Family Visit to one of the Global 7 Wonders of Nature – Puerto Princesa Underground River in Palawan, Philippines

It’s the nth time that I’ve visited the Underground River in Palawan but it seems this time it’s quite different. It might be because I am with my whole family or this is the first time for me as an urban planner to go back there. I may have a new set of lens when I look at things nowadays. Lets see.

For four years in 2000 – 2004 I regularly visit Puerto Princesa, Palawan twice a month to promote and sell pharmaceutical products. I worked as a medical representative back then in a multinational company. I like the presence of trees on both sides of the road, the tricycles as a major mode of transportation, the local restaurants, and the proud and hospitable (I’ll explain this later) people of the city, among others.

I was surprised when I went down the plane. The airport now is different. It was a simple building with modest facility back then but now the design is modern. The driver of the van that fetched us told me that it is already an international airport and that it is a new building. The old airport building is now an airforce facility. There are also international direct flights available in the airport. Puerto Princesa is now readily accessible to other countries.

We only had four days for this vacation. We alloted the first day to the City Tour, the second day to visit the Underground River, and the third day to just relax and enjoy the hotel facility (pool). We went back to Manila in the morning of the 4th day.

The kids enjoyed the City Tour (1st day). The highlight was the visit to the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center locally known as Crocodile Farm. They get to learn more about crocodiles and had the chance to have a family picture with a baby croc (the kids were really scared when their picture was taken).

I would not discuss in detail our visit to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Underground River). There are many blogs and stories about the place that you can easily check. In 1999, the Underground River was declared by UNESCO as World Cultural and Natural Heritage. In 2011, (through global text voting) the site was declared as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in the world.

To get to the site, you need to hire a van to Sabang then ride a motorized boat at the shore near the mouth of the river. A paddled boat is used to explore the river under the mountain.

I remember the series of rough roads going to Sabang port (access point to the park) in the early 2000s. The road now is paved all the way from the City to Sabang. The travel time before was around 3-4 hours. It just took us 2 and a half hours to reach Sabang. However, we became religious during our journey because of how fast our driver was driving (haha). He is careful in driving. But he was driving really fast!

There is a good queing system in the port. Our travel agent asked for our IDs and bought the tickets. Each motorized boat can only accomodate 6 to 8 passengers. We are only 5 plus our guide so we fit in one boat. It took us around 25 minutes to reach the shore of the park. To cherish your trip don’t forget to take pictures inside the boat and the nice view in the shoreline.

The 6-8 passenger limit per boat ensures that the boatmen all have opportunities to earn from tourists/visitors. This system also ensures convenience and safety of tourists because they seem to have a quality standard for the boats.

Upon arrival at the park, we were given audio equipment that will guide us inside the river cruise. There was no audio equipment available for tourists in 2000. Our tourist guide told us that the reason for the audio is that there are tourists from other countries that do not speak English. The audio equipment is equipped with different languages for different nationalities.

Before riding the paddle boat (the paddle boat can accomodate 10 persons), we were given a hard hat and a short briefing. Even it is the nth time that I’ve been to the Underground River, I am still excited to see this natural wonder. You’ll be refreshed about Elementary Science specially on stalactites and stalagmites formation and amazed to see them in real life.

Now with regards to the audio guide equipment. I know that it helps other nationalities understand and learn more about the site (and promote international tourism). But I miss the conversation with the boatman while he paddled the boat. Mind you, they are trained to converse in English and they are really experts in the area. I deliberately did not use the audio guide. I casually talk to the boatman but the trip seems lull and eerie (really dark inside) without the conversation. It is probably my fault for not using the audio guide. I tend to enjoy conversation with spontaneous questions and answers (something you cannot do with an audio guide). I am suggesting that the Puerto Princesa City Government / Department of Tourism provide option for a tour without an audio guide like before.

The kids enjoyed the trip to the Underground River. I know they learned a lot from this experience. I am glad that the City of Puerto Princesa is helping preserve the area for the enjoyment of the future generations.

We are back to the city proper on the third day. We rode their tricycles to go around the city. I noticed that there are less trees in the city as compared before. We went to the local Pasalubong shop and bought cashew nuts and cashew-related products, abaca coin purses, fancy bracelets, dried fish, etc. You need to learn to ask for discounts when buying pasalubongs. Don’t forget to also try their chicken inato, crocodile sisig and tamilok (mollusk) local delicacies.

In early 2000s, local residents of Puerto Princesa City are proud of being local defenders of city cleanliness. The city is known as the cleanest city in the country. Upon disembarking the plane, the stewardess announce that littering is strictly prohibited in the city (they did not do that anymore). Tricycles have small garbage containers in their vehicles. Drivers proudly tell stories that cleanliness starts at the local schools (young students) and they have strict laws on littering. The city is still clean but the people doesn’t talk about their local advocacies anymore.

