Crossposting a new collaborative release with the UrbanisMO.ph crowd.

The full English and Filipino papers are available on urbanismo.ph and as Google Docs documents on bit.ly/urbancovid1 and bit.ly/urbancovid2.

Take care, everyone.


A call for national, regional, and city governments and everyday citizens to address the impact of COVID-19 on poor communities

People are being told to wash our hands and stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But what happens if you have no water, no food, no money, or no home?

There is a major gap in national and local government approaches to addressing the pandemic. Now on its second iteration of what is being called an ‘enhanced community quarantine’, this government has still extensively failed to factor in the needs of the poor. Without factoring the needs of the poorest and the most vulnerable, continuing to implement short-sighted and insensitive lockdown policies will deepen existing community inequalities, drive poverty and hunger, and magnify the health risks to the entire population. 

With approximately one month to go in this enhanced community quarantine, this gap must be addressed urgently.


On 17 March 2020, the Philippine Government declared a National State of Calamity to stem the spread of COVID-19, putting Metro Manila and the whole of Luzon in enhanced community quarantine’. People are now restricted to their homes. All modes of public transportation ranging from the MRT to buses and tricycles have been suspended, with the military and police instructed to man checkpoints across major thoroughfares. Similar to lockdowns instituted in China and affected countries globally, these measures are intended to ‘flatten the curve’, or lessen the rate of infection and transmission to a level that can be handled by the country’s health system. As of March 19, 193 confirmed cases in the country have been recorded. A recent model run by data scientists at the Asian Institute of Management projects an estimated 26,000 COVID-19 cases in the Philippines by end-March if community spread is not contained.

While it is universally agreed that ‘social distancing’ measures are paramount, netizens have criticized how policies have prioritized the rich and powerful: politicians and celebrities are the first to be tested despite the DOH algorithm; testing in posh private hospitals costs PHP 9,000  to process (the kit itself is free). Private vehicles are allowed, but day laborers and dialysis patients alike have been forced to walk for kilometers through multiple checkpoints. Homeless people on the street have been arrested. A viral video of a homeless man on what appears to be the Roxas Boulevard boardwalk asking the government to also think about them in times like this best sums up how current policies are anti-poor. Speaking through a used dirty mask, he stares at the camera, saying, “kinalimutan na kami ng gobyerno (we have been forgotten by government).”


But how bad is the problem, at scale?  Metro Manila is one of the densest urban agglomerations in the world, outstripping other major capitals such as Delhi, Paris, or Tokyo. It anchors political, cultural, and economic life on the island-region of Luzon, which contributes to up to 70% of the country’s economic output. Metro Manila’s official population data is estimated at 12.8 million but swells to a daytime population of about 15 million, while servicing a broader catchment area of up to 21.3 million. An estimated 2.5 million people in Metro Manila live in slums, while 3.1 million are homeless. Official government data from the National Household Targeting System of the DSWD shows that there are 15.1 million poor households nationwide, and approximately 300,000 in Metro Manila. An average poor household has 5 to 6 members. 

These daytime workers are the men and women who have been stuck at the checkpoints and borders north, east, and south of Metro Manila. Even within NCR, many people live and work in different component cities–all of whom are affected by the suspension of mass transit. JICA data estimates that at least 88% of commuters do not have private vehicles. A sizeable number of citizens live hand-to-mouth, or are forced to risk their lives daily with no-work, no-pay policies. Figures 1 and 2 below map out official statistics on poverty and housing informality in the National Capital Region. Figure 1 is based on the magnitude of poor households in Metro Manila from the dataset provided by the National Household Targeting System of the DSWD. 


Source: DSWD Listahanan 2017, DOH 2020 from UNRI, Mapadatos (JR Dizon)


Source: PSA CPH 2010, DOH 2020 from UPRI, MapaDatos (JR Dizon)
Note:  Informality was reflected using four variables from the Philippine Census of Population and Housing (2010), beginning with households who enjoy (1) rent-free occupation with consent of owner; and (2) rent-free without consent of owner. Based on the two categories, the result was filtered based on the type of housing, specifically homes where (3) floor area is less than 5 square meters, and whose outer walls are (4) constructed of wood and other light materials.

The families in these poor, deprived, and informal settlement communities described in the maps are often the same areas that are highly vulnerable to flooding, and have limited access to health or other basic social services. In dense settlements in major cities such as Pasig, Mandaluyong, Quezon City, and Manila, the only ways to access these communities is often by tricycle or habal habal-motorcycles. 

The basic demography of poor families living in the city is in itself a vulnerability. Poor families are often large, with an average of 3-5 children and with extended family members including grandparents living under the same roof. In most cases, poor families are also single income households, with the head of household serving as the sole and primary breadwinner. In these cramped spaces, ‘social distancing’ is impossible. Even without COVID-19, these poor living conditions also trigger various health issues related to overcrowding and WASH (water and sanitation, hygiene) the most important factor in the spread of the disease.  This holds especially true for the elderly population and the children, as this is just another layer to the risks they have to live with on a daily basis. 


