Suburbs and the American Dream

Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), June 21, 2012

Last week we started off by saying that time is distance and distance is time.  But time is directly related to productivity.  And so travelling not only introduces economic losses in terms of fuel and other vehicle operating costs, it also wastes time which could otherwise have been used for productive work either in economic gain in the connection of one’s livelihood or in terms of time spent with family and loved ones.  Just think of the tremendous waste incurred if all of us suffer from two-hour traffic jams a day.

But it is equally true that today’s solution is tomorrow’s problems.  No one solution stays as that for a long time.  Urban solutions tend to turn upon themselves and haunt future growth, nothing stays the same, most especially the city, which is akin to a living organism as it grows – always evolving and endlessly searching for solutions which need succeeding solutions as previous ones degenerate and transform into problems.  The key is to be responsive, and to be open to the realities that indeed, some good examples become bad ones after some time.

Take the case of the “American dream.”  Truth to tell, whether we like it or not, we are more western than Asian especially in urban technology and city life.  We grow up dreaming of a house which more often than not, has an image of a “single-detached” dwelling, sometimes called a “bungalow” in the the olden days.  And why not – all those North American houses we see in the movies or TV are just like that, single or at most, two-storeys, on individual plots, in protected subdivisions, or “villages” exuding an image of a safe, protected haven.  Compare that with the traditional “chinese-style” dwelling unit existing all over Asia – three or four storeys, the ground floor is the store, the second floor the family common areas while the top floors are the sleeping areas.  And these are usually attached one to another like rowhouses.

A few decades back, Cebu City was a uni-centric city – all jeepney routes pass by Carbon Market!  Many would argue it was Colon Street or Citty Hall which was the center but try to remember – it was actually Carbon to which the jeepneys congregate, even those coming from outside the city.  It was only in later years when jeepney routes diversified, but only when both work opportunities and employment centers sprouted in different parts of the metropolis, starting with the emergence of MEPZ and the resort industry in Mactan.  This was followed by the emergence of subdivisions and residential enclaves in outlying areas.

The “American dream” evolved into suburban housing around the city.  They call it “suburbs.”   The problem with suburbs is that they make cars indispensable – houses are so spread out each family needs to have one car at the very least to go to work or school.  Thus, the US became the most “motorized” and the most car-dependent society in the world, followed by Australia.  The Philippines, copying almost anything from stateside, from the Constitution to the procedure on impeachment, down to the last paracetamol tablet, followed suit, at least in urban development.  Until recently, of course.  Oftentimes, we imitate even when we don’t have the economic means, resulting in urban dysfunction and the succeeding frustrations.

When I was in college, my cousins in Compostela lived in boarding houses in the city when they studied.  People from Danao City and beyond, when they work in Cebu, lived in Cebu during the week and stay the weekends in the province.  In the last two decades, this has changed – people from 3 – 4 towns north and south of Metro Cebu, now commute everyday.  And city folks even transfer residences to Consolacion, Liloan, Cordova, Minglanilla, Naga, and beyond, preferring to commute everyday.  All this because of the interaction of transport parameters called “travel time” and “trip length.”  … (To be continued)