ILOILO, PHILIPPINES — For the next three months, I am participating in an internship with the Canadian Urban Institute in Iloilo City, the Philippines. Given that some of my work here will involve analyzing the public realm of the city, I thought Spacing readers might be interested to see how a different culture relates to and plans its public spaces. Though internet and electricity are spotty here (especially in the wake of the typhoon that recently battered the city), I hope to be able to publish semi-regular updates. This first post is more of an introduction than in depth look at anything, but I’ve included some pictures to give some context and offer some background on the city.
Situated on the island of Panay, Iloilo City is the capital of the Province of Iloilo, and the Regional Centre of the Western Visayas. With a population of over 400 000, it is the ninth most-populous city in the country, but it is among the Philippines’ densest. The city’s downtown is literally surrounded by water: a large river, the Iloilo River, divides the city in half, and the lower half of the city sits on the ocean.
Because the Philippines is a developing country, evidence of poverty abounds not only in the city but also in its suburbs. Though panhandling does occur – especially to me, since I am an obvious foreigner and a visible minority – the city feels safe, and the people are genuinely warm and welcoming. Surprisingly, I find the panhandling in Toronto to be more visceral; in Iloilo I have not seen people sleeping on sidewalks or sitting with outstretched hands, though I have been assured it does happen. Like anywhere, though, poverty here is an incredibly complex issue, and one that is very much evident in the city’s public realm.
As visitor to a new city, I have taken some time to adjust to a different urban fabric. Sidewalks are more often a luxury than a right, as are traffic lights. Street vendors sell food on just about every block, though previous visitors and travel doctors have advised me that a foreign stomach has about as much a chance of surviving street food as it would a bowl of nails. People stare at me – a lot – and, though it was a little unnerving at first, their stares are usually followed by a big smile and a hello, or a wave. Unlike Toronto, where it is easy to walk down a sidewalk and have little interaction with fellow pedestrians, a passive stroll is an impossibility here.
Traffic is chaotic, though equal to what I’m sure most Western visitors experience in South East Asia. The roads are filled with private cars, the odd, very brave cyclist, motorized “tricycles” (basically a bicycle with a side-carriage attached for additional passengers), and lots and lots of jeepneys. Whenever you visit a place where you can taste and see the air, you know the air quality is poor, a fact that is largely attributable to the huge amounts of diesel fuel that jeeps burp out. Although its much worse in Manila (see photo), the country’s largest city, it is still very noticeable in Iloilo.
I hope to explore these areas of the public realm – and others – over the course of the next few months. If any Spacing readers have similar experiences or insights they’d like to share – whether from on the road or memories from being on the road – please feel free to leave a comment below.