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Urban Planning in the Philippines

[Written by K. Delgado Cameña for DURP class P201]


The problems confronted by planners today are still basic. One begs the question: can we actually breathe cleaner air; can we live and work in more comfortable communities; or can we have more pleasant communities? Can all these issues in fact be addressed by thoughtful and careful planning?

Cities in the Philippines developed without taking full advantage of their environmental assets. Urban centers along the sea, bay, or any body of water would have been terrific hubs for the Philippine archipelagic republic. On the contrary, the cities grew without the benefit of proper urban and regional planning.

This paper will discuss the history of planning in the Philippines from the pre-colonial age up to the period immediately after the Second World War. The current national planning environment will also be discussed including its organizational framework and the laws and statutes that affect spatial planning in general. Prominent figures and policies throughout Philippine's planning history will likewise be reviewed.

A History of Planning in the Philippines 

Pre-colonial Age

Some scholars believe that the pre-colonial inhabitants of the Philippines exhibited some degree of settlement planning [Reed and Arguilla in Ocampo, 1992]. Old world explorers from the West noted the uniformity of the pre-Spanish Filipinos' dwellings. They have further observed that the natives' communities were either near the bodies of water or dispersed around the land they cultivated for farming.

According to history there existed a kingdom of Moros located along the banks of the Pasig 200 years prior to the coming of the Spaniards. This group of people which was later headed by Sulayman established the city of Manila and protected it with fortifications against the foreign invaders. When the Spanish armada came, the Moros resisted but were overwhelmed by the power of the former's forces.

When rebuilding the city after the ravages of war, the Spanish colonists employed local materials, technology, and craftsmen. Some of the known geniuses in their craft were Panday-Pira and "El Admirante." The former was a cannon-maker while the latter [a relative of Sulayman] was a master builder. El Admirante was commissioned to undertake the construction of the walled city of Intramuros [Shepherd in Ocampo, 1992].

Other groups of people around the archipelago displayed their own distinctive patterns of planning their settlements. Mountain dwellers in Cordillera believe that territory should be institutionalized by the atu or ward. There were also native folks who resided along bodies of water. The Tagalogs were taga-ilog [river dwellers] while the Maranaws were lake dwellers. These groups were perhaps the descendants of the earliest sea coast communities known as the barangay [also balanghay].

Spanish Regime 

King Philip II promulgated a code that served as guide to all colonized territories of Spain. This code, which was applied successfully to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, was known as the Laws of the Indies. The law provided guidelines for site selection; layout and dimension of squares, streets and other land uses; and the main phases of planning and construction. Details were also written pertaining to the location of the principal buildings, recreation spaces, cultivation and pasture lands, and sites for garbage-producing uses. Also prescribed within the code is the relationship protocol between the Spanish and the natives [Ocampo, 1992].

The royal ordinances dictated that each town should be located on vacant and high ground, properly oriented to sun, wind, and water areas. The site should also be on or near fertile land and accessible to sources of fuel, timber, and water. Because the law is based on the Greco-Roman Renaissance design principles, it favored the use of the gridiron pattern in the establishment of roads and blocks. The plaza was the starting point of the construction, around which were the important buildings like the church, casa real, town hall, bandstand for zarzuelas and other edifices for health and defense. Other lots surrounding the area were reserved for merchant shops and prominent family [or principalia] dwellings. The code also specified that there were to be as many farm lots as town lots. The law likewise states that each house should have stockyards and courtyards. This could have been the Philippines' earliest land use and zoning law and building code.

The instruction of the Laws of the Indies further aims at providing health, safety, order, and beauty. The design and execution of the plans should be implemented by architects or other "executors" so ordered by the colonial governor. The final product—i.e. the town—served as the instrument of colonization and the staging ground for exploiting mineral and land resources [Ocampo, 1992].

French version of the Law of the Indies: Town plan for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

In the late 16th century the Jesuits established the reducciones policy, which was aimed to gather dispersed communities "under the bells." The policy created the "plaza complex" with its town residents [taga-bayan]. Within the town [or pueblo], people lived around the plaza with the ilustrados located closest to the center and the lower classes living at the periphery but still "within the sound of the bells." The taga-bukid constituted a small minority who had to be in the fields or rural areas attending the agricultural activities.

