Since I’ve been in the Philippines, I’ve noticed more than a few things that are wildly different from any urban environment I’ve been in before, but the one that sticks out the most is the presence of “informal settlers” who occupy all areas of the landscape.
Because the level of poverty in the Philippines is quite high, many people are unable to purchase or rent property, so they build their own shelters. Makeshift structures created from natural and recycled materials line streets both in cities and in the countryside, and many are in what seem to be impossible places: some float above rivers on stilts, while others hang precariously over the edge of a cliff. These homes are so ubiquitous that I didn’t realize there was anything “informal” about them during my first few weeks in the country.
Once I did learn that they were essentially illegal structures, though, I became curious about how they are perceived and dealt with from an urban planning perspective. Because of their sheer numbers, it is impossible for the settlers in the Philippines to be evicted as the residents of Tent City were in Toronto several years ago. If the land the settlers are on is privately owned, the legal owner of the land sometimes has to pay the settlers to clear off the land, something I find unimaginable in a North American context.
This difference in dealing with informal settlers is not only because of their numbers, but also, I think, because of the collective-minded nature of Filipino society. Rather than prioritize individual needs as we do in North America, the culture here places collective needs at its forefront, so that rather than enforcing the needs of private landowners by evicting informal settlers, authorities allow them to remain until it is absolutely necessary to ask them to leave.
There is also something ingenious about the way many of these homes are built. Given how few resources the builders have, I find it impressive that they can construct relatively sturdy homes in near-impossible places, sometimes even connecting them to the power grid.
I think the presence of informal settlers signifies both the best and the worst elements of urban life here: their very existence is a constant reminder of the crippling poverty that afflicts so much of the population, but the creativity that goes into selecting building materials and locations is a tribute to the ingenuity and durability of the people in the face of incredible hardships.