ENVIRONMENT: Protecting Shrine Hills as green area for generations to come

(Norma T. Javellana-Vandenbroeck, Datu Bago Awardee for Environment Care, sent this letter to the Sangguniang Panlungsod of Davao City on the proposed amendments to Article IX, Section 3 of Davao City’s Zoning Ordinance, Ordinance No. 0546-13, Section 3: Urban Ecological Enhancement Sub-Zone – UEESZ), on the occasion of the SP meeting of August 24, 2018) 

Dear Councilors,

Davao Shrine Hills (SH) is envisioned to become the first (and hopefully not the last) Urban Ecological Enhancement Sub-Zone (UEESZ) in Davao City which is a sub-classification of the Environmental Zone. This sub-classification is a responsive and responsible way to deal with the development potentials of particular lands; lands that
(1) on the one hand, are unstable, environmentally critical, hazardous and only marginally fit for housing development, and
(2) that, on the other hand, can and need to be maximized to create more accessible green space for the general public; green space that is more and being squeezed out in the fast expanding developments in our city.

As individuals and organizations concerned about sustainable development in our city we want to restate succinctly but comprehensively our view and the arguments, reasons and considerations that underpin our hopes in the changes being proposed.

1.  SH: Environmentally Critical Area

Shrine Hills’ history since the very beginnings of the urbanization of Davao City is replete with experiences of bigger and smaller loss of stability and landslides. The most recent ones involved major soil movements near Diversion Road (2017), and above Garcia settlers (2015) along Ma-a Road. Both areas are within the UEESZ.

Already In 2009, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) formally established that Shrine Hills has been an environmentally critical area with unconsolidated subsoil causing regular landslides, sinkholes and hazardous situations”and that parks and protected green areas are the “preferred way to go”for SH. Scientific studies and experiences of establishments and residents on top and on the upper and lower slopes of SH continue to affirm, time and again, that the soil on SH is moving.

2. SH: Publicly Accessible Green Space

In the fast developing urban center of Davao City, SH is undoubtedly the main remaining frontier of green space, it has been called “urban Davao’s green lungs”, its “emerald jewel”, its “last green frontier”.

As recently as May 2017, the Davao City Mayor’s Office endorsed the conduct of a study of accessible open spaces in urbanized Davao City. The study was backstopped by New York University (NYU). It was participated in by volunteers and personnel from CENRO, CPDO, NGOs and the Davao academic community. The study was presented to the general public in the presence of a number of City Councilors and came to a set of conclusions and recommendations, among others:
“Generally there is a serious shortage of quality public open space in local communities in (urban) Davao. There is also a shortage/absence of city-wide parks, places that can appeal to people from across the city. It is clear that no planning has been done to create them. Ordinarily, the lack of such parks is difficult to remedy after an area has been developed. This fortunately can be remedied. One step made in the right direction is the rezoning of SH as an UEESZ. If SH is allowed to develop unchecked, there will not be another opportunity to create a (large) park in the existing urban area of Davao. The city must take action.

The study also sees the need for Davao City to develop a hierarchy of parks in the urbanizing area of the city composed of
(1) many small parks (500 to 2,000 square meters),
(2) a number of bigger parks (from 2 to 5 hectares) and
(3) a few real big parks (20 to 25 hectares). The study encourages Davao City to strategically acquire or reserve lands for these purposes.

3. SH and the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP).

Davao City’s CLUP (2013) envisions that SH will remain a publicly accessible green area. It states: SH is a prominent urban area of Davao City that serves as urban carbon sink and urban recreational area. Its high accessibility offers urban dwellers a good vantage point viewing the whole city.It is important that these characteristics of SH are being maintained and enhanced for present and future generations.

4. SH and Davao City’s 25 Year Development Plan (1996-2021)

The 25 year development plan of Davao City, approved in 1996, more than 20 years ago, already listed among the major problems of the City’s development the “lack of public parks and open recreational spaces, especially in the Central business District (CBD) and other highly built-up areas in the city.”In addressing this the plan defined among its physical development objectives: “to identify and develop open spaces within the Poblacion and its nearby environs into urban and/or pocket parks”.