This Philippian principle of planning is perhaps best exemplified by the city of Manila. After all, "all roads lead to Manila and Madrid." The city of Manila became the colonial Capital during the time of Legaspi. Although Spanish architects and engineers envisioned Manila as a city of stone, she rather was developed into a city of fortification. The Manila Bay was palisaded to protect the city from Chinese pirates [led by Limahong] and other foreign invaders as well as the Muslim and Japanese inhabitants. This was the precedent of the construction of Intramuros, which was a self-contained city "within walls."

Despite the shortcomings of this primate city, Manila expanded partly due to the success of the galleon trade. The city’s population was racially and culturally diverse. The Tagalogs were the majority. A small [more than 800] but powerful group was the Spanish. The Spanish friars who were considered the "masters of the city" owned all but five or six of the city dwellings [Gentil in Ocampo 1992]. Indian and Chinese residents who are merchants and traders lived in the areas of Binondo and Sta. Cruz [Ocampo, 1992].

Thriving industries during the mid-19th century were in the production of cotton, silk, dairy and cigar. This was the same time that the Philippines became a player in the world trade. Some industries like the cigar-manufacturing in Binondo were so huge that it employed 9000 workers [Ocampo, 1992].

Plan for Intramuros

The population of Manila hit the 300,000 mark at the turn of the 20th century. Almost five percent of the population were living in Intramuros while others were living in the suburbs. Technological advancements in utilities were introduced at the time which include waterworks and telephone systems. Transportation systems like railroads and streetcar railways were likewise introduced.

Urban design by the Spaniards left a lasting physical mark in the landscape of Philippine cities [as there was an emphasis on the use of stones for building]. However, efforts to address the economic and social issues for the natives was lacking. This was further aggravated by the encomienda [300 in all] system imposed in the time of Legazpi, which was nothing more than a revival of the medieval serfdom. Although King Philip II had better intentions in his edict, Spanish town planning was principally done "first for the purpose of defense and second for grandeur…. Housing was not considered at all, as a public responsibility… The badly-housed were not the concern of the municipality" [Arguilla in Ocampo, 1992]. Regional planning was nonexistent. What only has been done was the establishment of hierarchy of the political territories: the country is divided into provinces [or alcaldias]; the province is divided into pueblos; and the pueblo is further divided into barangays. The Maura Law of 1893 extended autonomy to the provinces. It established a municipal tribunal or council for each town with at least a thousand taxpayers.

American Era

Unlike the Spaniards, the Americans gave greater emphasis on other social values like sanitation, housing, and other aesthetic improvements. Some of these values, however, were not American in origin. The ideas of urban development through sanitation practices and mass housing were born as a reaction to the ills of industrialization in Europe [Benevolo in Ocampo, 1992].

Planning under the influence of the Americans is typified by the Daniel H. Burnham's plan of Manila. In December 1904, Burnham was commissioned to prepare the physical development plan for the cities of Manila and Baguio. Trained as an architect and guided by the principles of the City Beautiful Movement, he envisioned the city manifesting aesthetic elements such as wide boulevards, public edifices and landscaped parks. In the United States, Burnham draw plans for cities like Chicago, Washington, Cleveland, and San Francisco.

Burnham was not only a man of artistic talents. His successor in the Philippines named William E. Parsons described him as a man of "sound business judgment and experience," a man who can convince practical of business to "make no little plans." Burnham’s objective was to make cities "convenient for commerce and attractive and healthful as a place of residence [Parsons, 1915]." His plan for Manila provided for the rapid increase of the population and the explosion of the city’s industries.

Burnham prescribed the grid pattern for the city of Manila. However, the gridiron was interspersed with the circumferential and diagonal arteries, which was reminiscent of his designs for San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington. He proposed that the Bay areas would be extended through reclamation and a new port would be constructed. True to his City Beautiful principles, he further proposed the development of nine parks, two new playfields, and fountains throughout the city for public leisure.

In Burnham's plan, there were sites allotted for national and municipal buildings near Intramuros, hospitals, and colleges. Spaces were also set for a world-class hotel, city and country clubs, a casino, boat clubs, public baths, and the new residence for the Governor General. Resorts were also to be developed near Manila but the ultimate escape during the summer season would be the city of Baguio.

