Urban planner rediscovers Metro Manila’s 17 LGUs, one city a day

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“It was only 20 minutes, 5 and ½ kilometers but I thought I was on it for an hour. I was on the motorcycle lane and cars are coming in from the right and they’re getting off at the left. It was madness,” Julia Nebrija says about her experience on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City.

The Commonwealth mayhem happened on the third day of her two-week personal project to bike around Metro Manila. “This was something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and after the Pope’s visit, I just thought, I’d go do it,” she says.

Her vague initial plans will have her biking through the 17 cities of Metro Manila (technically 16 cities and one municipality) for 17 days, allotting one city a day. She will do this alone. She has set a Feb 21 deadline, but only because that’s her birthday. “I haven’t really plotted anything. I thought I would just figure it out as I go along.” 

She started on Sunday, Feb 8, and has ticked six cities already: Navotas, Malabon, Caloocan, Valenzuela, Quezon City, and Marikina. She diligently documents all her adventures on her projectmnl.com blog.

The idea is to explore how space is used in Metro Manila. She first arrived in the Philippines as a Fulbright scholar in 2008, when she worked closely with informal settlers. She is a graduate of George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs and Development, but it was her work in Metro Manila that made her pursue as masteral degree in Urban Design at the City College of New York.

“You can see there was already good planning at the basic, barangay level. The community is asked what they need and why they need it and they really participate in the discussion. But I think [on a bigger scale] we don’t really plan for how people use the space.”

Nebrija, who is originally from Washington and New York, moved to the Philippines three years ago for good. She has Philippine roots — her father is from Ilocos Sur, who lived mostly in Project 3 in Quezon City. She is based near Mania’s Port Area in and is one of the co-founders of cultural initiative Viva Manila. “I think, on the community level, everything is organized. The principles are already in place but in Metro Manila, we need to plan it out in so many levels.”

With 1,706 barangays, she says, there are so many different things to bear in mind. “I mean, that alone — there are so many different conditions to plan for. The government is really trying its best, but there are so many layers to think about.” There are different typographies to consider, population density, mobility, connectivity, among many others.

This, she says, is her biggest discovery after three days of biking around Metro Manila.

There’s the micro level and the macro level and the government in between

Her trip amplifies what she’s learned in her previous experience: Metro Manila residents actually plan their space according to what they need already. “We don’t really follow anything, which could be bad, but which could also be good. There is strength in that,” Julia considers.

Apart from making Metro Manila incredibly interesting, there is also initiative to be noted. The residents are already dictating how space should be used. “People decide where the basketball court is going to be, vendors decide where they’re going to set up shop. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. How we design our space says a lot about how we live, and we need to take a look at that so that we can move Metro Manila forward.”

Julia mentions Bangus Street in Navotas as an example: “It’s wonderful because every couple of blocks, it had a basketball court, a barangay hall, a daycare center. It was really, nicely organized at a community neighborhood level. It was really good. I think we just need to figure out, scale it on a bigger level.”

Bangus Street, Navotas

Bangus Street in Navotas

Her observations are telling: She mentions how real estate developers are actually leading the organization of the city, with the government placing only second. “So there are the real estate people trying to organize how we live — building malls, etc — and then on a micro level, there are the people dictating how a space is used. The government is somewhere in the middle trying to make sense of all this.”

Metro Manila is bikeable and flat

“So many people are already biking in Metro Manila, that’s one of the things I noticed in this trip,” she shares. While Metro Manila’s bike culture is already pretty big — bike shops proliferate like mushrooms, bike groups are continually formed and bike rides are forever being organized — Julia says it’s something totally overlooked.

Navotas and Malabon are, surprisingly, already very bikeable. “And everyone there is already biking,” she observes, sharing with us a certain type of bike she’s only seen in those areas. “They’re like chariots. They’re huge! You have to be tall to even bike it. They have big wheels from the pre-war, really almost like a chariot. And a whole family can fit in it. You’d see whole families riding them, just chilling and hanging out and making pasyal. It’s the most wonderful thing to see.”

People riding in bikes are a common site in Valenzuela, too 


She believes that while Metro Manila is a bikeable city, two things hinder the bike culture from really bursting forth in the mainstream, macro level: connectivity and pollution. “Bike lanes need to connect to major areas, like Roxas Boulevard or Taft or Makati CBD. And also, pollution, that’s the worst part. We need to fix the motors of jeepneys and trikes so that pollution won’t be that bad.”

While she has been heavily relying on her GPS — “with it, I would not be able to do this trip,” she says — she noticed that a lot of the areas have yet to be updated on Google maps. Julia shares how at one point, Google Maps had asked her to turn right “but where you’re going to turn is now a house.”

Coloong, Valenzuela reminds her of Copenhagen

While reading her blog, an observation absolutely threw us off our chair: She says Coloong, Valenzuela, reminds her of Copenhagen, of all places. “The scene of mothers, fathers, grandparents biking their students to school seem like a scene out of Copenhagen,” she writes on projectmnl.com.

“But that’s only Coloong,” she later clarifies with us. It’s a little rural area somewhere in North Valenzuela that she had no idea existed, but one that really, completely surprised her — in a good way. At Museo de Valenzuela, she asked the caretaker what he liked about Valenzuela. “He said fishing ponds up north so I rode there and I loved it. It’s the best thing about my trip so far. It’s amazing.”

And people really did fish there. “There were guys from Malabon who biked there to go fishing, to catch tilapia to eat for dinner.”

Coloong Valenzula

Coloong, Valenzuela


Social media has a role in this

Julia is still in the early days of her trip but already Metro Manila is proving to be one hell of an interesting place. She says anyone is welcome to join her; on Tuesday night, the Mini Velo Club Philippines actually did, for a ride around Quezon City.

Mini Velo Club

“One guy saw me in Valenzuela, posted it on Facebook, and then one thing led to another and now we’d just come from a ride,” she shares. Facebook, Julia advises, is the best way to keep posted of her whereabouts, if anybody wants to join.

From Marikina, she’ll make her way down Pasig. Below is her super flexible outline that she’s posted on Facebook.

Photos: Julia Nebrija; Headline photo: Joey Alvero of Doppelganger Hub PH 

This story first appeared on Coconuts Manila. For more interesting stories on the city, visit Coconuts Manila.


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