City revitalization: The Ortigas Story

In Photo: Artist’s perspective of the new Greenhills

I HAVE always been fascinated with my ongoing debate with my good friend and Ortigas COO, Thomas “Tom” Mirasol, with regard to what’s easier, building a city from scratch or revitalizing an existing city.

Building “new” cities or, rather, estates, are not new to Tom, having been part of projects such as Ayala Alabang, Greenfield and Nuvali.

But in his not so new role as COO of the New Ortigas & Co., he’s confronted with a new challenge—how to revitalize and make more relevant iconic cities like Greenhills and Ortigas.

To revitalize is to imbue something with new life and vitality. But first, this question should be asked: Do cities die? Unless your city is taken over by an enraged monster like Godzilla, or a volcanic eruption has wiped out your entire city, cities do not die.

Greenhills and its surrounding subdivisions taken during the 1970s

Life cycle of cities

However, cities have a life cycle that starts with its creation, then continues to experience growth. Upon reaching maturity, the city may either fall into a decline or experience renewal. There are several examples of such cities in our country, and Escolta can be taken as an example. During the early-1900s, Escolta was the center of commerce and business, and has kept this status up until the 1970s and 1980s, when it started to decline.

Warning signs

There are warning signs as to when cities start to experience their decline. These are:

  • Decrease in overall population
  • Senior citizens becoming a dominant segment, which would mean all the young families are choosing to live elsewhere
  • Decrease in employment
  • Decrease in city income
  • Increase in crime
  • Decrease in investment because people would not want to live there and developers would not want to invest in the area
Thomas F. Mirasol, COO of Ortigas & Co.

Planning considerations

In preparing a plan to revitalize a city, there are a lot of things to consider. Plans should reflect provisions to accommodate the needs of the following:

  • Maturing but active population
  • Transient, mobile residents
  • Climate-change implications
  • Rapid technological innovation—are we keeping up with the latest in power, communication, and traffic management; and
  • In 10 years our cities will be run by Millennials

Anticipating needs

Millennials are different. They are environmentally conscious, and are political and civic-minded. They are involved. They want everything and they want everything now. A sense of community and social purpose is a norm for millennials.

How do cities remain vital

A forward-thinking plan is crucial in revitalizing cities. A strong vision is needed, particularly a vision that does not change yearly. At the same time, it is anticipating change, and it needs to be agile and adaptive as it is impossible to predict completely what will happen in the future. The plan should have policies that support growth. This can be anything from zoning to deed restrictions to traffic management to taxation, which is anything that the city would need for it to grow and become relevant. Last but not the least, it is crucial to preserve the city’s “soul.” What makes the area unique and brings character to the area must be preserved.

Benefits of a revitalized city

What are the benefits of revitalizing cities? When revitalizing cities, we are reducing urban sprawl, using land efficiently and improving building standards. We are supporting effective infrastructure, economic regeneration, increasing jobs, and investing in a low risk, ready market. From a developer’s point of view, developers are better off to invest in an existing city, which has a proven and ready market, instead of going out of the city and developing everything from scratch.

Challenges of revitalizing cities

Hospitals and clinics for residents should be provided. Schools and leisure activities for the younger segments should be present, as well as more varied food and cultural requirements. Multiple religions and places of worship, as well as environmental graphics with multiple languages, should be placed. The city should be a world city, especially with the rise of migration and travel in the world today. The best example for this is the United Arab Emirates, where 80 percent of the population is foreigners and yet everyone lives there quite easily. In order for one to be a relevant city, it has to be a city of the world. Moreover, acceptance of growth from current residents is crucial in order to move forward in revitalizing cities. And all this should be taken into consideration while merging the new and the old parts of the city.

Implementation challenges

Revitalizing a city is similar to a heart transplant. It cannot be done too quickly nor too slowly, as either approach will kill the patient. It is messy while it’s being done, but once it’s done, everything is better.

While revitalization is happening, we need to keep an eye on the traffic management during construction, as well as construction noise and dust. Utilities must also be well maintained. Revenue interruptions will happen as tenants and locators are relocated. Protocols in technology should be placed in, to ensure that everything that is placed will be able to communicate with each other. And, most important, the environment should be protected.

The community plays a crucial role in the implementation. They should be cared for and should be provided with good schools, affordable homes, entertainment and dining opportunities, and civic spaces. The community should be provided all the elements it needs for it to thrive and be alive.

In the end, there are a lot of elements in revitalizing a city. There are, many ways of getting things done, but ultimately finding that balance of having all the right elements in a city would ensure a revitalized relevant city in this day and age.

Very few people can wax philosophical about real estate the way Tom does, but in the second part of the interview, he’ll be talking to us in practical terms with regard to what’s in store for Greenhills and Ortigas center.