Burnham's plan also called for the development of Binondo as the center of business and merchandising. Improvements were to be made in the area’s wharf, warehouse, and other port facilities. In addition to extension of the port along the Pasig, it would also be linked to railroads extending to north and south provinces. The plan served as a proposal to the private sector. Burnham hoped that through private action the expansion and developments in ports and roads would be expedited.

Burnham's plan for Manila

In 1905, six months after he visited the Philippines, Burnham sent back the preliminary plans back for Manila. However, another architect was to implement Burnham’s plan. William E. Parsons was appointed Consulting Architect to the Insular Government.

City planning was beginning to get institutionalized during Parson's time. The Consulting Architect post occupied by Parsons was considered the nucleus of the Division of Architecture in the Insular Bureau of Public Works. However, the position of City Architect was created not until 1920, long after Parsons left the post in 1914.

Why Parsons left the post was not clear. Some observers said that it apparently was due to political reasons. But before Parsons left, the Governor General made sure that general plans for the cities of Cebu and Zamboanga and master plans for cities like Iloilo were prepared. Among the successors of Parsons were Doane and Arellano [the latter was a contemporary of Tomas Mapua].

Other city planning issues were tackled later. Different interest groups attended to matters like sanitation and mass housing. These concerns were neglected by the architects and engineers. In 1908, Insular Health workers introduced the concept of "sanitary barrios," which were exemplary in the sense that they reflected the new sanitation and building standards. Other sectors like the labor group established their own barrio obrero even without the benefit of the aid of the city government.

Post-War Period

In 1936, the Interior Department created local and planning commissions composed of the Provincial Governor, district engineer, and other local officials. The work of the new body included the survey of local conditions and the preparation of plans to be proposed to the Director of Public Works. Although town planning was given a boost during this period, the practice was yet to be established as a discipline. The problem during this pre-war period was that there was a limited pool of trained city planners both in the local planning commissions and the Bureau of Public Works.

The Office of the President created in 1950 the National Planning Commission [NPC]. The NPC prepared and helped administer plans and regulations for the local government. After 1959, however, some powers of the NPC like zoning, subdivision, and building regulation were devolved to the city and municipal governments.

Philippine Planning Environment 

Global Context

The Philippines is emerging as a "resident" of the "Global Village." The country, as all other developing nations, is affected by technological advancements in communications and transportation. The state is also affected by social phenomena such as world trade, capitalism, and international laws. The Philippines, as an arm of this "supraterritory," has been an extension of the American Hollywood and a patron of the World Bank. Filipinos eat in McDonald's and pay with their hard-earned Dollar or Euro. Needless to say, the implications of globalization to the country are virtually infinite.

The Filipinos use the modern "Shared Technology." The fact is that these technologies are not shared but bought. Advancements in telecommunications and information like the Internet are in fact very useful, but they come with a price tag. One could predict that the country would be crippled without such technologies. Ten years ago, the use of computers and cellular phones were reserved to corporations. Now, almost every Filipino urbanite uses these electronic devices. In addition, developments in aerial transportation have made the countries virtually borderless [Scholte, 2005].

The Philippine economics is also affected by international covenants. International trade influences the political machinations of the country. Take for example the trading of oil in the world market. Every time the price of oil increases, the Philippines experiences turmoil: the private transportation sector reacts and the whole country gets disturbed.

The observations stated above affect planning in general and the people’s perception and use of space in particular. Globalization does not only affect a developing country economically but spatially as well. National and local planners and leaders must appreciate this fact.

National and Local Framework

Because planning is considered a regular government function, its existence is asserted in both the national and local bureaucracies. In the years immediately after the war, the government formed the National Urban Planning Commission [NUPC]. Thereafter, another body was created: National Planning Commission. This new organization combined the functions of the NUPC and the Capital City Planning Commission. Within ten years, some powers of NPC were devolved to the local government. Successive reorganization led to the formation of the following planning bodies: Ministry of Settlements, Task Force on Human Settlements, Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even before the provisions of the Local Autonomy Law were passed, the local government enjoyed planning autonomy as early as 1959. Powers like zoning, subdivision, and building regulation were devolved to the cities and municipalities from the NPC. Later, legislations like the Local Government Code [RA 7160] and the Housing and Urban Development Act [RA 7279] further developed the capabilities of the local government units [LGUs]. Although the transition was not smooth, the LGUs exercised their powers as exemplified by the cases of University of the East versus the City of Manila and of Far East Bank versus Ortigas.

