Renewable city: the once and future Manila

(1) Welcome to Manila

Inspired by reading a biography of General Douglas MacArthur, I found myself in the Philippines during the ‘golden week’ holiday break, spending most of my time in the Metro Manila region. In this post I will use ‘Manila’ to refer to Manila and its several surrounding cities, including Pasay City, Makati, Mandaluyong, San Juan, and Quezon City..

My first day in Manila was hot, humid, and sunny – typical weather for April. After leaving the Malayan Plaza hotel in Pasig City ($82 w/tax) I sought refuge in the nearby SM Megamall, the second largest mall in the Philippines, and the 15th largest in the world. Although I generally avoid malls, they are far more enticing in Manila, where they defend against heat, humidity, and the smog that continually assault your senses outside. I found the SM Megamall (and those I visited later) similar to American malls in almost every respect except for the metal detectors and baggage checks that guard the entrance. I stayed at the mall long enough to cool down and collect my bearings then set off towards the Shaw Boulevard MRT station, where I promptly passed through another metal detector.

The light rail took me four stops south to Ayala MRT station, located on the edge of Makati City, the financial capital of the Philippines. Shopping and other attractions are located northwest of the station, including Ayala Center, which includes the Glorietta mall, posh restaurants, and expensive hotels. Further northwest is the impressive Ayala Museum and its zen garden (pictured below). This area was by far the most upscale section of Manila I visited, with wide, uncrowded streets, and a peacefulness that eludes much of Manila. (a)

(a) How I learned to stop worrying and love the coup

The peacefulness of Ayala Center was somewhat soured by the sight of bomb-sniffing dogs in front of the Ascott Makati hotel, and by the guards with machine guns standing outside the Shangri-La. I was skeptical of the need for such security, but later learned that this section of town experienced hotel sieges in 2003 and 2007. The 2003 Oakwood mutiny (now the Ascott) was led by Philippine soldiers unhappy with the government. The subsequent 2007 Peninsula rebellion (video) was led by officers from the 2003 siege who walked out of their trial for the 2003 mutiny. The Philippines must also contend with the threat of rebel groups and other terrorists. The Australian government, for example, provides the following advice to Philippines-bound travelers (source, broken link: smartraveller gov au/countries/asia/south-east/pages/philippines aspx):

“Terrorist attacks could occur at anytime, anywhere in the Philippines, including in Manila. We continue to receive credible reports indicating terrorists are planning attacks against a range of targets in a variety of locations, including places frequented by foreigners.”

This statement, sadly, is applicable to any large city in the world. Just ask London, New York, Tokyo, Boston, Madrid, Mumbai…

At the Ayala Museum, the lure of air conditioning kept me inside for some time, but I was also engrossed by the diverse collection that includes history, art, and archaeology. In the Pioneers of Philippine Art collection, I took an instant liking to the painter Fernando Zobel; impressed by his Las Soledades de Lope de Vega (1968), I made a sketch of the painting. I found a photo of Las Soledades online, but choose not to share it here, as viewing the work in miniature would diminish its majestic geometric beauty. Instead, to the right is Zobel’s Vasata (1960), which I found on the Ayala Museum website. Why such art moves me, I can’t readily explain.

I left the museum, map in my hand, and followed Antonio S. Arnaiz Avenue to Libertad LRT station in Pasay City. Although my starting point was just two miles away, there was a great distance between the wealth I saw in Makati and the dilapidated roads and buildings along much of my walk. For lunch I stopped for 20-cent cheeseburgers at a roadside stand, watching as a funeral procession passed. Later, a group of boys spotted my camera and asked me to take their picture; their joy at being photographed is something I should try hard to emulate.

At Libertad LRT I took the light rail to United Nations LRT, then walked several blocks west to my next hotel in the Ermita district (or northern Malate). On Mabini Street a pair of scraggly men made a halfhearted attempt to stop me, which I perceived to be the prelude to a pickpocketing. This was the only time in Manila that I was directly confronted by would-be thieves. At the corner of Mabini and Padre Faura I checked into the Lotus Garden Hotel ($45/night w/tax), my favorite hotel of the trip. Two blocks to the west is Manila Bay, home to beautiful sunsets along Roxas Boulevard.

(2) You can’t get there from here

Manila transportation problems fascinate me. The city’s traffic is acknowledged in local newspapers and has landed Manila on the BBC’s list of 10 monster traffic jams from around the world (see also the Discovery channel’s entertaining “Don’t drive here” episode). Having spent time in famously gridlocked cities such as Beijing, Ho Chi Minh, and Boston, I consider Manila a contender for worst congestion in the world. This is a problem for locals, as it eats countless hours from their days, and it is a major disincentive for tourism in the metro region (for example, my 3-mile taxi to the airport took the better part of an hour). What’s more, there is no train connecting downtown Manila or Makati with the airport; the closest train is the Nichols Station of the Philippine National Railway (PNR), over a mile away and next to a smoggy highway feeder-road. Also, PNR service is infrequent, with the last train bound for the city leaving at around 6:30 P.M.

