A bubble that we don’t like to burst

Thomas M Orbos

WE have all heard about the so-called “bubbles” across the globe in this time of the pandemic. A “bubble” under current circumstances is loosely defined as a specific area that is supposed to be sheltered from the pandemic with the basic resources to last a good period of time, available for all occupants. A “bubble” may be as specific as the NBA bubble in Florida allowing the league to resume its games, or “bubble” countries such as New Zealand and Palau with their distance to the world serving as their natural barrier to the pandemic. “Bubbles” also exist in major urban areas, mostly in the suburbs, leading to a silent migration of city dwellers to the confines of the outlying areas of their cities. This phenomenon might very well dictate the design of future cities in the post pandemic world, and might be the way to ensure better future for our children and grandchildren in a much-damaged world they will be inheriting from us.

“Bubble” environments are a stark contrast to the mega-city mindset of the pre-Covid era where central business districts became the building blocks of commerce and industry. Most people working in these cities live in “bedroom communities” and they have to travel great lengths daily, enduring traffic, to get to their place of employment. In cities such as Metro Manila, centralization has included even premier schools, hospitals and commercial centers. No wonder that our metro populations get decimated overnight when a substantial number of workers decide to live outside these central districts. Feeding these megacities requires thousands of tons of produce from the countryside or imported from other countries. Traffic congestion, pollution, waste management problems, as well as social inequality, are staple problems in these megacities.

For an area to be truly called a “bubble” it must be self-contained with the needed resources available within easy reach of residents. Local commerce is encouraged with services such as barbershops, repair shops and corner grocery stores strengthening local employment. Total self-sufficiency, especially in food and energy production, may be difficult to achieve but can be augmented locally with technology in urban agriculture energy production. One very important aspect of a “bubble” is the availability of adequate communications facilities, allowing people to work from their homes. As we have experienced in this pandemic, an adequate broadband service is very important. A “bubble” community ideally has almost all community-critical services within 15 to 20 minutes of travel. Most of these should be reached by foot or by biking. Public transport will be present but not as stressed, mostly operating in loops with an average of five to ten-minute point to point travel time. Lastly, such an environment will most likely result in a stronger personal bind among inhabitants, as they have to depend on each other for the survival of their communities.

In the Philippines, potential “bubble” communities do exist. We have the natural island bubbles given our geography. We have the special zones of Subic and Clark and the university areas such as Dumaguete, Baguio and Los Baños. However, it does not mean that “bubble” cities are exclusively safe from the virus. Baguio is in fact hard hit currently with most of the infections coming from travelers to the city. What also constitutes a bubble city is its administration’s capacity to open and close when necessary, with the needed resources in place. It goes without saying that bubble cities also need a good internal management of their resources without much dependence from the outside.

Moving forward and given the global  pandemic experience, governments need to rethink their policies about how cities are re-structured. It will be the micropolis mindset instead of the “mega” one, with communities ready to huddle in when needed. “Bubble” communities will also mean moving and working with people with the same shared values in these communities. It will mean working closer to home and having more quality time with our families, something truly lacking in the rat race of the pre-Covid world. With that benefit, along with the others, bubble-communities will ensure a better community for our children, which will enhance their chances to successfully carve their own future.

Thomas “Tim” Orbos was formerly with the DOTr and the MMDA. He has completed his graduate studies at the McCourt School of Public Policy of Georgetown University and is an alumnus of the MIT Sloan School of Management. He can be reached via e-mail at thomas_orbos@sloan.mit.edu

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