I am proud that the Philippines has an Underground River. I am happy that I got to spend quality time with my family visiting this UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage and New 7 Wonders of Nature. Thank you Puerto Princesa City for preserving the site. This is a must-see place even if you are not from the Philippines and even more if you are a local of this very beautiful and blessed country.

To Learn more about the place click the link: http://puertoprincesa.ph/?q=about-our-city/city-tourism-office-puerto-princesa

Addressing Traffic Issues without Building New Roads (but through Urban Planning)

The knee-jerk reaction of most people when it comes to finding solutions in traffic congestion is to build new roads. It seems to make sense when you are stuck in heavy traffic and you’re thinking that what if there is an additional lane it will surely help make the travel faster. It means that big streets can accomodate more vehicles. But what if it is no longer feasible to expand a current street or construct a new one? What would be our recommendations/solutions to worsening traffic conditions?

If the street is congested, would it help a little if we take away one car/vehicle from that street? Probably not. What if we take away 100 cars from that street? Well, it may have an impact to the said street. What if take away 1,000 cars? Impossible? Preposterous? What if I ask you to contribute in lessening the traffic by taking away your car? Now, I crossed the line but just try to read on with an open mind and let’s argue later, okay?

If you take 100 cars away from the street specially those cars without passengers (driver only), there would be 100 people angry why they were not allowed to bring their car. But what if we put these 100 people in 2 buses or let us say 4 buses, that would mean that the spaces occupied by the 100 cars would be traded to the spaces that will be occupied by the 4 buses. That would free a lot of space in the street and loosen traffic flow. What if these 100 people have access and will ride a train, then the streets be relieved and will have more space for other vehicles. What if we take away 1,000 cars from the street? Well, it is the same logic.

We need to have a convenient, reliable, efficient and effective alternative way of travelling than using our own car. We need to have a compelling reason not to use our car. We need to have a good public transport system. These are public buses, trains, trams, and even ferry boats. Though buses occupy our streets, it carries more people and occupies less space than individual cars. Are you willing to commute than bring your car to help alleviate the traffic issue? This is with the assumption that there is a safe and reliable public transport system. But what if the transport system is not reliable? This is the best altenative so we really need to demand from our goverment better public transport system.

Last week I had an interesting discussion with a friend who is now working as a director in the Department of Education. One of our topics was the traffic congestion problem in our country. He told me that government leaders and planners should consider the education system strategy to address congestion. He told me about school districts and how this system discourage students in commuting far to schools. This help lessens road usage/volume and does not further add to existing congestion.

I remembered the neighborhood unit concept of Clarence A. Perry in 1926 wherein focal point of planning of a community is the elementary school. The school is centrally located in a way that students can walk when they go to school. This eliminates the need for students to ride the car everyday. If there are 500 students in a school and all of them have cars, it means that there will be 500 less cars using the street. Less cars means less traffic congestion.

This is with the assumption that there are ample and safe spaces along the road for the students to walk or use their bikes. Sidewalks and bikelanes are also part of a road. Pedestrian and bikers are also road users. If you are a parent and it is not safe for your kids to walk or bike, for sure, you will use your car to bring them to their schools. Roads should cater all road users and not only the motorists.

Click the link to learn more about the neighborhood unit: https://www.planning.org/pas/reports/report141.htm

What if expound on Perry’s neighborhood unit to include not only the elementary schools as focal point of planning but also universities, workplace, and commercial centers. This way, not only the students will be encouraged to walk/bike but also people going to work. Of course, the context will not be limited to a community setting but probably more of a city or town level.

I am fortunate to live in the fast-urbanizing City of Santa Rosa, Laguna in the Philippines. It is the Automotive Capital of the country where most automotive manufacturing companies are located. It is also home to multinational food and beverage companies. It is one of the leaders in the Information and Technology / Business Process Management in the Philippines. This means that people have the option to work within the city and to not add in the congestion of Metro Manila. Big universities are also starting to locate in the city.

Santa Rosa unknowingly follows some of the principles of New Urbanism. New urbanism (according to newurbanism.org) is the creation and restoration of integrated diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities. It includes housing, work places, shops, entertainment, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other. It promotes the increased use of trains and light rail, instead of more highways and roads. According to the website, at present there are over 4,000 New Urbanist projects planned or under construction in the United States alone half of which are in historic urban centers.

The general gist of New Urbanism is to promote access to facilities frequented by the people (schools, workplace, commercial areas, parks, etc.). The primary mode of transportation is by walking. This means there will be less car and traffic congestion in areas that follow the new urbanism principles. My city still needs to establish safe spaces for people to walk/bike. We just finished crafting the city pedestrian and bicycle lane conceptual plan. We need the people’s support to implement the said plan.

Click the link to learn more about new urbanism: http://www.newurbanism.org/

In 1955, Lewis Mumford said “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity”. New roads induces more traffic congestion. But if we are going to make roads he stated that “Every urban transportation plan should, accordingly, put the pedestrian at the center of all its proposals, if only to facilitate wheeled traffic; But to bring the pedestrian back into the picture, one must treat him with the respect and honor we now accord only to the automobile: we should provide him with pleasant walks, insulated from traffic, to take him to his destination, once he enters a business precinct or residential quarter.” The roads we built should be complete with pedestrian and bike space facilities.