Although there are plans for expansion, Manila’s transit system is ill-suited for such a large city. The population of Manila’s urban area is 21,241,000, ranking it the 6th largest in the world. Despite its significant size, Manila has no subway and its light rail has just 42 stations distributed across 3 lines. In terms of annual ridership, Manila ranks 32nd in the world; and among the largest urban areas, as shown below, Manila residents make just 19 metro trips a year, by far the lowest in the peer group, with the exception of Jakarta and Karachi, which have no mass transit systems.

Despite Manila’s small metro system, I managed to use it extensively. During the day it was not overly crowded, but at rush hour many of the trains were overwhelmingly full. On a rainy Friday night I waited 25 minutes outside the ticket turnstile before losing patience and walking to the next stop in the rain. There, I was forced to walk through the station in order to cross the highway. The station was unimaginably crowded, with a line of perhaps 1000 people waiting to enter the ticket turnstiles. Below is a picture of a mere segment of that line.

(3) Old city, new country

Despite transit difficulties, I covered a lot of ground and glimpsed Manila’s blend of homegrown culture and foreign influences from Asia, Spain, and America. Spanish architecture is prominently displayed in the walled city of Intramuros, which sits north of Rizal Park. Walking through the quiet and historic streets I was reminded of glorious Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was transported back 400 years when these two walled cities were outposts of Spanish civilization, citadels floating in vast oceans on opposite sides of the world.

More recently, in the first half of the 20th century, Manila was widely admired as the “Pearl of the Orient”*, ranking as one of the most beautiful cities in Asia. In this video from 1938, Manila appears idyllic, with bustling shopping districts, tree-lined streets, and an active harbor.

* Broken link: z14 invisionfree com/LoadeD/index.php?showtopic=27

Manila’s beauty proved no obstacle to the bombs and artillery that would destroy much of the city when the United States wrestled it back from Japan towards the conclusion of World War II. According to many accounts, the only Allied city that suffered more damage during WWII was Warsaw, Poland. Following WWII, not only would the Philippines have to rebuild its capital and economic center, but it would have to do so as a new nation, as it gained independence from the United States on July 4, 1946. To complicate matters, the new nation did little to confront the specter of wartime collaboration with Japan; the new president, Manuel Roxas, had served in the puppet government of the pro-Japanese president Jose Laurel. The puppet government was led by the prewar oligarchic elite, many of whom were friends with General MacArthur from before the war (1). Roxas, like others, was never tried as a collaborator, perhaps due to his friendship with MacArthur, or perhaps due fear of to the power vacuum that might otherwise have been created.

And while no change was made to the political elite, so too was the economic order left undisturbed (these things generally go hand-in-hand). There was no comprehensive land reform following World War II, despite ownership patterns that left many of the people in poverty. Even General MacArthur was sympathetic to the plight of the landless class, saying:

“Down here most of this land is owned in Madrid or Chicago or some other distant place…This is really absentee ownership. No pride, few schools – little participation in government. This is where they become utterly hopeless, and organizations like the Hukbalahap are born and get their strength. They tell me the Huks are socialistic, that they are revolutionary, but I haven’t got the heart to go after them. If I worked in those sugar fields I’d probably be a Huk myself.”  (2)

Wikipedia also provides a succinct analysis:

“When the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, much of the land was held by a small group of wealthy landowners. There was much pressure on the democratically elected government to redistribute the land. At the same time, many of the democratically elected office holders were landowners themselves or came from land-owning families.”

As for myself, I can’t help but wonder how different the Philippines would be had there been comprehensive land reform on the order of what occurred in Japan after World War II. We will never know. Oh, the infinite mystery of counterfactuals!

(4) Hybrid solutions

Despite visible pockets of poverty, Manila is largely prosperous compared with the rest of the country. Nationwide the Philippines has a poverty rate of around 20 to 30%, depending on the measurement criteria. And greater Metro Manila and its surrounding areas fall far below these marks. The map to the right shows poverty by province. Manila and its surrounding areas are represented by a blue crescent towards the north, indicating rates below 10%. Outlying regions, particularly in the large southern island of Mindanao, experience poverty rates in excess of 50%.


