recover.

Mainstream approaches to Mindanao’s peace and conflict situation is through its security or political dimensions, and for the immediate phase, the humanitarian response for the likas (“those who left”, a more culturally-appropriate alternative to bakwit), or internally displaced persons. However, Marawi, and to some extent its predecessor Zamboanga, begs the question: how can we start thinking about peace in terms of how conflict dynamics play out in actual space and place, in the fabric of our communities and cities? Violent state-non state contestation in the Philippines has been largely rural, with a few sporadic exceptions. So does Marawi signal a contemporary turn to urban warfare, similar to many of our Western counterparts? Is urban conflict the next Philippine battleground?


Continue reading “Conflict in Cities and the Contested Philippine State: Notes After Marawi”


Writing this quick note to process one of the many strange developments of the week, which included my being roped in last minute to present a study conducted by the World Bank and the International Organization for Migration on marginalization through land dispossession in the Bangsamoro region. Presentations are part of my usual day-to-days but this was unusual—it was a launch at Camp Darapanan, the present headquarters of the largest armed revolutionary group in the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (or MILF, read as M-I-L-F, not the lewd joke familiar to most westerners).

It just so happened that our lead author, Dr. Fermin Adriano, was unable to fly to Cotabato and our rather crazy and generous team leader, Matt, chose to gleefully task me with translating the key technical messages in a vernacular that would be understood by the larger audience, and not just the international actors and VIPs present in the room. And that entailed being the lost young female non-Muslim, non-Mindanawon pseudoacademic on the dais with Mindanao peace process heavy hitters such as Ishak Mastura, Guiamel Alim, Rufa Guiam, peace panel chairs Mohagher Iqbal and Irene Santiago, plus the amerul mujahid himself, Al-haj Murad Ebrahim. Kumbaga sa Tagalog, pinabili lang ng suka, napadpad na sa Darapanan. (Which actually describes a fair chunk of the seven years of this life, to be fair.)

Continue reading “Lupa”