Rice in the field, fish in the water

(Published in The Freeman, May 17, 2012)

A week or two ago, I spoke at a conference at SM, which had a theme on “green cities.”  The “green” topic that I tackled was about what sustainable public transport in “mega” Cebu should be.  I was a bit uneasy on the word “mega” because it is a very subjective word.  There is actually a general agreement worldwide on what “megacities” mean, based on a population criteria or population density.  The list of the world’s megacities usually consists of 21 to 26 cities, depending on how their boundaries are defined.  Manila is included in the list, Metro Cebu or the so-called Mega Cebu is not, and I doubt it will ever be included in the next two decades.  By Chinese standards, we are smaller than a medium-sized city.

The propensity on the use of the words “metro” or “mega” stresses that the growth of cities and the shift of the world’s population to live in cities defines how countries and cities progress in the next century.  In the last 50 years, this migratory shift to the urban areas resulted in new definitions of how cities should be as living places.  Densities increased which led to new problems of congestion, sanitation, provision of basic services, social decay, crime, and pollution.  First there was a suggested treatise on “clean” cities.  Later, concerns in health led to definitions of “healthy” cities.  In the 1990s, the term “livable” cities became popular.  It still is, but other terms surfaced – sustainable cities, walkable cities, and recently green cities.  They’re all related to a certain extent – with the world’s population migrating to cities, there is heightened urgency to make our cities better places to live in.  Only the criteria differ.

Yet, sometimes, we are too engrossed in the different aspects of the urban spectrum that we become “specialists,” so to speak.  And because we focus more on certain things, there is the tendency of forgetting, or trivializing, other things, including, the requirement of happiness, abundance, and sufficiency.  The last two words are becoming antiquated, … happiness may still be “in” – the fast upgrades of today’s electronic gadgets keep the wealthier population “happy.”  But the rest of the world’s population living on less than 1 dollar a day are not.  Worse, they may no longer have any notion of what abundance or sufficiency mean.

Seven hundred years ago, the first Thai kingdom emerged, declaring independence from Khmer rule out of Angkor Wat.  It was called Sukhothai, meaning the “Dawn of Happiness,’’ and is still considered the most prosperous and well-governed throughout their history.  This is most exemplified in a stone tablet inscription in the ruins of the old Sukhothai City, which simply said: “In the time of King Ramkhamhaeng this land of Sukhothai is thriving. There are fish in the water and rice in the fields.”  Same as the rest of the people in Southeast Asia, the Thais grow fish in their rice fields, sourcing grain and animal protein to improve nutrition and alleviate poverty.  Twenty years ago, I once saw a picture of a Thai woman walking on a rice field with a smile on her face … today, when I look at the sad and worried faces of workers and students patiently waiting for their daily jeepney rides in the morning, I couldn’t help but think how idyllic life must have been in Ramkhamhaeng’s rule and time.

This is a reminder for all of us who continually seek for a better life in the future in a city that our children must live – it will be a city not only for ourselves but for all of us.  Be it a walkable, livable, sustainable, green, or whatever new term we coin in the future, we must ensure that we build a city that those who have less in life, will feel a certain degree of sufficiency and self-worth.

Even in the way we travel everyday. (To be continued…)