There is now a silent but steady move of Filipino urbanites, especially those residing in Metro Manila, to the provinces. We can see this happening now, especially in the outlying areas of Laguna, Cavite, Rizal and Batangas, as well as in the provinces of Pampanga and Tarlac. What used to be weekend retreats or planned retirement homes are now being occupied for the long haul. Many almost empty rural nests of grandparents are now filled with the families of their children on extended visits. We know that this can be attributed to our urbanites fearing the exponential increase of Covid cases that has hit our nation’s capital this past month. But this rural migration or gentrification needs to be carefully studied by our government policy-makers. It offers a unique opportunity to resolve many of our urban-related concerns that has plagued us before and will re-appear again once we cross over to the new normal times.
There are pronounced benefits of moving to the countryside, beyond being relieved of the stress in living in the Covid war zone that is now unfortunately Metro Manila. One benefit is a cleaner environment, definitely with less pollution of all sorts—air, water and even noise. On a personal level, rural living also offers a more relaxed way of life with time to view the sunset, commune with nature while rediscovering relationships among family members. On a national level, this gentrification can be the beginning of what can be a permanent lessening of the stress we have put in to Metro Manila, as well as push for economic growth in other regions. It is a genuine “balik-probinsya” program that is made even better as the cause to such a move is not so much for economic reasons, especially for those in our economic spectrum society that have the capacity to redirect resources originally allocated for Metro Manila.
In this context, the government must step in to provide the needed policies and programs to support this countryside migration and make this sustainable enough to be the cause of a steady stream of economic redistribution, even after the pandemic. The key driver would be the availability of adequate basic services. And immediately most telling would be adequate telecommunications. Though most of these urbanites will be huddled in their new rural surroundings, much of their lives—their work, schooling, financial and social life will still be wired to their urban selves. Other services are equally important. Health services, given the present situation we are in right now, need to be adequate and accessible. Good timing as well, as our country really needs an overhaul of our present health capacities and not just make it adequate but equally present in all regions. Water and other utilities must also be dependable as well as affordable. It is also high time for government to check on all utility concessionaires on their missionary commitments to provide adequate services. This must be met, otherwise penalties, as provided for in their agreements, will have to be imposed.
All of these will be needed to attract more permanent investments beyond just being a Covid respite of individual families. Tax and other duty reliefs will provide attraction for these countryside migrants and their businesses to stay and grow in their new environment. In this regard, local governments will need to be pro-active to ensure that the money that come into their areas will not only remain but will grow from these temporary residents. Local government transactions need to be both seamless and transparent. Local corruption will need to be tempered. And local government management in areas such as transport and traffic, local sanitation and more importantly, peace and order will have to step up to help ensure a more permanent foothold of potential migrating investments to their locality.
We have seen many pivot points across many sectors because of the pandemic. Countryside gentrification may be one that we hope can survive to new normal times. A more equitable redistribution of wealth and resources beyond Metro Manila is one driver that we have longed to have for a stronger drive to national progress. This opportunity we now have and we hope will remain.
Thomas “Tim” Orbos is currently a transport policy advisor for an international organization and worked in government on transport and urban development matters. He is an alumnus of Georgetown University and the MIT Sloan School of Management. He can be reached via e-mail—[email protected] /[email protected]