The Lost City

[NOTE: This essay appeared in the second issue of the Science Scholar for SY 2006/07.]

In the year 3552, a team of hydronauts from the Chinese Federation led an expedition into the northeastern corridor of the Pacific Ocean, an area that clusters the former South China Sea and the lost islands of Chinese Taipei and the United States of the Philippines. They were headed by Captain Emilio Zhou-Chavez, a veteran in searching the mysteries of these depths. Almost two decades of his life had been consumed by the search for the lost city of Manira, and today his quest may finally be at its end.

Just two days ago, a team of hydroscopers located a metallic structure buried deep beneath the seabed. Today they dig deep into the seabed to verify their findings. “I think we have finally located Manira, captain,” announces the hydroscope chief.

“What do you make of those structures?” asks Zhou-Chavez.

“They must have been satellite stations of some sort. We were able to locate several of these metallic towers throughout this region. We have counted about 4,000 but there might be more. And interestingly, most of them have concrete bases which resemble buildings.”

“Interesting.” Zhou-Chavez glances at another monitor showing a larger metallic tower half-leaning into what seemed to be a system of primitive bridges. “They must have had very flimsy buildings.”

“Colorful ones at least,” adds the hydroscoper. “Some of them appear to have this tarpaulin skin.”

“With images of man-beings bearing their flesh-essence? And other icons of need-things?”

“Yes, sir. What do you make of them?”

Zhou-Chavez clears his throat, containing his surprise. “Tell everybody we have found it. This is the lost city of Manira, and those are their gods.”

* * *

Will this be the judgment history passes on our city, our country and our way of life?

The fallout from Milenyo lent a lot to my imagination since there wasn’t much to do during the blackouts. The wreckage of a billboard tower in the middle of the Magallanes interchange was particularly nasty as its head fell on a flyover thus aggravating the traffic ten stories above EDSA. It took two weeks for the head to be dismantled, as the workers took it apart by hand, beam by beam. The body still remains, leaving the question of when a new head will be in place for all outdoor advertisers to peruse once more.

But as to prove that things get worse before they get better, the MMDA and the DPWH began a campaign to dismantle the skeletons all over EDSA. They met minimal success, if any, and maximum criticism from outdoor advertisers and daily motorists. It fascinated and peeved me how they deployed large, lane-hogging cranes and trucks to take down the small, unfazed billboards while neglecting the large, broken ones. And I’m sure those who spent considerable millions to put them up don’t feel as amused.

All of these could have been avoided of course. Subterranean power, phone and gas lines were discussed during the Ramos era. Likewise, attempts at legislating against these billboards are innumerable but unfortunately just as futile. The fall of these billboards, as superficial as they are, remind us of how poorly planned and badly maintained our cities are. Manila’s cracked and overcrowded streets, polluted rivers and canals, dense slums and schools, and heavily dense atmosphere are all products of our inability to look forward.

The creation of Manila is almost an afterthought. Controlled by tagalog Muslim rajahs in the 16th century, the Pasig River became their point of contention with the Spaniards who effectively controlled the river by establishing Intramuros at the river’s mouth. Settlements around Intramuros were created by the different people who wished to trade with the Spaniards. These various camps were later co-opted as districts and so Greater Manila was born. Our city is poorly planned because it wasn’t, and now we’re splitting hairs to make it work.

But let’s go beyond passing the blame. We need people who can see the future and more importantly, can create it.

A colleague back in college remarked that the problem with our city is that our planners and government officials do not understand math. For instance, the steadily worsening traffic in our city is a testament to how weak we are with exponents. She said, “Roads are built to sustain the current load, but not to sustain the future.” That is why after five years, the roads are built again, and again after another five. “By the time a road is complete, the number of cars has grown exponentially that the new road is instantly obsolete.”

Talking simple statistics, I was rather dismayed when a billboard advertiser remarked that the damage done to the billboards in Metro Manila “is not so bad.” Of the 6,000 or so billboards in the Metro, only 40 to 60 were either damaged or felled by the storm. 1% may not seem a large number, but simple physical models will show that when a billboard goes down, it isn’t only a billboard that goes down. So do power lines, buildings, trucks, cars and even people. Let’s raise the number to 2% and imagine 120 slain billboards throughout the city. Do the math.

So let me provide an example of a city that understands its math and science.

Designed in 1811, the City of New York is laid out in a grid that begins from the southern tip of Manhattan and runs from north to south and east to west. The horizontal axes ensure that sunlight penetrates the city while the vertical axes allow the winds flowing with the parallel Hudson and East rivers to run through the city. In effect, every street and avenue is rich with sunlight and fresh air. The Manhattan grid remains undisturbed and any expansion within the island can only go upwards; that is why the New York skyline is literally a race to the sky. In addition, there are hardly any billboards beyond Times Square, Broadway and Madison Avenue.

We don’t have to annihilate and rebuild Manila to fix it, but we can learn a lot by taking our math and science seriously. Bayani Fernando, as a trained engineer and an admirer of cities abroad, is an example of how technical knowledge coupled with political will can transform a city. He began the insurmountable task of replicating the Marikina miracle in the rest of Metro Manila by restoring the sanctity of the sidewalk. Despite some hits and misses, he currently manages high vehicle density in our low-capacity roads by implementing changes that range from the cosmetic to the structural. His single goal is to make our cities places we would want to live in once more.

There is so much work to be done in our cities and those who wish to change or rule the world won’t run out of things to do. Whether it’s engineering city traffic, channeling a new fresh water supply, or allocating residential areas, city-building is a science. The billboards remind us of the general lack of foresight our city planners have, but these inadequacies can still be met by a scientific and technical understanding of how we should run our cities. It is not too late to create a lasting legacy. We don’t have to be swallowed by the sea by the year 3552.

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