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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Road Trip: Iloilo City, Philippines Pt. I

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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.



  1. Congratulations Ian!

    I participated in on of the Canadian Urban Institutes internships last year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and it was an unforgettable experience. I’ll enjoy reading your updates.

  2. Hi Ian, I am an Ilongo now living in San Diego, California. As a member of Canadian Urban Institute working in Iloilo, I wish you will enjoy your stay in our beloved city. After typhoon Frank devastated Iloilo, I know deep inside that Iloilo will recover with GOD’s grace. Iloilo is a beautiful place and its people very warm. I plan to retire there someday. I sincerely hope you will help in Iloilo recovery. GODBLESS.

  3. Hi Ian,

    I guess you have not seen a trisikad (sikad means to peddle) yet which is the bicycle with sidecar. Tricycle is a motorcycle with sidecar. If you’re going to try the food, the foodcourt at SM City would be your best bet..Breakthrough has Ilonggo food. Ted’s batchoy has the best commercialized batchoy…unless you’re willing to brave LA PAz market he he. After 2 months, you can probably try the food stalls. Try fishbol, roasted corn, puto or coconut bibingka, bananaque…and an ice scramble at the Jaro CAthedral.

    Hope you enjoy your stay there. Iloilo is mostly a laid back city, people there are friendly and willing to help. Damn it! now I’m homesick

  4. Thanks for the well-wishes, Eric and Reynaldo!

    And thank you for the clarification, simi. I have seen the trisikad but didn’t know there was a distinction between it and the motorized version. I’ve been having batchoy regularly, though I’ll take your advice and try the La Paz market – in about 2 months or so…

  5. Ian!

    Excellent! I was wondering how everyone was after the Typhoon! Please email me and give me an update. I miss Iloilo and its so funny, I have the exact same photos taken from the office windows of the jeepney traffic. Did you end up al Saldana house? If so please say hello to the girls for me!

  6. Ian! This is so wonderful to read!
    I know things are still in repair in Iloilo, and probably will be for while – but please do a tour of the plazas in the city and surrounding municipalities when it becomes possible. You can create your own rendition of “The social life of small urban spaces”, Metro Iloilo edition. 😀
    I look forward to reading more about your experiences! Take care!

  7. Ian

    Great of you to do this! I will be reading with interest. You will find that there is a whole new meaning to the words friendship and joy after a few weeks in the Philippines.

    Safe Travels!

    Glen Murray
    President CUI

  8. Ian,

    I love the picture of the Manilla skyline. Here in Calgary, where I am in continuous pursuit of my first Stanley Cup with the Flames, air quality in not an issue. However, during the regular season and playoffs, when I travel to cities that are not blessed with our air circulation patterns and lack of industrial development to the south, I am often struck by the brownish band of smog coating the horizon like the ring around an uncleaned bathtub. It seems to me that what Calgary is to these cities is equivalent to what these cities are to Manilla! I wonder, did the skyline clear up in the days following the typhoon?

    It’s good to know that young, enterprising Canadians are pushing outwards, exploring far corners of the world, especially in the context of examining attitudes towards public spaces. I look forward to reading your next update and wish you all the best on this adventure!

    Dion Phaneuf

  9. Thanks again for the comments – I look forward to sharing what I learn about the city with everyone.

    Dion: Not sure if the skyline in Manila cleared up after the typhoon. It may have briefly, but the air in Iloilo at least is back to normal. Thanks for the well-wishes, and good luck with that cup run…

  10. Dear Ian,

    Thank you for this feedback and I hope Iloilo City is better after typhoon Frank. I will be visiting Iloilo next week for a holiday with my family. I hope my kids and my husband will enjoy Iloilo after it has been hit by the typhoon.Please give me a brief comment of how the people are coping and how the place is recovering. I pity the people and I missed my home town JARO !!! Thank you for loving my Iloilo! There is no place like home.

  11. Hi Aminah,

    The people are coping very well, and the recovery has been slow in some places but steady. I hope you and your family have a good time when you visit!

  12. To quote from your opening statement “I thought Spacing readers might be interested to see how a different culture relates to and plans its public spaces” I hope you will soon write on this topic. – My background is urban development (business school, U of W in Seattle) and I have relatives in Iloilo and up north in Aklan. I’m intrigued that you think urban planning actually occurs in the Philippines and I hope you will provide evidence that more than money or historical accident decides what gets built and where it is built – whether it is public or private space. If you look at the land that has been taken over by squatters in urban areas, I think you will have a topic that will keep you fully engaged for your entire internship. Surely having squatters take over public and private land in disregard to the wishes of the original owners has some public policy implications, while at the same time the squatters, who ARE the public, have taken a more direct approach at deciding how the land should be used. If you decide to look into this aspect of how a culture plans and relates to its public spaces, I’ll be interested in your views. Post Script – my views are colored by experiences my family has had in Camarines Del Norte, not Panay. But I presume squatters are ubiquitous in all major Philippine population areas.

    Toujours l’été,
    Toujours été,
    Red (James) Baron – Arlington, Washington

  13. Ian,

    Hope you will enjoy your stay in Iloilo. I was born there but stayed in the south Philippines(Mindanao)early 80’s to 90’s. I am married to british and come and live here in the UK since 1994. We have holidays there but not often, our last one was last year March-April. There are many changes/improvements in the city but was destroyed by Frank,I feel there will be a bounce back for this and Iloilo will be diffirent with great success in the near future. We are thinking of having a retirement house in Iloilo within 9 years. What I can advice you during your stay there be very careful of using ice (commecial ice)in your drinks because I had experienced tommy upset, if possible use home made ice. Enjoy your stay.


  14. Hi Ian,
    It is a nice topic and very interesting to know more about Iloilo .My place is in Janiuay Iloilo and so shocking news about the happenings to the city of Iloilo . My family also got evacuated for the big flood to our home. But with Gods care they are safe.Thanks God , And hope all of the places recover now and go back to normal situations and start a new blessings and happiness. I am glad about your helping hand to our city .And hope more power and success. God bless.
    From ,
    Loren of Korea

  15. Visited Iloilo across from the Jaro Cathedral in March of this year. Was given a grand tour of the City and surrounding areas as well as one of the beach resorts. It was an awesome experience and I hope to return in ’10 to do some volunteer work –
    Ian, enjoy each hour – make the best of a wonderful opportunity for you and for the people of Iloilo.
    Peg from NYC

  16. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for all the helps and publicity to attract the world and to seek help for whatever they can to donate to the people of ILoilo City and adjacent iloilo provinces. I email the the US Navy to air the devastation from typhoon so that agencies and the US Navy can send help. I also email NBC to air the devastation and so that the worl can send help. I also contacted my Knight of Columbus in Charleston SC to do some fund raising.
    Iloilo City/Jaro is the home to Central Philippine University an institution own and ran by Protestant missionaries from the US, ST Paul Hospital a catholic hospital ran by Catholic Nuns, University of San Agustin ran by Jesuit missionaries.
    I grow up in Baluarte, Molo Iloilo City and spent my younger years in Baluarte Elem School and Iloilo City High School in Molo.
    I hope you enjoy your tour in Iloilo City.


    Although I was not from Iloilo personally I enjoy visiting the place

    Try taking a coffee inside Lapz Market (Sorry that I forgot the name of the shop) it will be worth your while

  18. My bravo Sulu to the US Navy. They sent 2 cariers a supplies ship and other ships with plenty of supplies. It will take a lot of humanitarian relief to help the IloIlo City people and adjacent provincies. I hope that the International Red Cross and Salvation Army would send their humanitarian help to IloILo City also. It will take a very long time to recover from this disaster and it will take the intire people of IloIlo City to work together in order to recover from this.
    Once again my most thanks to the US Navy, thank to Ian.
    Gary S Arquisola
    Cleveland OH/Charleston SC