When the Right to the City is Under Threat
Written by: Nathaniel Molina
In November 2020, during the onslaught of Super Typhoon Rolly (International Name: Goni), the coastal communities of Alima and Sineguelasan in Bacoor, Cavite caught fire. According to final casualty reports, more than 700 houses were consumed by the fire, and more than 400 families were displaced out of their homes (Mayuga, 2020; Abrina, 2020). Authorities have reported that the fire incident was a result of faulty electrical wiring; not arson as what the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) have previously claimed. Pamalakaya firmly believes that the fire was deliberately started to force residents out of their communities in order to pave way for a massive land reclamation project. Within the last four years, four other fire incidents took place in neighboring barangays: Maliksi III in April 2017, Tabing Dagat in January 2018, Maliksi I and III in June 2018, and Talaba II in February 2019. Pamalakaya believes that forceful demolitions of these communities were being undertaken in the name of development aggression led by private interests. In other words, these urban poor communities are being converted into private spaces of consumption.
What are Private Spaces?
Private spaces are exclusive spaces that are subject to limitations determined by private interests, as opposed to public spaces, which ideally are not bound by any limitations. Private spaces, although often antagonized, play an essential role in the urban landscape. The limitations imposed on private spaces are meant to ensure the right to practice individual freedoms (Mierzejewska, 2011). In other words, private spaces provide spaces for individuals to exercise their privacy — to distinguish their public life from their private life. Since private spaces only ensure individual freedoms, they only allow specific individuals to access these spaces. Private spaces, then, create exclusive pockets of spaces that inhibit accessibility for everyone. While it is only right to limit inclusive access to private residential units, other private spaces, whose main function is not necessarily to ensure individual privacy, are outrightly excluding certain groups of people (e.g. urban poor, lower socioeconomic classes, etc.) from accessing these spaces. This is evident in Metro Manila and other urban areas in the Philippines, where shopping mall complexes, high-rise condominiums, expansive golf courses, tolled expressways and other exclusive spaces dominate the urban landscape. Driven by neoliberalism, the urban landscape is becoming increasingly privatized, resulting in a lack of inclusive spaces.
Neoliberalism: A Global Network of Privatized Spaces
Since its introduction as a solution to the global economic crisis during the 1970s (Springer, 2010), neoliberalism has become the doctrine of the global economy. Through free market-oriented policies, limited state intervention, and privatization of services, neoliberalism was able to uplift the global economy from that recession. While neoliberalism is responsible for the supposed “stability” of the global economy, it is also responsible for the growing global inequalities that exist today. Economic geographers often divide the world into two distinctions — Global North and Global South — to point out the economic disparities observed in the contemporary global economy. Under this distinction, Global North countries disproportionately hold the world’s political and economic power, while Global South countries are virtually powerless. As a result, Global South countries are expected to adhere to the neoliberal doctrine in order for them to integrate to the global economy. This inequality is further transcribed to urban landscapes globally, primarily by privatization of urban spaces, creating an uneven city that favors a certain class of people — one that holds substantial socioeconomic power. Because private spaces are dictated by free-market principles, what determines access to these spaces is one’s ability to pay for it.
Neoliberalism creates a global network of cities meant to facilitate the smooth flow of socioeconomic resources from one city to another; each city can be viewed as a node of the neoliberal global network (Springer, 2010). This global network serves as the mechanism to distribute neoliberal principles around the world, with its node cities as the first in line to be graced by the neoliberal doctrine. Being the most important economic center of the Philippines (a country in the Global South), and where the majority of the nation’s socioeconomic power is concentrated, Manila is a node city of the neoliberal global network. In other words, the city’s esteemed importance is measured by its participation in the neoliberal world order. This is manifested by the proliferation of foreign-oriented firms (e.g. BPOs, call centers, etc.) in Manila’s central business districts (CBD).
Metro Manila can be seen as a microcosm of neoliberalism in the Philippines. On one hand, there is a population group who holds considerable amounts of socioeconomic power. This population has access to some of the most exclusive spaces (e.g. high-end malls, private subdivisions, etc.) in the city. On the other hand, there is a population who is being deprived of urban space — their right to the city. For instance, the urban poor, who virtually hold no socioeconomic power, are being displaced out of their communities. Neoliberalism allows for an environment of unchecked development, without implementing safeguards for the protection of socioeconomically marginalized communities (Holden et al, 2017). Essentially, in a city that adheres to the neoliberal doctrine, socioeconomic power is the key to access urban space.
