One City, Two Worlds: For whom is resilience designed ?

Last week, through the iconic Pasig River, we saw how nature can be seen as both “a wild thing” and “something dangerous to lose track of” (Price 2006). The (mis)management of the Pasig River is an insightful case to reflect on intersecting issues in the conceptualization and implementation of Manila’s resilience, as we will do in the two coming posts.

Manila is exposed to various risks: located in a semi-alluvial plain formed by the sediment flows from several river basins, it can be described as “a vast drainage basin” (Porio 2014). As the city realises that its nature is under threat, a constellation of initiatives and programs to improve resilience have emerged at different scales. The effects of globalisation intertwine with the city’s exposure to climate risks to produce structural inequality in both access to resources and vulnerability to hazards (Meerow 2017).

Metro Manila Flood Prone Areas represent the majority of the city’s space
Source: Twitter: Manuel L. Quezon III

Once City, Two Worlds

Two contrasting experiences of resilience emerge in Manila in the aftermath of recent disasters including the 2009 Ondoy floodings. Resilience policies are often aimed at the wealthy and disconnected from the realities of the most exposed populations.

During the “Manila 2019 to 2050” green building conference, the architects of Green Architecture Philippines, leaders in resilient urban development and design in Manila, took turns presenting innovative technologies that are totally inaccessible to the most exposed Manileños. For instance, famous “green architect” Luisa Daya-Garcia designs ecosufficient villas including luxury features like helicopter pads.

The Planning of Privatization

Established norms of zoning and construction (Magno-Ballesteros 2000) act as a reference for formal developments, especially large ones (Porio 2015). “Green-washing” is now a thing in Manila. Most projects are branded as “green” like the SMDC Green Residences, whose green lights illuminate the whole neighborhood at night. Despite what SM Development Corporation would have Manileños believe, this building is not recycling the waste of its 2000 residents. Commercial strategies of “green-branding” contribute to the growing prestige of such estates and further encourage the design of resilient buildings for the richest. In 2016, 37,000 state licenses were issued for high-income housing projects, against only 3,000 for low-income. As Goodfellow (2017) demonstrates, high-end building construction is seen as more likely to yield profits in the long run in fast-growing Southern metropolises. Resilience standards are thereby derived from their environmental purpose to promote a bubble-economy. This reflects what Shatkin and Mouton (2019) call the shift “from the privatization of planning to the planning of privatization”.

The 55-storey building is advertised throughout the city.
Source: Facebook: Green Residences

The destructive power of undifferentiated policy

Commercial developments can create human-produced risks by aggravating vulnerability to natural hazards of informal settlers. This is the case of SM Mall Aura Premier, one of the largest commercial spaces in the city, built in the middle of a floodable area next to Taguig River. Since the building and its foundations use non-absorbant materials, the surrounding informal communities face increased flood risks. Paradoxically, the Mall is often advertised as “green” and certified Gold under the LEED programme.

The very same rule is advocated in informal settlements, but it is deprived of any consideration for the settlers limited resources. In the reconstructions following the 2009 Ondoy floodings, however, only a third of the settlements met the city’s building code requirement of having two storeys, due to the lack of financial means (Porio 2014).

Wordcount: 551

Resources used:

Featured Image: AlJazeera. (June 29, 2016). Philippines: The inequalities awaiting Rodrigo Duterte. Retrieved from:

Ballesteros, M. (2000). “Land Use Planning in Metro Manila and the Urban Fringe: Implications on the Land and Real Estate Market”. Discussion paper series 2000(20), PIDS.

Goering, L., (2016). Manila most exposed city to natural disasters: global assessment. Thomson Reuters Foundation. Retrieved from

Goodfellow, T. (2017). Urban fortunes and skeleton cityscapes: real estate and late urbanization in Kigali and Addis Ababa. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 41(5), 786-803.

JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). (2014). Roadmap for transport infrastructure development for metro Manila and its surrounding areas (region III & region IV-A) in the Republic of the Philippines. Japan International Cooperation Agency: ALMEC Corporation.

Meerow, S. (2017) Double exposure, infrastructure planning, and urban climate resilience in coastal megacities: A case study of Manila. Environment and Planning A 2017, Vol. 49(11) 2649–2672.

Mouton, M., & Shatkin, G. (2019). Strategizing the for-profit city: The state, developers, and urban production in Mega Manila. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space52(2), 403–422.

Porio, E. (2014). Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation in Metro Manila. Asian
Journal of Social Science 42(2), 75–102.

Porio, E. (2015) Sustainable development goals and quality of life targets: Insights from Metro Manila. Current Sociology Monograph 2015, Vol. 63(2) 244–260.

2 thoughts on “One City, Two Worlds: For whom is resilience designed ?

  1. I think the discussion around who resilience measures benefit and the idea of ’one city, two worlds’ that you raise in this post is really important. You might find it interesting to have a look at the work of Isabelle Anguelovski – she has published a lot on the way in which resilience planning is often presented under the under the discourse of public good, but in fact strongly disadvantages the most vulnerable and serves the interests of the rich.


  2. Thanks for a really interesting post! Your comments on the SM Mall Aura commercial development are particularly interesting to me. You’ve shown that expensive private real estate developments, far from improving the built environment of a city, can actually cause environmental degradation which disproportionately affects poorer residents. The hard infrastructure, which does not facilitate flood mitigation seems to be a cheap route for property developers to make money without considering the environmental impacts of commercial developments. Exacerbating inequalities related to this problem, I think it’s interesting to reflect on how such commercial developments are often inaccessible to lower income residents. These developments have expensive shops which are out of reach for typical residents, and the ‘public’ spaces within a shopping mall are privately controlled, meaning residents cannot freely linger or socialise. This is something I have come across in Hong Kong, and it seems to proliferate in many cities, especially in quickly developing cities in Asia-Pacific. I think this reveals that there are some big structural problems to the process of private real estate development, and such developments can even threaten the cities they purport to benefit.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website at
Get started
%d bloggers like this: