Permanent solution: New towns for informal settlers

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The recent flooding in parts of Metro Manila brought to the fore once more the problem of informal settlers living along esteros on river banks and under bridges.

The flooding puts pressure on the government and the Aquino administration to find not only an immediate but also lasting and permanent solutions to this perennial problem.

Developing new towns as “integrated viable economies” could provide the alternative to the current “relocation-oriented” strategy, which has, over the past 20 years, failed to effectively address the problems of informal dwellers, housing backlog, urban congestion and the continuing influx of people to cities, notably Metro Manila.

Economically viable

It is well known that in some provinces close to Manila, such as Bulacan, Rizal and Laguna, there remain parcels of land that are uninhabited but have a strong potential for development. The problem, however, is access and triggering their economic development.

That’s where new towns or satellites of new towns can be established—not just relocation sites, as the current approach affords.

The first task is to identify possible sites of new towns or satellite towns—maybe 100 to 200 hectares for a start.

Then access has to be provided. That means the government investing in a new highway to the site, then connecting it with smaller roads, if necessary, to nearby centers.

The development of the town can then be jointly undertaken with the private sector—which may be encouraged to invest in new industries and factories that will create jobs and livelihood, or even provide such facilities as a town center with recreational areas, markets, church, day-care centers, schools and hospitals.

But such new towns or satellite towns must be carefully planned to avoid the same pitfalls now seen in urban areas of the country, where development had not been properly planned.

This concept is not new. It has been tried and has found success in many countries, such as the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and China.

One example is the development of Shenzhen in China, a fishing village that, in 1979, had a population of only 30,000 and a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of 606 yuan.

Then, Deng Xiao Ping decided to make it a new city and a showcase of China’s new economic advancement. Today, Shenzhen has a population of over 10 million—people voluntarily moved there as development was taking place—and a GDP per capita of $14,000, one of the highest in the world.

What we can do is not in the magnitude of Shenzhen but a model on a much smaller scale that can be replicated in many parts of the country.

The better part is that it will not only offer a lasting solution to the housing problem and congestion in our urban areas but also trigger economic development and offer the road to the much-desired inclusive economic growth.

Patch-up approach

The development of new towns is better than the usual patch-up approach, including the latest government plan to spend nearly P400 million to relocate more than 20,000 families living in Metro Manila’s danger zones—about P18,000 per family for one year—to entice them to move to safer homes.

This sort of “modified conditional cash transfer” scheme is intended to help informal settlers find safer homes they can rent.

It is understandable why the plan is meeting criticism from some sectors. The Urban Poor Associates, for instance, sees it as just another “band-aid solution.”

Even Undersecretary Francisco Fernandez of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the official-in-charge of the relocation, admits that the financial aid will be enough only for the families to rent a room in slum areas that are not in or near waterways.

In other words, they will continue to live in subhuman conditions within the metropolis. Urban congestion and the housing backlog will just remain and continue to build up.

And no relocation could become permanent unless the settlement sites are assured of long-term economic and social viability.

Creating new towns will address this gap.

(Salvador M. Enriquez Jr. is a former finance secretary and budget secretary.)

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