The 25-year plan went through a mid-term review in 2012 which showed that little was done to reach the greening goals set out in 1996 and that the permanently accessible green space had hardly expanded. Only a total of less than 15 hectares are at the moment permanent green spaces accessible to the general public (our present city wide parks) out of a total estimated urbanized area of around 45,000 hectares. The review set a new target for publicly accessible and permanent green parks of more than 80 hectares to be achieved by 2021, around 60 hectares of which were supposed to have been achieved by 2016.

But as of 2018 permanent green parks in the urban area of Davao City have hardly expanded beyond the 15 hectares and are very much below this already low target of 80 hectares.  The UEESZ of SH as a last remaining major green area near the city center can include permanently accessible green space and thus contribute to achieving the park targets of the 25-year development plan.

5. Davao City and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The 17 SDGs (2015-2030) and their targets and indicators are considered an important framework by cities and LGUs worldwide, including Davao City and its government agencies. Particularly SDG number 11 is of relevance: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

One indicator for this goal is that green public space in urbanized areas needs to be proportionate to the number of citizens. There is worldwide agreement that cities, irrespective of whether they are in the North or the South, must aim for and work towards public (green) space equivalent to 9 square meters or more per urban resident.

Applying this to the urbanized area of Davao City means that green public space needs to increase substantially by a few hundred hectares. Even 750 hectares of accessible green public space would only constitute a mere 1.5% of the total urbanized area of 45,000 hectares. This is very small compared to cities like Singapore and many Chinese cities that allocate 18% and more of their urbanized area to accessible green space.

Another indicator is: “Nature Nearby”, meaning that every citizen should not live farther away than 500 meters from some accessible, recreational, green, public space. It means that green public spaces need to be well-spread out over the urbanized area.

Undoubtedly, the proper development of Shrine Hills can play a contributing role to this.


6.Davao City and the Benefits of Green Public Space


Based on scientific findings accessible green spaces are contributing to numerous improvements in well-being for everyone. They have been attested to in Davao City as well. They include:

(1) lower crime rates and less “tambays” in the streets,

(2) better general health and lower levels of obesity,

(3) lower urban temperatures,

(4) higher property values nearby,

(5) enticement for businesses to establish themselves in the city,

(6) less stressful living,

(7) possibility for citizens to unwind and spend time with their families without having to spend money,

(8) reduced pollution and cleaner air,

(9) better absorption of rainwater and less flooding during heavy rains.


More accessible green space is a vital part of life in urban areas, especially in a city that claims “Life is Here”.


7.Public Parks and Accessible Green Space in Private Lands

Reality is that much, if not all, of Shrine Hills, including the lands in the UEESZ, are owned by smaller and bigger landowners. Extensive portions are owned by a number of big developers. Private landownership poses particular challenges as to the establishment of publicly accessible green spaces.

The way to move forward, in this kind of situation, has been spelled out already many years ago by the national Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HULRB), and is seen as particularly applicable to (1) highly urbanized cities, (2) that have Zoning Ordinances, (3) but may lack resources and (4) that need to create more permanently accessible green spaces.


As early as 2001, in its document “Planning Strategically”, the HLURB advised: “Even without an Open Space or Recreation Strategy real opportunities exist for the provision of additional parks and gardens. With LGUs always short of funds for the acquisition of land and their development into parks, they have to be more creative in attracting private property owners and developers to get involved.Highly urbanized cities that have zoning ordinances could provide bonus floor area if property owners willingly provided the public with accessible open areas.” The creativity which the HLURB is advocating must be applied to SH.


This idea of the HLURB is not different from what internationally has come to be known as the POPOS approach to public and green space; POPOS meaning Privately Owned and Publicly-accessible Open Spaces. POPOS can be

(1) voluntary,

(2) a requirement,

(3) in exchange for something (density bonus, approval of development projects).

POPOS is first and foremost a flexible and management tool that Davao City can use in negotiating, especially with (big) developers, to create lasting and accessible green space.


