The Urban Hawk: An exploration of urban, regional, and community planning

Cebu’s Long-Overdue Roadmap to the Future

Written by: Neil Andrew Menjares, Fulbright Scholar & 2016 Graduate of the University of Iowa's Urban and Regional Planning program

"I was born in Cebu. I grew up in Cebu. I love Cebu! I love my hometown. Cebuanos have a very strong sense of pride for their hometown. The beauty of its landscape is captivating. I love the moment every time I search Cebu on Google, click on images, show them to my classmates and friends here in Iowa City and they say all sorts of “oohs” and “aahs”. When news came out that Philippine Airlines will start mounting flights between Cebu and Los Angeles this year, I got even more excited. I can hopefully convince my friends to actually visit my hometown!

But as the famous saying goes, there is always two sides of the coin. Yes, Cebu is growing. But its growth has been very haphazard. Many of my Cebuano friends say that it is fast becoming another Manila: it has horrendous traffic, urban floods occur every after a heavy downpour, and it is becoming more and more polluted. Despite its 2.5 million population, it still does not have a mass transit system. My commute from home to my place of work lasts for two hours. Also, many areas in the central cities have become images of dichotomy: vast, posh commercial and financial centers amidst pockets of poverty.

The private sector, particularly the businessmen, are clamoring for more certainty and order in the way urban development in Mega Cebu is unfolding. They initiated efforts to begin the process of coordinating the various cities and municipalities in Mega Cebu and plan for urban development. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, offered technical assistance. JICA led a collaborative effort in the preparation of Roadmaps for Mega Cebu 2050. It is a set of plans addressing the various issues in the 7 cities and 6 municipalities of Mega Cebu. Last November, they presented 14 anchor programs to jumpstart the detailed planning and implementation of Mega Cebu 2050.

As an upcoming urban planner (hopefully) and as a Cebuano, I wish to humbly put forward my comments and suggestions on some of the proposed 14 anchor programs for Mega Cebu, hoping these will better inform the upcoming detailed plans, design and implementation of these programs. I also hope that through my article, more Cebuanos will be made aware of the JICA Study and its proposed anchor programs.

Mega Cebu logo

Image: Mega Cebu 2050 logo (Credit:

Urban Greening

The “disappeared” trees at the North Reclamation Area, as well as the planned transfer of median trees in Mabolo, has caused quite a stir among Cebuanos. These instances show that people value the remaining trees in the city. It is also a reflection of the public’s clamor for green spaces, such as parks. Most open green spaces in the central cities are provided by the private sector. However, because of private ownership, these green open spaces may simply be reserved spaces for future development. There has been a proposal on compelling a city to require a property developer to preserve green open spaces in its business park. Unless the open spaces are designated as such in the approved Planned Unit Development Plans, the local governments may not have legal ground to require preservation of open spaces in private land. It may even be a taking, requiring compensation. The best way to ensure open green spaces is for the local government to actually own parcels of land and designate them as parks. These parks can have added value by hosting a good diversity of fruit-bearing plants and trees, instead of over-manicured lawns.

Spatial Plan

I was able to attend one of the workshop sessions where planners from the various local governments in Mega Cebu crafted a unified zoning map, where the land uses between the cities and municipalities are actually connected. The simple act of using a single color coding scheme has improved the unified zoning map significantly. However, I noticed a discrepancy between many current city zoning maps and the zoning classification of the latest implementing rules and regulations of the National Building Code. The building code lists various levels of residential zoning, ranging from R-1 (single detached house, the lowest density) to R-5 (condominiums, the highest density). However, many zoning maps have residential areas simply zoned as R, or up to R-2, despite allowing condominium buildings in the city. Hopefully, local governments will reconcile their respective zoning maps with the zones used in the National Building Code, as well as the newly crafted unified zoning map.