Of Land and Laws

There are other covenants affecting the planning process in the Philippines in general. The Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board has a manual that complements the Local Government Code [LGC] of 1991. Others like Executive Order 71 [1993] seeks to ensure the efficient devolution of powers to the local government units and provide for an orderly and smooth transition as well as definition of future relationships between the national and local governments. Passed almost simultaneously with EO 71, Executive Order 72 provides for the preparation and implementation of the Comprehensive Land Use Plans [CLUP] for the Local Government Units. These two executive orders aim at complementing the Local Government Code of 1991 and other pertinent laws. In addition, the local government can also reclassify agricultural lands to other uses by virtue of Memorandum Circular 54 of 1993.

The Philippine Constitution of 1987 is also a source of planning ideals regarding urban land reform and housing. In Section 9, it declares that "the State shall, by law, and for the common good, undertake, in cooperation with the private sector, a continuing program of urban land reform and housing which will make available at affordable cost, decent housing and basic services to under-privileged and homeless citizens in urban centers and resettlement areas. It shall also promote adequate employment opportunities to such citizens. In the implementation of such program the State shall respect the rights of small property owners." In Section 10 it continues that "urban or rural poor dwellers shall not be evicted nor their dwelling demolished, except in accordance with law and in a just and humane manner. No resettlement of urban or rural dwellers shall be undertaken without adequate consultation with them and the communities where they are to be relocated."

The Urban Land Reform Law [PD 1517] was passed during the administration of Marcos. With its impressive rhetoric, it states that "it is the policy of the State to liberate human communities from blight, promote their development and modernization, and bring about the optimum use of the land as a national resource for public welfare." Although not clear if it repeals PD 1517, the Urban Development and Housing Act, otherwise known as Republic Act 7279, was passed in 1992 before the term of President Corazon Aquino ended. However, the spirit of this law is too philanthropic as it basically promises provision of housing for the homeless citizens.

One of the basic urban planning problems is housing. For the past decades, legislators formulated and accumulated laws regarding the provision of one of the basic human needs that is housing. For one, there is the Presidential Decree 957 of 1976, which mandates the protection of subdivision and condominium buyers. Two years later, another law [PD 1344] was enacted empowering the National Housing Authority[NHA] to regulated and police the real estate trade and business. In 1982, Batas Pambansa 220 authorized the Ministry of Settlements to urge the private sector to provide "economic and socialized housing" for the middle and lower income earners.

Land use is one of the concerns of urban and regional planners. Issues pertaining to land use include the land reclassification and conversion to other use. Executive Order 124 of 1993 serves as a guide to the procedure of land evaluation for conversion. Aside from reacting to the issues of land of land use, the Congress was also quick to answer the problems posed by the real estate developers. The response was the Executive Order 184, which is a directive to create socialized housing center one-stop processing centers to facilitate the processing and issuance of permits, clearances, certifications, and licenses appropriate and necessary for the implementation of socialized housing projects. The same law also orders all government agencies concerned to support the operations of the said centers.

The problem of squatting or the unlawful occupation of land duly owned by another person or organization is another problem faced by city planners. This problem has been in existence in the cities of the country since after the War [Tiglao, 2002]. In 1997, Republic Act 8368 repealed Republic Act 772, which is entitled "Penalizing Squatting and Other Similar Acts." The new law, which was passed during the Ramos administration, decriminalizes squatting in all its forms.