One organization working to change this is Hybrid Social Solutions, Inc. (HSSi), a company that provides solar technologies to rural, off-grid communities in the Philippines. HSSi was founded in 2010 by Jim Ayala, a seasoned businessman who spent years with consulting giant McKinsey and more recently was CEO of Ayala Land (no relation), the largest real estate company in the Philippines.

With years of success under his belt, Ayala stepped down from his role at Ayala Land to use his skills and resources to make more direct impact on the lives of people in the Philippines. Ayala was kind enough to meet with me during my time in Manila, which was certainly the highlight of my trip.

During our conversation, Ayala mentioned that one in four Filipinos lives without electricity. Putting this in perspective for an American, you would have to go back to the 1920s or 1930s to find comparable rates in the US. In the United States, expanded electrification was achieved in part by massive government programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)  (1933) and the Rural Electrification Act (1935).  While the Philippines does have the National Electrification Administration (NEA), it was founded in 1969 and arguably could use assistance from the private sector and other sources.

To reach communities without access to electricity, HSSi works with partner organizations, creating what is known as a ‘hybrid value chain’, linking HSSi to end-users via the assistance of partners such as micro-finance organizations and NGOs. The hybrid value chain allows HSSi and its partners to provide solar-powered devices to people in remote parts of the Philippines that have little or no access to electricity. The impact is remarkable. In addition to the simple pleasure of being able to see more clearly after the sun goes down, solar-powered devices directly improve the livelihood of people in rural areas. Consider these real-life examples of people impacted by HSSi:

1) A woman growing lanzones (a tree fruit) noticed that fruit bats were harming her harvest. Through HSSi she obtained a high-powered solar flashlight that helped her locate and drive away many of the bats, significantly improving her harvest.

2) A group of corn farmers would lose 40% of their season’s crop to nighttime raids by wild pigs. After obtaining a solar flashlight from HSSi they were able to scare away the pigs and reduce their losses to just 10% per season.

3) A team of fishermen had used kerosene lamps to attract fish to their boats at night. The high cost of kerosene ate away most of their profits. After switching to a high-intensity solar-powered lamp, the fishermen greatly reduced their kerosene consumption and were able to retain greater profits.

In some ways it seems obvious that rural people with no access to electricity should utilize solar power. But if it were easy to accomplish, it would be a fait accompli. One obstacle is financing. Even if a farmer recognizes the benefits of a solar device, he or she might not have enough money, and likely does not have a credit history, which would be expected under standard financing arrangements. As a solution, the hybrid value chain developed by HSSi provides a way to finance the purchase via the cooperation of multiple stakeholders, which works something like this:

A farmer wants to buy a solar-powered lamp for 3000 pesos ($70 USD) but lacks the cash to make the purchase. Meanwhile, HSSi sells the lamp to a partner organization such as an NGO. The NGO, which has a relationship with the local community, makes an informed opinion of the farmer and assesses whether he or she is responsible and capable of paying back the loan. The NGO then sells the lamp to the farmer in exchange for a low-interest loan to be paid back in monthly installments of 300 pesos per month. In less than one year the purchase is paid-off, and in most cases the purchase is made up for by reduced expenditures on batteries and kerosene.

HSSi doesn’t merely act as the distributor of solar-powered devices. Its staff conduct ‘solar user forums’ where they meet with recipients of their solar devices to learn where things have gone right and wrong, share best practices from the field, and provide general support. Ayala calls this a “demo in reverse” because the end-users often teach Ayala and HSSi tips and tricks that can only be discovered through everyday use. The day after I met with Ayala, his staff were conducting a user forum in a village a few hours from Manila. He invited me to join, but unfortunately I had a flight the next day.

As for the future, HSSi is exploring ways to use its hybrid value chain to provide additional services such as water purification and internet access (which would provide farmers with valuable information about commodity prices).

As portrayed by American and global media sources, entrepreneurs occupy a rather lofty position in society. Yet why does it seem that so many start-ups are merely focused on making money via digital and social media. Do entrepreneurs really deserve our praise for launching a new version of Facebook or developing apps that provide even more amusing ways to launch angry birds at pigs? In this context it was refreshing to meet someone who uses his business experience, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his love of his country to build a company, and network of partners, that provides tangible and lasting benefits to everyone involved.


Urban Areas and Metro Ridership:

World War II in the Philippines:


Jim Ayala and HSSI

  • Jim Ayala ’84: A businessman solving social problems By Katherine Federici Greenwood (September 22, 2011) (dead link)
  • Jim Ayala, Chief Executive, Ayala Land: The business of building communities with “soul” in Asia; broken link: ww2 cfo com/risk-compliance/2008/07/jim-ayala-chief-executive-ayala-land/




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