Source: DSWD Listahanan 2017, DOH 2020 from UNRI, MapaDatos (JR Dizon)

All of this creates situations where ailing grandparents from our city’s slums will choose to walk through checkpoints and possibly contract COVID-19, rather than letting their children and grandchildren starve to death. Once infections are allowed to spread in these dense communities, it will be impossible to manage and contain. 

So what can we do, together?

We call on the members of the Interagency Task Force and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, local governments, private sector organizations, and everyday citizens to help make the implementation of Proclamation No. 929, Declaring a State of Calamity Throughout the Philippines Due to Corona Virus Disease 2019 more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable. To do this, we must:

  1. Find ways to increase community access to water and basic sanitation, particularly with increasing water shortages across the Philippines. Provide soap, hygiene kits, masks, and other basic supplies particularly in dense, deprived, and informal settlements across different cities. 
    • Water rationing with the help of the Bureau of Fire Protection, Philippine Red Cross and other local organizations with water tanks can be organized.
    • Continue regular garbage collection and ramp up sanitation efforts across cities
  2. Provide social protection support to the poorest families. Specifically, we call on the civilian bureaucracy led by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation,  Department of Social Welfare and Development and the Department of Labor and Employment, together with the Department of Transportation to implement, expand, and augment the existing social welfare programs to assist the affected labor force, marginalized, and other vulnerable sectors. Some of these programs include:
    • Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), Modified Conditional Cash Transfer Program (MCCT) for homeless street families, and Unconditional Cash Transfer (UCT)  under DSWD
    • PhilHealth, where coverage of  all costs should be increased to include testing, consultation and hospitalisation related to COVID-19.
    • Pantawid Pasada (DOTR/LTFRB), which should be expanded to also cover other affected sectors such as tricycle, jeepney, bus, AUV, and taxi drivers
    • TUPAD (Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged /Displaced Workers) under the Department of Labor and Employment
  3. Ensure that daily wage earners are not forced to leave their homes to feed their families by providing food aid and other incentives for the duration of the lockdown. The government must collaborate with private sector employers to assuage fears that they will lose their jobs if they are unable to physically report for work.
  4. Support the mobility of frontline services and health workers, and ensure that even citizens without private vehicles will have unimpeded access to health facilities, particularly those who are pregnant, undergoing dialysis or radiation, and in need of other essential health services. Options such as sanitized buses and bicycles can be provided for frontline workers.To the extent possible, provide options for temporary housing for front liners by coordinating with real estate developers, schools, and dormitories. Above all, efforts should be made to ensure that the implementation of checkpoint protocols are done in a humane, respectful, and non-arbitrary fashion, putting the health and safety of citizens first. 
  5. Support the health sector and local scientists to ramp up free testing capability across the Philippines, including for the poorest of the poor. With the absence of adequate laboratory facilities and trained personnel across the country, some of the PHP 27.1-billion package released by the Department of Finance should be channeled towards innovative solutions for addressing testing and the logistics thereof.
  6. Share accurate and timely information both at the national at grassroots level, in open, anonymized, and high-resolution formats; local languages and channels. Consolidate communication channels for clear messaging and information dissemination and take advantage of existing communication platforms such as the NTC text alarms to provide more useful information, not just brief regular reminders to the public. Data sharing between government agencies using such formats can also help in scientific and policy work in the long run.
  7. Encourage businesses to support the above mentioned efforts and coordinate with the government to create a singular, streamlined response.
  8. Extend the deadline of tax collection in consideration of the logistical hurdles posed by the quarantine, and call on banks, businesses, and property owners to extend and/ or defer deadlines of bill payments. 


While the evidence described in this call is focused on the experience of Metro Manila, we encourage national and local leaders in quarantined communities in the rest of Luzon and in Visayas and Mindanao to ensure that all policies support the poorest and most vulnerable of our neighbors.

Planning in the Philippines has historically been informed by colonial, extractive, and punitive perspectives that deepen class divides. This is an opportunity to take a hard look at how our cities and neighborhoods have been shaped by spatial inequalities that dictate who has access to resources and who does not, and who can comfortably watch Netflix from behind gated communities while others must walk for hours to find enough money to eat for the day.

As middle-class development workers and practitioners, we must do better. This is a chance to break down the walls and take care of our neighbors and each other.  

In solidarity,

The UrbanisMO.ph community


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As a loose collective of professionals working in various fields linked to urban and regional planning and local economic development, we offer our help for free. If there are local government units (LGU) who would need technical assistance in thinking through packages for their constituents, kindly send us a message at urbanismoph@protonmail.com.


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 separationare 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 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 ‘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 confidence-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 “dealing 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: