We have been cooped up for the last seven months. For middle-class folk, a few weekend trips to a beach would have been de rigueur over the summer. Even Boracay, in its pre-shutdown state, was quite affordable to many, regardless of economic status.
It was no wonder then, that when a pocket beach magically appeared in Manila, it was deluged by “quarantinians.” So many people came that authorities had to implement restrictions for even just the viewing of the beach from the pedestrian bridge fronting it.
The idea for a beach or waterside park accessible to Metro Manilans is not new. We started with the old Luneta in the late Spanish colonial era. Unfortunately it was also the site of executions.
The artificial beach was a project of DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu, one of a menu of interventions intended to help clean Manila Bay. That corner of the water beside the American Embassy complex was prone to accumulation of floating trash and filling it to erase its propensity to capture flotsam was the goal.
The project is controversial, spawning many Zoom webinars on its viability as a sustainable solution to pollution. Among the issues raised was the money government spent on the project, when the funds could have been used to fight the pandemic. Authorities rushed to defend the beach as an amenity to help provide the public with physical and mental relief.
The idea for a beach or waterside park accessible to Metro Manilans is not new, however. We started with the old Luneta in the late Spanish colonial era. The space became one of the centers of social life; unfortunately it was also the site of executions.
In the American period, Daniel Burnham recommended reclaiming land from the Luneta all the way to Cavite, developing this stretch as a “parkway” so everyone would be able to promenade and enjoy the famed Manila sunset. The project would only extend to the edge of Malate until the 1960s, and Pasay provided beaches for those hankering for a dip in the then-clean bay.
Pasay Mayor Pablo Cuneta and the infamous American businessman Harry Stonehill had other ideas for that city’s seafront. They had noted that in 1941, the area was to be reclaimed for Manila’s international airport. This was because trans-Pacific seaplanes needed a basin. Technology changed after the war and the airport was built inland.
Stonehill and Cuneta planned to create a 30-hectare spit of land to house commercial establishments, as well as a new port to rival Manila’s harbors. The plan also included a park and an artificial, crescent-shaped beach. The addition of the beach may have been due to the fact that the reclaimed area was already a chartered national park (designated as “Pasay Beach Park”).
Reclamation for the project got underway, but Stonehill was deported in 1962 because of a scandal involving corrupt officials.
At the same time, Manila Mayor Antonio “Yeba” Villegas launched his own version — an extension into the sea of the famed Dewey Boulevard. Villegas intended it mostly as a park. He also wanted to take back the land Manila had given the United States for its embassy. This project never pushed through.
The Pasay reclamation did see the light, as the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, appropriated the project to build her cultural center on. Imelda roped in the architect Leandro Locsin and his un-built design for a Filipino-American Friendship Center (originally intended for Quezon City).
For a few years a beach was formed on the edge facing south, as Stonehill had planned, but the CCP Complex spawned an immense reclamation area, which was intended as a site for government financial institutions, as well as a new Presidential Palace. The reclamation did happen but the palace was never built, and is now the site of the Mall of Asia.
Numerous reclamation projects are in the offing today, despite dire warnings from scientists of environmental repercussions. NGOs and civil society also have pointed out the socio-economic costs of reclamation to fisher folk in communities around Manila Bay.
All this is countered by the tantalizing profit in developing large tracts of land in reclaimed sites, free from the complexities of consolidating thousands of smaller parcels of existing land and dealing with their owners. Local cities and the national government appear to lean towards the side of unfettered real estate development over longer-term concerns about environmental and social consequences.
A beach is a natural consequence of a balanced environment. The near shore, foreshore and beach, and a landscape-filled backshore (which can be developed as a public park), are the best ways to ensure protection from storm surges. Unplanned urban development compromises this balance, which then can only be recovered at great costs.
Artificial beaches are accepted as an expensive necessity for cities dependent on them for tourism. Miami and other destinations in America and Europe spend billions every decade “re-nourishing” beaches that have eroded. It is a vicious cycle.
Today, the pandemic’s effect in suspending tourism negates this equation. When tourism comes back in a few years, Metro Manilans will again have access to pristine beaches in the rest of our 7,500-plus islands. Instead, Metro Manila would do better with more parks inland, which ensure access to open space for everyone. We need parks more than beaches now, as well as in the new normal.
For future development projects, we need to weigh the costs we all must bear, as well as understand that urban expansion in the National Capital Region must be prepared in the complex context of several related factors: climate change, the sea level rising, the lack of mass transport systems, the dearth of affordable housing and hospitals, the threat of future pandemics, and finally, the constant danger of politics.
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