I see this aspect of zoning as important because having all residential areas simply zoned as “R” does not control how much density is allowed in a particular residential area. For example, an area more suitable for low-density development may host a high-rise condominium building simply because the area is zoned as “R”, so virtually any kind of residential development is allowed. JICA indicated in their roadmap study that 76% of the total land area in Mega Cebu is not suitable for urban development. An urban limit was even proposed so that physical development does not infringe on environmentally sensitive areas. Cities and municipalities should have better management of how growth occurs, and one way to do that is a clear zoning map.

Urban Sewage Service

It is staggering to think that a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people does not have a system of sewage treatment. Many commercial establishments have their own sewage treatment plants, or STPs. But most, if not all, residential buildings are served by individual septic tanks. Some are in good, working condition; others are not. Some have sealed bottoms; others do not. In addition, most water is sourced from deep wells, and the water district has repeatedly said that there has been over-extraction of ground water. Add saltwater intrusion into the mix, and the whole situation becomes really messy. Even sealed septic tanks require periodic extractions, and it has always been a mystery to everyone as to where the extracted sewage is disposed.

JICA described this program as “of the highest urgency”. I could not agree more. This is an urgent public health and safety issue. Without proper sewage treatment, water sources are compromised. The marine life that Cebu depends so much on for food and tourism is also compromised if nothing is done to treat sewage. The roadmap study has proposed sewage treatment facilities strategically located in various parts of Mega Cebu. Cities and municipalities should act quickly on how to go about funding, building and operating these treatment plants. The public-private partnership model, or PPP, may be a good way to go if the local governments find themselves not having enough funds to pay for the capital costs. The PPP Center can assist Mega Cebu in this endeavor. There should also be a regulatory mechanism wherein sewage collection companies are required to have their collected sewage treated in these plants.

Skyline of Cebu City, Cebu, Phillipines (Credit: P199 Wikipedia User)

Image: Skyline of Cebu City, Cebu, Phillipines (Credit: P199 Wikipedia User)

Mass Transit Network Development

The Bus Rapid Transit project is already underway. In fact, some of my architect colleagues were asked to sit in a committee that will go over the design of the BRT stations. Aside from the BRT, other LRT and MRT lines are proposed that run the north-south length of Mega Cebu. What will happen to the jeepneys? Jeepneys can be integrated into the transportation network by running as feeder lines that connect to the rail stations. But first, clunkers should really be taken out of our roads eventually. Jeepney operators can be incentivized to modernize their fleet within a given definite time period; after that, no clunker should be allowed to renew its registration.  Jeepneys, tricycles, trisikads and the habal-habal should be integrated into the planning of the metro-wide transportation system. Another option would be to eventually replace jeepneys with high-capacity buses. With many jeepney drivers’ livelihoods on the line, I personally do not see that happening soon, but it can be rolled out over the long term by starting in high-passenger corridors. Also, many parts of the existing road network cannot accommodate buses.

Developing a mass transit network today would have been so much easier if the parcels of the former rail line owned by the Philippine Railway Company were not sold off. Our home in a housing community in Liloan currently sits on one of those parcels (our community is laid out on a long, linear parcel). With many sections of the national highway having only 4 lanes, any proposed rail line will have to be elevated or underground, both very costly undertakings. The existing right-of-ways outside the central cities should be preserved. These should also be regularly checked for any encroaching development.

Comprehensive Flood Control

Ideally, no development should have been allowed in floodplains. The floodplain is usually the lowest elevated lands, where surface water runoff accumulate and slowly seep into the ground. Iowa experienced historic flooding in 2008 that has caused extensive damage on the riverbanks, including parts of the University of Iowa campus. As part of the recovery and mitigation measures, most of the floodplain was left undeveloped, and any remaining buildings in the floodplain are required to elevate their structures.

In Cebu, many floodplains are built upon. Adding dirt to increase the elevation of a building in a floodplain does not solve the problem. It simply displaces surface water runoff. This has been a particularly big problem in the Mandaue-Talamban area. Also, simply providing larger culverts only solves part of the problem. Storm water carries a lot of pollutants with it, such as sediment from erosion and motor oil from vehicles. Again, this compromises marine life.

