Cranes, scaffolding and gigantic buildings. That's what Metro Manila was during my last visit.

In the four years I’ve been gone, the metro’s skyline has lurched upward. Where SM Megamall was once the largest building I could think of, now its feats of colossal construction are being rivaled everywhere else in the city.


In San Juan, where I grew up, the tallest structures aren’t the mid-size condos or tall tri-level homes anymore. The honor now belongs to towering new buildings. Behind my childhood home, I couldn’t miss a looming new building planted on Xavier and Gen. S. de Jesus streets. On a little known byway I use to avoid traffic in Gilmore, another sign proclaims the rise of a "horizontal" development  by Rockwell Land costing anywhere between $450 to $730-thousand, the price of a good-sized home here in California. The trend continues wherever I go: in Bonifacio Global City, Pasay City and Makati City.


America's celebrities and Europe's design houses have even gotten involved in the real estate fervor. Donald Trump has put his name on a $150-million, 56-story Trump Tower  with each unit in it priced at an $1.86 million each. The curtain glass-walled building threw me off as I was scraping my memory to recall the way to Mandarin Oriental hotel. Paris Hilton meanwhile lent her appeal to a nine-building, $144-thousand "urban" resort development. European design brand Missoni is designing the interior for a  $316 million six-tower project.

As these projects lumber along their development stages, fueled by the nine million Filipinos abroad sending approximately $22 billion in remittances, my friends and I wonder, "Is this bubble soon to burst? Will anyone ever really live in these fancy condos?" Based on the 2009 Family Income and Expenditure Survey, Filipino families earned just under $5,000 a year. Even the upper 10 percent earned just under $11,000 a year. As urban planner Nathaniel von Einsiedel rightly points out to me over coffee, with all of these high-rises, multi-use complexes geared toward the upper 30 percent of the Filipino market, who's looking after the bottom 70 percent?

In a recent address by von Einsiedel at the Housing and Urban Development conference in Baguio October 12, he outlines a worrisome trio: First, inner-city housing for the poorest of the poor is possible only with massive subsidy. Second, government resources for housing subsidies are very limited. Finally, private developers do not find affordable housing to be sound investments.

With the rise of these multi-million peso projects, what kind of metro are we building for future Filipinos? The foundations are laid for a terribly unbalanced living situation, where there is room for the richest of the rich, but none for anyone else.

As the poor are being priced out of living spaces, they nevertheless continue to flock to cities in search of better lives causing an increase in informal (and even dangerous) settlements, unless the country is able to provide a more dignified alternative.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has a great graphic illustrating the quick urbanization of the Philippines.  In the 1960s, only a third of the Filipino population lived in the city (or 8 million people). In 2010, that number has jumped to about half of the current population (or 46 million). That PCIJ article concludes with the words: "Official estimates show that 3.7 million houses are needed to close the gap in housing needs in the Philippines. Metro Manila, the country’s largest urbanized area, has a total backlog of nearly half a million."

Source: UNICEF, NSO Census Data, and Human Settlement 2004-Philippines via PCIJ

As most national problems go, this one likewise has no easy answers.

One would need the government’s participation: both on the local and national levels. Von Einsiedel recommends actual city planning to be done by local government units. He points to proactive land banking for socialized housing and creating a Shelter Plan and Urban Redevelopment Plan with teeth that outlines housing sites, implementation strategies and actual, viable financial schemes, as possible places to begin.

Developers should look beyond all-consuming return on investment numbers while implementing plans. Profit is undeniably part of the equation, but so are consequences to people in the community and the planet (the Triple Bottom Line, so to speak). Gawad Kalinga’s Community Infrastructure Program provides an interesting model. Not only does takes into account the actual structure of homes, but engages residents to build the holistic community they want to live in.

It would be a boon to add a soaring tower to one’s resume, but architects and designers should challenge their craft beyond these big-budget developments. Across the Pacific Ocean, socially conscious developments such as David Baker + Partners’ Tassafaronga Village and Richardson Apartments and Michael Maltzan’s Carver Apartments in California show that tight budgets can lead to imaginative and news-worthy architecture that provide dignified homes for those in the low income bracket.

If the Philippine economic boom were really a boon, then it should benefit not just the upper echelons of society, but everyone else as well. It would be all too easy to build lofty residences and turn a quick profit, the more difficult challenge is to lay the foundations for a vibrant economy where everyone is afforded his right to a standard of living.