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Superhumanity conversations: Georgia White responds to Andrew Herscher, "Cardboard for Humanity"


Manila’s Tenements and the Humanitarian Impasse

Georgia White

Residents protesting their iminent eviction from 50 year old tenement housing in Taguig. Tenants were given 30 days to vacate and move hours away to Manila’s northern most city of Cavite. Source:

In the article “Cardboard for Humanity,” Andrew Herscher asks a series of important questions pertaining to humanitarian architecture and the inadvertent creation of new types of dependence.¹ He asks:

who or what is the humanitarian human? Might the humanitarian protection of humanity also involve a production of humanity, the fabrication of specific sorts of bodies and lives? And how might the humanitarian human exist in relation to other humans?

In response to these initial questions, rather than add to Herscher’s perspective on the Gihembe refugee camp, I would like to present a comparative scenario, one that takes place under very different conditions: Manila’s tenement housing. The Philippines’ capital—a city in which politics, architecture, urban planning and humanitarian action combine to hide, remove, and create new human conditions—continues to respond to the desperate situation of its urban poor with a complex and disjointed system of planning and housing provision that has existed since the 1950s. Manila provides a platform to study the urban characteristics of a broken planning system, legal ambiguity, corruption and extreme economic divide in the production and removal of slums and their role within the city. It also provides a historical portfolio of humanitarian practices in response to such crises.

The urban dynamics in Manila and its planning system have formed around a specific series of political evolutions that took place in rebuilding the Capital as its new industrial center after the devastation of the Second World War. The city is punctuated by dense, sprawling settlements squeezing over, under and around private gated communities, public buildings and infrastructure, giving rise to a boundary dynamic that is fraught with political tension. These settlements have their own organizational codes that defy spatial legislation and their residents are largely feared, resented and generally misunderstood.

Migration incentives, agrarian land disputes and the industrial development of the new Metropolitan Manila first led to the growth of the city’s informal urban population in the 1940s. Legislation and attitudes towards housing standards, density and land value evolved in response to such rapid migration, and incentives were offered for industries to develop external sites, away from the new center. Ferdinand Marcos, the late dictator who was eventually overthrown in a revolution in 1986, was the first to criminalize squatting, though the Slum Clearance Committee had existed since 1950. The contiguous cities and municipalities that make up Metropolitan Manila were united in 1975 and several land and housing management initiatives have been introduced with overlapping and sometimes conflicting responsibilities, giving rise to a complex and disjointed framework for planning and affordable housing provision in the country.

Informal neighborhood organized around a central public square, Manila.

Since the first intervention by the World Bank in the Philippines in 1956, external contributions to development have gradually increased and government spending has receded. The current government led by Rodrigo Duterte has recently created a controversial internal dispute over the slashing of funds to key shelter agencies by 19 billion pesos (nearly $400 million USD).²

As was the international order of development policy at the time, World Bank investments began with infrastructural initiatives. The first World Bank project in the country was the Binga Power Project for a hydroelectric power plant on Luzon, the largest, northern-most island of the Philippines. Affordable housing and shelter provision has also often been a joint enterprise between government initiatives, international agencies such as UN-Habitat, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Australian Development Bank, and NGOs such as Habitat for Humanity. Yet despite the multiple agencies for shelter provision, in a paper published in July 2016 the World Bank concluded that now, “Roughly one in four people living in Metro Manila live without security of tenure.”³

The history of affordable housing initiatives and the development of slum clearance relocation sites provide insight to the limited evolution of urban strategy that still fails to address the genesis of the expanding slum populous. Though legislation such as Republic Act 7279, introduced under Fidel Ramos’s presidency in 1992, created some regulation of eviction practices, conflicts over land in Manila have still, in many cases, grown extremely violent and the city is rapidly changing as squatters are removed, relocated and often later return for lack of work or adequate infrastructure in far removed relocation sites. According to a World Bank report in 2015, “Even under Oplan Likas that advocates for in-city resettlement, to date, close to 70 percent of the ISFs [Informal Settler Families] have been resettled off-city, away from their jobs, services, and social networks.”⁴ A later report from the National Housing Summit with the World Bank and Australian Development Bank in July 2016 stated that many of these distant resettlement sites were also “characterized by incomplete facilities and services”⁵

Resettlement sites are developed mostly as medium-rise tenements to make appropriate use of city land and units are granted to their occupants on a rent-to-own mortgage, at an affordable rate over 25-30 years. They are cheaply built, usually lack funding for adequate maintenance and fall into disrepair. New tenements are now needed for evictees of previous relocation sites that have become unfit for occupation, adding previously rehoused families to the critical housing demand.⁶ Habitat for Humanity Philippines has put a substantial effort into designing low-cost medium-rise buildings for resettlement sites but accept that “The Philippine government’s current housing policy and mechanisms for housing subsidy have been deemed inadequate to resolve the rising housing deficit.” They predict that “By 2030, the housing backlog will increase to about 6.5 million units.”⁷

Informal housing along Onyx Street, San Andres Bukid, Manila.

