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Reconstructing Tacloban City after Typhoon Yolanda

November 26, 2013 10:00am

In thinking about the physical reconstruction of a city literally wiped out by a super typhoon, the first question that comes to mind is:  Is there a blueprint?  That is, is there a general or specific plan to guide the reconstruction efforts? 
 
It is a simple question to ask but is made complex by the urgency of responding to the crisis, magnitude of destruction, and scale of reconstruction. While all of these forces can easily overwhelm anyone, I find comfort in the thought that a tragedy like this has caused us to look beyond the passive expressions of concern into sharing ourselves in small part in bettering the lives of others. 
 
Indeed, the outpouring of support all over the world is unprecedented in the history of disaster relief in the Philippines.  Of course, thanks in large part due to the local and international media that reported live 24/7 the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda.
 
I wish it stays that way but I realize that the unsullied expression of generosity and kindness of the world to us is momentary and shortlived.  Now that the aid has arrived and the task of reconstruction has begun, the rapid deployment of people and resources into stricken areas carries with it an unintended consequence.   
 
With a host of well-meaning volunteers and organizations as well as unscrupulous opportunists flocking into the disaster areas, it is not difficult to anticipate the challenges posed by conflicting ideas and overlapping interests in the reconstruction efforts.  As they say, “too many cooks spoil the broth.”
 
There are two planning-related challenges that must be addressed by those who are engaged in the reconstruction efforts.
 
First, is the issue of top-down planning versus bottom-up planning.
 
Case in point.  The squabble between the national leadership and the local governments during the earlier days of the relief effort demonstrates the problem of how planning and implementation should proceed.  Now that reconstruction has commenced and the President and the Interior Secretary are heavily involved in it, what happens to the local executives?  What role should they play in developing the reconstruction plan?  How does one proceed in implementing local initiatives and priorities?  Should it come from the top or bottom?    
 
Ideally, I’d like our national leaders to take the backseat role in this matter and allow the local executives to lead.   This is the essence of bottom-up planning.  Local executives must be entrusted with the responsibility of synergizing the diverse and divergent views of reconstruction into a coherent whole.  After all, they are the ones who possess the intimate knowledge of their localities and constituencies.    
 
But given their meager manpower and resources, the national leadership can play the supporting role rather than the lead role.  By doing that, both parties avoid the drama of confrontation, threat, and finger-pointing, and at the same time, build goodwill for their local constituents. 
 
Wouldn’t it be nice to witness a less bossy President or Interior Secretary engaging local executives in a dialogue of reconstruction and instilling in them the exercise of self-government? I think it’s good politics.  Unfortunately, there are still many people who believe that old patronage habits die hard.
 
Second, is the issue of reactive planning versus proactive planning.
 
Those who are involved in the reconstruction efforts cannot do this on the fly.  It is that crucial.  I can understand that it is easier to react to problems because of the dire situation.  But we cannot go on doing just that.  That’s a short-term solution.  But if ever we are thinking of long-term and sustainable solutions, there has to be a blueprint, a master plan to guide the reconstruction effort.
 
Let’s take for example the case of shelter strategy for those who were displaced by Typhoon Yolanda.   For a shelter strategy to be effective, it must be pursued based on a broader approach of spatial planning that takes into consideration the locational, form and function, and market components of the project.
 
Generally, this means that the success or failure of every physical development will often arise from a peculiar spatial organization of the city.  Just as a poorly planned arterial system creates congestion and pollution.  Likewise, a poorly situated and designed housing project creates discontent and eventually the abandonment of one’s stake or attachment to that locale.
 
One of the advantages of being proactive is it allows local executives with limited funding to come up with a carefully considered specific strategy in the plan that incorporates an answer to the basic planning questions of “when,” “what,” and “where.”   In short, a timeframe, type of project, and location for the project. 
 
And so, is it possible for a local executive to aspire, let’s say: By, 2014, finish the construction of 200 two-bedroom housing units in Planning District 3A?  Definitely, yes!
 
If the local executive can benchmark a successful specific plan, just imagine the possibilities.  In the end, it’ll be a lot easier to sell or secure funding for long-term and sustainable reconstruction ideas if there is an accompanying master plan.  Needless to say, that the plan is also an effective tool for transparency and accountability as it also contains the elements of capital programming and budgeting.
 
I am hopeful for a well-thought-out reconstruction of Tacloban City because I believe that despite the multitude constraints that the local executive and his planning staff face, they’ll get by with a little help and guidance from “big brother.”  Unless “big brother” decides to throw a monkey wrench in the works. 
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