Search this site to learn more about Mumford’s thoughts on Transport Planning: sustainabletransportationsc.org › …PDF The Highway and the City – Campaign for Sustainable Transportation

Constrution of new roads is costly. The government will need to buy the Road Right of Way. What if the owner does not want to sell? Well the government can use its coercive power to oblige the owner to sell but this takes a lot of time. Constructing the road itself also takes time. By the time the road was constructed, the number of cars already exceeded the additional road space/volume.

In order to address traffic congestion, we talked about Perry’s planned neighborhood concept where a person’s daily activities/needs is available within his/her neighborhood. This was supported by the New Urbanism principles. Mumford directly said that new roads further induce congestion and that if we will build new roads we must include the needs/space for pedestrians on the new roads. We also need to demand for a good public transport service so that we have the power to decide whether we will bring our own car or use the public transport system – to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

Now, does it really makes sense to immediately construct additional lane or new roads to address traffic congestion?

Source of Image: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Clarence-Perry-Neighborhood-Unit-diagram-of-1929-Note-the-size-roughly-1-2-mile_fig9_307746242

NYC and LA – A Tale of Two Cities – Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright

USA – East and West Coast. Is one better than the other? In the eyes of an urban planner from another country, the difference between New York City and Los Angeles City is probably one of the best examples of extreme principles in urban spatial planning.

My wife and I got the chance to visit both cities on December 2016 to February 2017. I took a long vacation from work to visit relatives in LA and NYC. It is both an enjoyable and informative trip. It is like studying two planning principles and actually living it in their model laboratories.

Broadacre City was an urban planning concept introduced by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright which first appeared in his book “The Disappearing City” in 1932.

Broadacre City was designed to be a continuous urban area (horizontal development / not tall buildings) with a low population density. The city had a futuristic highway and airfields. There are living units (farm, factory, roadside markets, leisure areas, schools, and living spaces) assigned an acre (4,046.856 square meters) Living units were organized in a way that people can access any service or commodity within a radius of one hundred and fifty miles accessible by road or air. The design was motor vehicle-friendly.

My relatives in LA all have cars. Each person who knows how to drive owns a car. Personal cars are their primary mode of transportation such as when they go to supermarkets, malls, workplace, outlets, etc. They live in subdivisions in spacious two-storey houses with garages, backyards and laundry areas. I am not comfortable driving in a different country, fortunate for us, we now have Uber.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris is known with his pseudonym Le Corbusier. In 1935 he introduced his theory on urbanism and published it in La Ville radieuse (The Radiant City) in 1935. He stated that housing should be assigned according to family size and not economic position. He envisioned building up (vertically/buildings) and not out (horizantal/spatial). His plan is also known as “Towers in the Park”, proposed numerous high-rise buildings each surrounded by green space.

I stayed with my sister in Jersey City for two weeks and was able to stay also in Upper East Manhattan NYC for another week (one of her friends went abroad and he let us stay in his apartment for one whole week). My sister that time doesn’t own a car. She doesn’t need one. We always use the subway and buses to go around and even tried the ferry when we went to Brooklyn. My sister rented a car when we travelled outside the city (Washington DC). Everywhere you can see people walking.

Most people in NYC lives in medium-rise apartments. Their living spaces are small. If the building does not have its own laundry area, you need to go out to a laundry shop to wash your clothes. Living spaces are small but the rent is expensive. This is because of the high housing demand in the city. The city is also famous for its Central Park. It is a public space where people can enjoy their day with different activities. It seems like the park is a communal backyard / relaxation area for the residents.

Which is better? It depends on your lifestyle and preferences. If you enjoy a fast-paced environment living with neighbors next door then NYC is better. If you enjoy the freedom of driving your own car and owning a bigger house then the City of Angels better suits you. I met people that lived in NYC during the peak of their productive careers and later chose to retire in the west coast. I also met young people dreaming to work and live in the Big Apple.

NYC / Le Corbusier or City of LA / Frank Lloyd Wright?

How about you, where do you prefer to work and live?

References / For Further Reading:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-controversial-european-architect-shaped-new-york-180965073/

https://www.biography.com/artist/le-corbusier

https://www.citylab.com/design/2012/11/evolution-urban-planning-10-diagrams/3851/

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-a-broadacre-city.html

Image of Radiant City from https://www.archdaily.com/794582/the-stories-behind-17-skyscrapers-and-high-rise-buildings-that-changed-architecture/57cadef9e58ececab70000d5-the-stories-behind-17-skyscrapers-and-high-rise-buildings-that-changed-architecture-image?next_project=no

Image of Broadacre City from https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2014/02/03/frank-lloyd-wrights-living-city-lives-on-conserving-the-broadacre-city-model/