COMMENTARY: Why we should even go beyond the 10% green space!

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 22 February) — In the whole debate about retaining or doing away with the 10% green space requirement for developers, Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte and at least one city councilor were quoted as saying that there is more than enough green space in Davao City and that environmental advocates better do their homework before claiming there is not enough. More than 70% of Davao City “kono” is green, agricultural space. There are even plantations and watersheds within the city boundaries covering thousands of hectares. True, but that is a wrong starting point.

First, when talking about urban green space, environmentalists and planners and policy makers worth their salt are talking about green space within urbanized areas. Is the whole of Davao City an urbanized area? Of course not! The total land area of Davao City is roughly 245,000 hectares. How many of those are considered urbanized? In 1996 when the 25-year development plan of Davao City (1996-2021) was first approved, the total urbanized area of Davao City covered around 36,000 hectares. This is less than 15% of Davao’s total land area. As of 2016 the urbanized area of Davao City has expanded a bit to around 40,000 hectares. This is still only slightly more than 16% of the total Davao City land area. So let it be clear: the total land area within the city boundaries is not a basis to classify or identify urban green space.

It is in this urbanized part of the city – in the 40,000 hectares – that we are in dire need of accessible and public green space. What is the protected, lasting, permanent, public green space we have in urbanized Davao City, 20 years after the plan was first approved? Only a measly 14.76 hectares spread out over 19 mini-public parks. Some of the parks are so small or have so few trees that they can hardly be called parks. Places like Centennial Park, Freedom Park, Quezon Park, Osmena Park? Fifteen parks, including the highly valued People’s Park, are in the Poblacion area. The other four are in Toril, Tugbok, Calinan & Buhangin. In a mid-term review in 2013 the plan aims to reach more than 80 hectares by 2021, and almost 70 by now (2016) but this didn’t happen. We are still stuck in the measly, microscopic, little parks. Can’t we do better? Can our policy makers not do better? Can we really put teeth to one of the physical development objectives of the plan where it says: “To identify and develop open spaces within the Poblacion and its nearby environs into urban and/or pocket parks” and ”To establish, develop and manage Tree Parks for every District, Barangay & Sitio/Purok”.

Just to make a comparison with Singapore. Singapore has a total of at least 48 public parks, among them: city parks, coastal parks, riverine parks, ridge parks, botanical gardens, community parks. All parks and green spaces are embedded in the almost fully urbanized area which is Singapore. The average area of each of these 48 parks is more than 24 hectares. In other words: one average Singapore park is bigger than the combined 19 public parks of Davao City. It raises the challenge: can we develop the Davao coastal area to become our coastal parks area? Can Davao Shrine Hills become our ridge park? Can the banks of the Davao River become our riverine parks?

When Singapore started its greening approach more than 40 years ago, all their park areas were crowded, congested, neglected. But the vision and political will of its leaders made the change happen: they reclassified lands, relocated people where needed, provided housing, upgraded where possible. The net result: a green urbanized environment appreciated by all citizens.

A 2011 study by the BPI Foundation comparing a number of Philippine cities came to the conclusion that in a time of climate change, “Davao City still has a significant land area to build new, more livable satellite developments.” In the study’s assessment, Davao City emerged as the least vulnerable city overall (compared to Baguio, Iloilo and Cebu). “Davao City’s opportunity is to do things the right way.” Let’s not miss the boat!

Can our policy makers and planners please embark on a long-term but decisive path to make our urbanized area green? City councilors as elected representatives of the people are duty bound to establish green spaces within this urbanized space. The people are the rights holders to a healthy environment and urban green space, and the city councilors are the duty bearers to make this happen. This was also eloquently put by Fr. Joel Tabora of ADDU as an issue of social justice when he addressed the City Council. It is the essence, too, of Section 16 or the General Welfare Principle of the Local Government Code (LGC).