It is a tool in the Davao City Government’s pro-active policy “to manage, protect, conserve and implement greening programs in areas determined as prone to natural hazards and deemed critical in providing the ecological balance and enhancement in the city’s urban zones.”

To protect the environment and create accessible green public space the POPOS approach has shown benefit in varied urban contexts. It can be a valuable and feasible approach but it must be done based on good and transparent negotiations. Experiences around the world have shown that POPOS can be abused when landowners/developers receive exorbitant bonuses while their contribution to creating publicly accessible land has been minimal. An evaluation of POPOS states that “any consideration of POPOS must be vigorously watched and overseen, operated with complete public transparency even in the planning stages. POPOS must be weighed hugely in favor of the public space it wants to create. POPOS areas need to be protected by legal instruments and rights of way in perpetuity. POPOS is not a catch all solution. Vigorous enforcement and oversight will be required.”


The creativity encouraged by the HLURB and POPOS is also in line with the recommendations of HABITAT, the world body of housing under the United Nations. HABITAT “encourages an approach that focuses on acquiring land for local public space in the planning process, which is contributed by landowners/developers in exchange for increase in land value or other benefits. Thus, in the process of planning for an expansion, the minimum requirement for public space is in place and developers already know that they will be required to contribute land and or develop part of the required public space infrastructure.”

8. Rezoning of SH Questioned

Some have raised questions and objections (early on in 2012 before the approval of the revisions in 2013, and more recently in 2018) to the proposed rezoning of SH. Part of our reply, which we extensively elaborated already in 2013 in a letter to the 16th Council, is the standpoint of the Supreme Court (in case G.R. 156052) stating:
“In the exercise of police powers, property rights of individuals may be subjected to restraint and burdens in order to fulfil the objectives of the (local) government. Otherwise stated, the government may enact legislation that may interfere with personal liberty, property, lawful businesses and occupations to promote the general welfare. (…) The benefits to be derived by cities adopting zoning regulations may be summarized as follows: They attract a desirable and assure a permanent citizenship; they foster pride in and attachment to the city; they promote happiness and contentment; they stabilize the use and value of property and promote the peace, [tranquility], and good order of the city.We do not hesitate to say that the attainment of these objectives affords a legitimate field for the exercise of the police power. He who owns property in such district is not deprived of its use by such regulations. He may use it for the purposes to which the section in which it is located is dedicated.That he shall not be permitted to use it to the desecration of the community constitutes no unreasonable or permanent hardship and results in no unjust burden.”

9.Overall Conclusion and Way Forward


In line with all the above arguments and considerations, the Davao SH Advocates, IDIS and Ecoteneo are urging the Davao City Planning Office, which after the Mayor is the Vice-Chair of the UEESZ Committee, towards the following course of action:

(1) to aim for a number of hectares that can be reasonably set aside for POPOS within the UEESZ. Of the 220 hectares of the UEESZ 20 to 25% (44 to 55 hectares) may fall under conditions that make them unfit for housing but very appropriate for POPOS. These aims may have to be refined upon further assessment and investigation and consultation. Even outside the UEESZ there are lands on Shrine Hills that may eminently qualify as possible POPOS areas. This course of action is fully in line with one of the key functions of the UEESZ Committee which is: “To conduct comprehensive research and studies and adopt long-term measures and programs aimed at environmental promotion and development of the UEESZ.”

(2) To engage pro-actively with the developers on Shrine Hills towards the achievement of this aim.

(3) To ensure and enhance that POPOS areas in the UEESZ form interconnected, contiguous spaces and that they become truly accessible to the general public, for instance for walking, for biking or hiking.

Through this course of action a significant contribution will be made towards properly regulating the rights of landowners and other stakeholders on Shrine Hills, protecting SH and making it serve as an accessible green area for generations to come.


Respectfully yours,

Norma T. Javellana
Davao Shrine Hills Advocates (DSHA)
2018 Datu Bago Awardee for environmental care
co-signatories: IDIS, Ecoteneo