Manila’s economic dominance makes it a primate city in the Philippines — a city that holds so much power that the majority of socioeconomic development is concentrated in it. This results in an uneven distribution of economic growth and development across the country. People from less developed regions are attracted to the economic opportunities that are supposedly abundant in the primate city. Those who have the means to migrate tend to do so, bringing with them a presumption that they can easily provide a better life for themselves once in the city, only to realize that the standard of living costs more than what they can afford. Oftentimes, they end up living in slum communities where their right to the city is constantly being threatened by neoliberal interests.
Slum communities are byproducts of the privatization of urban space. Because urban space is reserved for/converted into private spaces built for the higher socioeconomic groups, urban space for the urban poor is becoming scarcer. As a result of urban poor groups having limited housing options, slum communities arise, oftentimes in environmentally vulnerable areas (Ballesteros, 2011). These areas are undesirable for economic development (or no economic value presently), hence the urban space is not converted into private spaces of consumption. However, if the neoliberal machine requires more urban space in order to support itself, the welfare of slum communities is under threat.
Sitio San Roque is one of Metro Manila’s prominent slum communities. Situated in the middle of the metropolitan, it is surrounded by high-rise buildings and highways. Sitio San Roque has been the site of the decades-long standoff between the urban poor and private sector coalitions. Being located along the C4 Highway (EDSA), Sitio San Roque’s location is seen as the prime location for Metro Manila’s new central business district (Reyes, 2019). The community is literally surrounded by iron walls, as if to demarcate the would-be location of the new CBD. As neoliberalism sustains itself, it needs more urban space from its node cities in order to expand. Oftentimes, this neoliberal expansion in cities is packaged as “creative destruction”, in which an existing built area is demolished to pave the way for economic development. But as David Harvey explains, a lot of times, this creative destruction “has a class dimension since it is usually the poor, the underprivileged and those marginalized from political power that suffer first and foremost from this process” (2008). In neoliberal Metro Manila, it is always the urban poor who have to give up their communities — their private spaces — to pave the way for economic development.
The increasing privatization of urban spaces in Metro Manila and surrounding areas diminishes the society’s collective right to the city. The fire incident that razed the communities of Alima and Sineguelasan shows just how aggressive neoliberalism can be in converting urban spaces into private spaces of consumption. Sitio San Roque could suffer a similar fate. David Harvey explains: the right to the city is “to claim some kind of shaping power over the process of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and re-made and to do so in a fundamental and radical way” (2008). In other words, practicing one’s right to the city entails acting against neoliberalism.
In a lot of ways, neoliberalism is threatening the life in the city, and the urban poor is at the forefront. To acknowledge and to uphold the rights of the urban poor is to act against neoliberalism.
- Abrina, Dennis. 2020. BFP says faulty electrical wiring caused big Bacoor Undas fire. Retrieved from https://www.rappler.com/nation/bfp-says-faulty-electrical-wiring-caused-big bacoor-undas-fire
- Ballesteros, Marife. 2011. Why slum poverty matters. Philippine Institute for Development Studies: Policy Notes.
- Harvey, David. 2008. The Right to the City. New Left Review. 53: 23–40.
- Holden, W., Nadeau, K., & Porio, E. (2017). Introduction. In Ecological Liberation Theology: Faith-Based Approaches to Poverty and Climate Change in the Philippines. Springer Briefs in Geography.
- Mayuga, Jonathan. 2020. Not arson. Faulty wiring sparked big All Saints’ Day fire in Bacoor City-probers. Retrieved from https://businessmirror.com.ph/2020/11/10/not-arson-faulty wiring-sparked-big-all-saints-day-fire-in-bacoor-city-probers
- Mierzejewska, L. (2011). Appropriation of Public Urban Space as an Effect of Privatisation and Globalisation. Quaestiones Geographicae, 30(4), 39–46.
- Mitchell, Don. (1995). The end of public space? People’s park, definitions of the public, and democracy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers.
- Reyes, Dania. 2019. Sitio San Roque: In the Peripheries of Development. Retrieved from https://www.newmandala.org/peripheries-of-development/
- Springer, Simon. 2010. Neoliberalism and Geography: Expansions, Variegations, Formations. Geography Compass. 4: 1025–1038.