Allowing most rainfall to seep into ground brings many public benefits. It charges the water table underground, provides better supply of groundwater, pushes back saltwater intrusion and minimizes urban flooding. It is hitting many birds with one stone.

Civil engineers, especially those specializing in hydraulics, can definitely help in identifying floodplains, as well as locations for retention ponds to mitigate for floodplains that had already been built upon. There should also be a regulation banning any further new developments in floodplains. Paved areas should be regulated as well. The latest implementing rules and regulations of the National Building Code already has details on paved area regulations. It is only a matter of implementing them.

Metro Cebu Aerial View (Credit: Naplee12 at wikivoyage)

Image: Metro Cebu Aerial View (Credit: Naplee12 at wikivoyage)

Solid Waste Management

Our “sachet” culture is simply unsustainable. It generates a lot of plastic garbage. Also, it is disheartening to see a lot of garbage left by people after a huge novena procession, concert, party or political rally. It is even more disheartening to see plastic waste in our seas, the source of our food and tourism money.

It is not easy to implement a policy banning sachets. Most people cannot afford to buy in bulk, and it would take a national level regulation to eventually ban it. Some cities in Manila have started implementing a ban on disposable plastic bags. Local governments and local businesses can incentivize the use of reusable bags in retail shops, shopping malls and supermarkets and, at the same, require an extra cost for the use of disposable bags.

Incentives, or disincentives, can work wonders on certain policies. When I bought bottled water during my first visit in Chicago, I learned that aside from the usual sales tax, the state of Illinois also collects Bottled Water Tax. This is obviously a way for the state to reduce the use of disposable plastic bottles. The tax affected me so much that I brought my water bottle after that and never bought bottled water again.

Local governments can also establish programs that collect food scraps and turn them into compost. The compost can be sold or given to small-scale farmers.

Metropolitan-level Governance

Often, a local government works in its own vacuum. There had been several instances when a city implements a regulation without regard for its impact on the adjacent cities. A good example of this is the implementation of truck ban by adjacent cities at different times of the day. Having inconsistent traffic regulations across city boundaries disturb the continuous flow of goods and cargo, often carried by trucks that are subject to various truck bans across cities.

Traffic management is just one of the many aspects of metropolitan-level coordination that needs to be addressed. The cities and municipalities in Mega Cebu have become more interdependent over time. The fringe cities host many housing communities for those working in the central cities, where most of the jobs are. The central cities also act as distribution points for goods that are dispersed throughout Mega Cebu. This interdependence has created issues that run across city boundaries.

The JICA roadmap study has proposed numerous programs and specific projects. To better coordinate programs, as well as implement growth management more effectively, a metropolitan-level government is needed. Hopefully, local politicians will see this more as an effective avenue for collaboration, rather than a threat to their hold of their respective cities and municipalities.

Aside from those I mentioned above, there are other anchor programs being proposed: Investment Promotion, Urban Fringe Road Network, Mactan Link Development, Gateway Development, Integrated Road Traffic Management, Surface Water Resource Development, and Advanced Energy Management. The program list is impressively comprehensive, but I am wondering why housing was not an anchor program in itself. The central cities host many low-income households without adequate housing, especially those living along creeks. Housing is considered a basic need, right at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. With Mega Cebu growing fast, housing is definitely a big issue.

Be Involved

It has been a very long time since Metro Cebu, or Mega Cebu in this case, actually had a plan to guide its urban development. The framework has been established. The programs and projects have been proposed. I do hope there will be public engagement as the projects are rolled out for detailed planning and implementation. Cebuanos will be more supportive of the programs if they are engaged in the planning process and their input is valued.

I also appeal to all Cebuanos: be informed and be involved! A good way to start is to be familiar with the JICA Roadmap Study. The executive summary can be viewed here:

Daghang salamat sa pagbasa!"

Aerial View of Metro Cebu, Philippines

Image: Aerial view of Metro Cebu, Phillipines (Credit: Wikipedia)


Neil - it's important for all of us to be aware of the planning challenges and efforts in other countries. Thank you for informing me about this!