The 25-year development plan in 1996 claimed the existence of 420 hectares of “open spaces.” Sadly, it lumps all open spaces together such as cemeteries, memorial parks, golf courses, open spaces in subdivisions, cemented playgrounds. As experience shows, many of these unsecured open spaces are constantly under risk of land acquisition, changes and reclassification. An example is the Lanang Golf course of more than 38 hectares which is now a huge shopping mall (SM Lanang). It is a case of green open space being sacrificed in favor of “development” that is seen as a bigger financial priority. Moreover, are golf courses, memorial parks green nature spaces? Are they accessible to the general public? Or are they mainly recreational places for the elite or parks for the dead with little or no tree cover?

In assessing open green space in urbanized Davao it pays to give attention to what are now internationally accepted standards. One such standard is that for a city to be sustainable you need green accessible space proportionate to the number of city residents. Concretely: how much open green space do you need per city inhabitant?

The standards were set many years ago by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization and last year accepted by 193 United Nations member countries, as part of the newly proclaimed 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which are the successor to the Millennium Development Goals of 2000-2015. The Philippines co-chairs the Inter-Agency and Experts Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG). All countries agreed that the SDGs and their indicators are universal. There is no longer a distinction between North and South with separate standards and indicators.

The aimed for open green space per city resident is nine square meters. It means that for every 1,000 residents, there should be open space of around 9,000 square meters or almost one hectare. If we assume, for instance, that Davao City has a population of 1.5 million, it means that our open green space should aim for a total green urban area of around 1,350 hectares. This is equivalent to 3.3% of our 40,000 hectares of urbanized area. 3.3% should be enhanced, transformed or expanded into green open spaces. Now is the time to start. As of now the 25-year development plan of Davao City recommends only 0.5 square meter of park/open space per resident. It means that the Davao standard is only 6% of the internationally accepted standard!

This brings us to the second standard. Open green space should be proportionate to the size of the urbanized land area. Studies indicate that green open space should never be less than 10% of the urbanized land area. As a point of comparison, Singapore has been able to reach 17%. A study of more than 430 cities in China in 1991 showed that on average more than 20% of each city’s land area was accessible, open green space and as the cities developed they made sure to even increase the green open space to 24% five years later. Overall Asia wide studies show that Asian cities well-known for their open spaces and sustainability have or aim for: 20 to 30% of the total geographical urbanized area under green cover. Taking these examples Davao City has a long way to go!

The third international indicator is “Nature Nearby” meaning: Is there green space close to where you live in the city? Are the green open spaces well spread out over the urbanized land area? The international standard is: ensure that there is an accessible public park or recreational open space within 500 meters of every city resident. This standard aims to provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces particularly for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Conclusion: It is important to ask ourselves: what really makes a city attractive whether as resident, or as a casual or long-term visitor? Worldwide opinion polls time and again affirm that it is because of their varied green, open, public spaces. That’s why, when we travel abroad, we like places like Singapore, we like cities like New York (Imagine, Central Park, 341 hectares smack in the middle of the city!), we like London (Hyde Park 142 hectares).

It is therefore simply unimaginable to do away with the 10% green space. In fact it is way too little. It is also not a matter of getting stuck in legalese or getting around, making accommodations or loopholes in the laws or regulations. As citizens of Davao all of us, citizens, councilors, developers ought to take the moral high ground and push for more green open accessible spaces over and above what the law requires and not dilute it. That is sustainability, that is citizenship, that is what we owe to the generations of Davaoenos to come.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Arnold Vandenbroeck of Green Davao Coalition is a long-term resident of the Philippines — 30 years, 18 of that in Davao City. He finished his MS in sociology at the Asian Social Institute in Manila and MS Social Work at IPSOC Belgium.  Vandenbroeck is evaluator of rural development projects for Europe-based funding agencies, consultant in Result Based Management and Outcome Mapping. He is also passionate about environmental care and is a board member of IDIS (Interface Development Interventions), Save Davao Shrine Hills advocate. He manages the family’s indigenous tree farm in Baguio District. He joined thousands of Dabawenyos in welcoming Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s veto of the ordinance that would have done away with the green space requirement and hopes the City Council will not override the veto).