A strategy for building up capability for regional planning and development is the establishment of an authority that will administer the development of a special region [e.g. a component city]. This idea is exemplified by Republic Act 7924, which is "an act creating the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority [MMDA], defining its powers and functions, providing funds therefore and for other purposes." The powers of the MMDA include development [physical] planning, transport and traffic management, solid waste disposal and management, flood control and sewage management, urban renewal and zoning, health and sanitation, and upholding of public safety. The territory of the Authority is comprised of the cities of Caloocan, Manila, Mandaluyong, Makati, Pasay, Pasig, Quezon, and Muntilupa as well as the municipalities of Las Piñas, Malabon, Marikina, Navotas, Parañaque, Pateros, San Juan, Taguig, and Valenzuela.


Social Planning

Pre-colonial communities in the Philippines were dispersed, and as such, there was no real planning that is comparable in scale to Ancient Greece or Rome. Their small settlements were only knitted by kinship rather than explicit codes. Issues like health and sanitation were probably never thought of in relation to their use of space.

During the Spanish regime, some principles of Renaissance Europe were applied in laying out the Philippine cities. The reducciones policy gathered the dispersed communities "under the bells." But in principle, the policy only aimed at putting the natives under the control of the Church. In this respect, the Spaniards were successful as the same policy was employed to the American colonies.

The Americans were the ones to import the concepts of sanitary living at the turn of the 20th Century. Mass housing ideas were manifested in Burnham's plan for the city of Manila. It was also during this time that local labor groups established their own barrio obrero after their request for worker's housing was ignored by the city government.

After the Second World War, there was a population explosion in the urban areas. As a result, demand for housing rose. The city government, however, failed to provide decent and affordable housing for the workers. There were laws that addressed the issues of housing and urban planning, but they all fell short of providing real reforms in the physical as well as social structures of the city.

With the continuous growth of the cities in the Philippines, other problems like environmental pollution, congestion, and garbage are faced by the planners in the national as well as the local level. Laws like the Clean Air Act and others were passed to answer these problems, but there has been a lag in their implementation. It is a common observation that Filipinos are only good at presenting solutions on paper.

Physical Planning

It is indeed a tragedy that the cities across the Philippine archipelago developed in a random and haphazard fashion. Typical planning displayed by the government is not predictive but rather remedial in approach. If the opposite is true, problems like housing, traffic congestion, water supply, electrification, sanitation, sewerage, flooding, and urban dilapidation among others would have been addressed to punctually.

In the cities of other countries, rivers and other bodies of water were an important element of the city. What is common with New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other cities in the Scandinavia and Southwestern Europe is their brilliant exploitation of the bodies of water in planning of their cities. Had the Filipino planners and leaders possessed and understood the same vision, the cities across the archipelago would have been developed into urban satellites enjoying commercially viable ports. What happened to a city like Iloilo is worth the historical review. It the first half of the 20th Century her port was second to Manila's in terms of earnings [Madrid, 2002]. Like Manila, the city was inhabited by a diverse population of businessmen and merchants who are Spanish, American, British, Australians, Swiss, German, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese. The title of "Queen City of the South" was rather short-lived. The city experienced an economic decline after the industries of textile and muscovado died down.


  1. Nice article with citations and all, but I couldn't seem to find the bibilio...

  2. Planners may have differing visions but certainly can share a variety of development regimes that arrives at a similar goal. But as the decision lies in the local authorities, no amount of academic or scholarly impressions can persuade an authority to implement urban development plans as political interests and the lack of will power matters most.

  3. I guess we share the same views about the political circumstance (and I guess the cultural characteristics) the philippines has for the field of architecture and urban planning and as a student aspiring to be in that profession, I guess in the future we hope that we can change all that. About my earlier comment, I guess citations for let's say Ocampo and Tinglao were made but I don't know what book/article they were referenced and I guess we could benefit from those reading material as well.

  4. This is a very informative article that compiles the history of urban planning in the Philippines in one article. It would be really useful if you could provide the bibliography of the citations for further reading. Thank you :)

  5. This is a very informative article that compiles the history of urban planning in the Philippines in one article. It would be really useful if you could provide the bibliography of the citations for further reading. Thank you :)

  6. This is great. I am doing a research on history of urban planning here in the PH. Would you happen to have the biblio for the citations?

  7. thank you. can i use this as my reference sa aming thesis?

  8. thanks. can i use this as reference for my undergrad thesis. where can we find the bibliography?

  9. The government should look at this. I think this is a good article to read for every Filipino architects.


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