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Sociology from the Philippines

Urban Studies in the Philippines: Sociology as an Anchor

The Pasig River stretches within Metro Manila. Its water quality is considered to be below liveable standards. Photo by Rhon Paolo C. Velarde.

June 26, 2020

Urban studies in the Philippines, and urban sociology in particular, saw a rapid growth from the 1980s onwards when the capital city of Manila and its surrounding cities started to expand economically and politically. Prior to the structuring of communities and the advancement of technology, the areas now sprawling with high-rise buildings, gated communities, and busy streets used to be covered by green fields and connecting water and river systems. But as population in these areas increased, the needs of the communities also evolved, to the extent that their development could no longer be sustained by their own resources. These changes saw the need for a more complex governance of the residents’ economic, political, and social lives. They also led to a varied discussion of city life. Different aspects of city life, including that of housing and the built environment, the segmentation of residents based on economic status, criminality, and governance all called for a specialized lens in understanding the city.

Politically, to address these concerns, the state devolved some of its functions to various local government units like the administration of local affairs. In the Philippines, this process of decentralization was granted by the Local Government Code of 1991. Under Article 24 of the Code, the state devolved its functions to the local government units so that each unit became responsible for a minimum set of services and facilities to be provided in accordance with established national policies, guidelines, and standards. According to Article 25 of the Code, local government units should provide basic services such as adequate communication and transportation facilities, support services and facilities for education, police and fire protection, and community development.

In the Philippines, the concept of metropolitanization – metropolitan areas and metropolitan governance – was first conceived in the early 1970s to coordinate the metro-wide services to the newly integrated three cities and thirteen municipalities within the vicinity of Metro Manila. The first metropolitan governing body in the Philippines was established in 1975 by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 824: the Metro Manila Commission, serving from 1975 to 1986. Its functions were to coordinate services such as traffic and transport management, squatter control, and the preservation of a clean and green environment. In 1995, by virtue of Republic Act No. 7924, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) was created, which involves the functions of planning, supervision, coordination, regulation, and integration of seventeen cities and municipalities in terms of providing basic services. The basic services that the MMDA provides include: traffic decongestion and transportation efficiency; work management; pollution monitoring; flood and sewage management; urban renewal, zoning and land use planning, health and sanitation; and public safety, which includes rescue operations.

If the twentieth century was characterized by the domination of urbanization, this has given way in the twenty-first century to metropolitanization as the latest comprehensive approach to urban governance and management. Urbanization came along with a rise in urban poverty due to limited income and employment opportunities in the cities, as urban populations continued to grow naturally and through migration from the countryside. This as well gave rise to the proliferation of slums in the cities. Lack of potable water supply and sanitation and waste disposal were also problems generated by rapid urbanization, resulting in environment degradation. Inadequate infrastructure and transport facilities in cities led to a state of gridlock that restricted economic growth. In turn, all these urban problems led to the breakdown in the social fabric of the cities since the late 1970s, which reached a peak in the early 1990s since the restoration of democracy in the Philippines, and has consequences up to the present.

My research has tried to look into this vast realm of urban studies, particularly in Metro Manila. I first focused on how an inter-city, national agency like the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority addresses the urban problem of traffic management, arguing that political dynamics between local government unit officials and national agency officials played a significant role in solving such a complex issue. I continued by focusing on how a gated community in the urban area of Metro Manila emerged, particularly looking into how the function of gated communities evolved from being a form of economic security, to being a form of physical security, and further to being both. Most recently, I looked into the dynamics of the delivery of security in an urban setting, given that gated communities, being privately owned entities governed by private homeowners associations, provide their residents a higher level of security than the local government provides the general public. This phenomenon, seen through neoliberalism and the New Public Management approach, results in undermining the legitimacy of the local government units by monopolizing the source of services while enticing more and more urban dwellers from a higher class to patronize this residential set-up.

Metro Manila, where informal settlers are a normal sight, is one of the metropolitan areas with the densest population in the world. Photo by Rhon Paolo C. Velarde.

Given the continuous growth of the population in Metro Manila – with a steady increase of 1.7% annually, similar to other megalopolises around the world – it is all the more important that the perspectives used in understanding urban areas be more diverse. Urban studies in the Philippines have been compartmentalized into different fields like health, urban planning and design, politics and governance, discrepancy between socio-economic groups, and even risks and disasters. For Metro Manila, with its population of 12.8 million people and one of the highest population densities in the world, sociology can provide an overarching framework to understand the relationship between individuals and their environment. Sociology can provide an anchor to connect concerns and possible solutions provided by evidence-based research and immersion in the city.

Louie Benedict R. Ignacio, University of Santo Tomas, Philippines and member of ISA Research Committees on Sociology of Education (RC04) and Regional and Urban Development (RC21) <lrignacio@ust.edu.ph>

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