The result of this system of eviction and relocation, as it is currently employed, is that in many cases an autonomous system of functional housing (though often lacking in infrastructure) is revoked in order to re-provide it in a manner that is ultimately only more favorable to external forces. In the humanitarian provision of shelter to a group of people who are not actually homeless, what is revoked but not replaced is a unique mode of occupation that is at once shaped by culture and necessity. In addition to the suspect “improvement” to quality of life in such distant locations, characterized as they are by incomplete services, what is also stripped from residents, which may take years to rebuild (if at all), are the soft infrastructures of multigenerational communities, a sense of individuality and a unique borderless condition between spaces of public, domestic and commercial nature.

The creation of a legal and financial vacuum in the city—one that makes approved housing prohibitively expensive for the country’s working class and prevents citizens from providing themselves and their families with shelter that they can afford—allows the market to revoke the human right to shelter from a growing demographic. Much like with Gihembe’s forced provision of a new living standard, Manila’s poor are stripped of the ingenuity they had previously used to survive. The new human condition of such sites is removed from established communities and livelihoods, devoid of flexible individuality, and challenging to informal enterprise.

From these conditions there emerges a new people, the real numbers and lives of which remain largely hidden from international audiences. They occupy a complex human condition that remains precariously vulnerable to the city’s rapid development and vacillates between visibility and invisibility or abuse, according to election cycles and international events.⁸ While maintaining a position of political significance as a large portion of the voting electorate, their poverty makes them a target for short-term incentives and false promises.

Though massive change is require to address such dramatic economic divide in the Philippines, there are small changes that can be made to Manila’s urban planning framework and spatial legislation that can better the condition of instability experienced by the urban poor. The restructuring of government departments for more transparent processes of land purchasing could reduce corruption and provide faster resolution for disputes. Granting more autonomy to local government for small scale dispute resolution and land purchasing would allow better implementation of the Ordinance Program for reallocation of privately owned lots in the case of long term use by residents. While Community Mortgage Programs have proved grossly problematic in the past, they can be reconfigured and downscaled for a more inclusive application.

With amendments to the legislation of existing settlements’ spatial standards, smaller grants could be used to buy land, develop infrastructure and provide assistance for developing existing settlements. With better structural support and infrastructural improvement, many settlements have great potential for further development and vertical expansion with minimal demolition. Families that are given the opportunity to participate in the development of their own homes are more likely to feel a sense of ownership and pride in their surroundings, and in-situ development allows for a more nuanced construction according to existing community dynamics.

However, the sprawling National Capital region (NCR) is a city made of cities. Despite the existence of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, each of the seventeen municipalities and their councils remain largely independent on urban planning strategy for their respective areas. Only with the proper integration of planning across all the NCR’s connecting municipalities will there be a way forward in planning a sustainable future for the urban poor in the Capital.

Without substantial legislative reform and restructuring of government agency, humanitarian action can only achieve minor amelioration in the effects of an otherwise violent system that in the case of Manila, leaves a quarter of the city’s population without security of their homes or livelihoods. Lack of political change in the Philippines has rendered humanitarian assistance not only complicit in the creation of such forms of life, but has ensured the longevity of a paradigm that continues to fail the country’s poor while hindering the necessary reforms for a new affordable housing framework. As long as the current system of eviction and relocation is perpetuated, the poor remain helpless to the currents of private development and the city lacks an effective, consolidated framework for appropriate allocation of land and housing as the city continues to grow and densify.


¹ Andrew Herscher, “Cardboard for Humanity,” e-flux Architecture (30 September 2016), .
² Bea Cupin, “Robredo to resign from Duterte Cabinet,” Rappler (04 December 2016), .
³ The World Bank, Closing the Gap in Affordable Housing in the Philippines (Manila, 2016), .
⁴ Oplan Likas is an inter-agency resettlement initiative aimed primarily at families situated in danger areas such as flood-prone waterways. Motoo Konishi, “Making In-City Resettlement Work for the Poor” (7 September 2015), .
⁵ Ibid., The World Bank, 6.
⁶ National Housing Authority, “New, Safer Tondo Tenement Soon to Rise,” Office of the President (24 October 2013), .
⁷ Habitat for Humanity, Country Profile Philippines, .
⁸ Charlie Campbell, “Pope Francis and the Mystery of Manila’s Vanishing Street Children,” Time (21 January 2015), .

Georgia White is a London based researcher and Architectural designer currently pursuing an MPhil in Architecture at the Royal College of Art. Her design-led research is based on Manila’s marginalized squatter communities and she is currently engaged in the collaborative design of an urban upgrade project for an informal neighborhood in Manila and the development of a new mortgaging system for the countries poorest communities.