The recent pronouncement by Cebu City Vice-Mayor Edgar Labella to pass an ordinance to pedestrianize the section of Juan Luna street hugging the epistle side of the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño is something that should be supported and seriously looked into.
There is no doubt that this will cause some problems for public utility vehicles likes jeepneys and taxis but if successful, will perhaps point the way to a gradual pedestrianization of the old Spanish quarter of downtown Cebu—a dream of many heritage conservation advocates that is more than 20 years old now.
Of all the pioneer cities and towns of the world, only very few are left that have not closed off their oldest central core from vehicular traffic and Cebu City is one of them. I can immediately cite three obvious reasons why this is a bit difficult for Cebu. The first is the absence of a public mass transit system run by government. We have the semblance of one via public utility jeepneys but these are run by the private sector and the need for revenue and profit throws road discipline out of the window. The second is related to the first: the sheer lack of discipline of drivers of both private and public vehicles who cannot even do a simple thing like use their signal lights ahead of time when turning. The third is the need for an integrated cultural tourism program for the city that could be tapped to provide revenue to a pedestrianized core.
The last one is relatively easy to solve: you just tap the private sector as in the shop owners that will be affected in the pedestrianization to follow a pattern of façade refurbishing and sprucing up to make their buildings presentable enough so that any tourist or pedestrian will find it worthwhile to traverse streets closed off to traffic.
Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama has started some kind of sprucing up of the core fronting Cebu City Hall when he requested the private owners of edifices to paint their buildings in soft tones of the colonial period: beige or off-white. This has created the kind of harmony one would expect to see surrounding the tiny Plaza Sugbu whose main attraction is Magellan’s Cross. There is still some work to be done with regard to the bedraggled and dirty-looking vendors who pester tourists into buying all kinds of souvenirs but that too is easy to attend to. The decision of Islands Souvenirs to set up shop nearby has added a respectable establishment that visitors can go to after being harangued by unkempt vendors trying to eke out a living without making themselves more presentable to tourists.
The most difficult problem is the fact that the kind of mass transportation system we have is run by hundreds if not thousands of private individual drivers, each jostling for the potential passenger and loading them anywhere and everywhere no matter how many others are inconvenienced. These drivers are also voters and political will is required to deal with them given possible revenue loss should the old Spanish quarter of Cebu, roughly from Sanciangko street down to the waterfront area up to Parian on the north and Juan Luna street at the south, right where the basilica is located.
But sometimes events like a natural disaster force us to accept certain realities on the ground, no matter how difficult. The recent earthquake and the Cebuano’s deep devotion to the Sto. Niño, whose abode is imperiled by the vibrations of cars passing by its northern side (the epistle side), for example, will most certainly overcome initial opposition to closing off this short section of a long street.
I can only hope that for the rest of the old Spanish quarter—which incidentally corresponds to the pre-Spanish settlement called Sugbo—we will not wait for rising sea levels expected within the next 50 years because of climate change to overrun the area, turning it into a water world. I look forward to savoring a stroll down its streets devoid of cars and turned into parks while being regaled with historical events that transpired in each of the buildings that were once houses or even open spaces.
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