An aerial view of the Manila Post Office with the Jones Bridge crossing the Pasig River. The balancing act of planning and building cities can be a decades-long performance, as in the case of Manila, whose landscape is the result of numerous successful and less-than- successful acts of defining space, flows, and physical exertions. | Photo courtesy of Paulo Alcazaren

The Juggling Act of an Urban Planner

For urban planners, it is never enough to vault through the fiery hoops of stakeholders to execute a well-laid plan. They also have to manage a circus of claimants over the landscape.

  • January 24, 2018

  • Written by José Edgardo Abaya Gomez Jr.

In cities, as in any aggregated construct of living beings, what goes up must, sooner or later—even centuries later, come down. Second, what has been thrust beneath the surface, whether in physical terms or social, always re-emerges in time to affect the quotidian of the city’s inhabitants. And third, some spaces should simply be left in a natural state, without imperative to raise any structure. The urban planner must learn this game of verticality. He cannot simply leave growth to commercial interests, but must provide the unseen infrastructure that allows urban spaces to thrive.

Building sprees in places like Dubai and Beijing that began in the early 2000s have since decelerated, given the impracticality of financing grand urban spaces for which there is limited demand, and in some cases, alienation of older or poorer local inhabitants. That which commands the urban skyline must also be carefully selected for its iconic properties, and guarded against demolition by ignoble interests. These buildings are often incorporated into a hierarchy of spaces that fall away from the centerpiece, be this Westminster’s Big Ben, or the humbler clock tower of Manila City Hall (a second victim of the so-called national photobomber).

Hence, apart from recommending new development, the planning professional should also be managing urban entropy across timescales. The planner delays or reverses the fall towards decay or stasis. Under his watch and the politicians’ fiat, cities bounce back, their ponderous masses recharged by the kinetic energy brought by talented migrants, innovative technologies, and a masterful defiance of gravitation towards the un-urbane.

Urban Planning
Quezon Boulevard, Quiapo with Quiapo Church to the right. Photo by Lawrence Carlos

Master of flow

The designer of urban spaces must be a connoisseur of flows. Take for example the intricate subway network of Tokyo, unparalleled in reliability, meeting the mobility demands of the largest megalopolis in the world. It is not merely about transportation per se, but also about mixing people and matching them with productive labor and gregarious recreation, so no segment of society flies off at the socioeconomic periphery or fixates at the core too long.

In any urban area, there are spaces of investment, spaces of deprivation, and undefined spaces, because the whims and transgressions of users shift the locations of dominant markets and centers of specialization, leaving older generations behind. The design professional needs to keep an eye on spaces enjoying an upswing, as well as those on the downturn. He ensures both are kept in the loop, so to speak; a loop whose full cycle of renewal may span decades. Consider how, in the mid-20th century, Escolta in Manila enjoyed its heyday, yielded gradually to the Makati Central Business District, which in turn was complemented by the Ortigas district, and recently, the development of the Filinvest properties in Muntinlupa and the North Triangle area in Quezon City. The planner keeps a hand below to catch the remains of the has-been CBD. Which circulations shall be privileged? And for how long? In the ideal city, he chooses ecological pathways over artificial ones, pedestrian movements over vehicular traffic, and the upward spirals of aid that allow people and their neighborhoods to recover from a slump, rather than the sinking vortex of spaces engendered by monopolists vis-à-vis a passive citizenry.

Master of compromise

In the realization of shared spaces,only fair trade-offs lead to common welfare. It could be a choice to give up what is ungainly and gaudy for cleanliness, sustenance, and healthy interaction. The planner juggles between introverted and extroverted spaces, that spectrum of public, quasi-public, and private spaces every city possesses. One end cannot exist without its opposite. As loci of diverse human interaction, cities need adequate public space. At the same time, every individual needs a place to retire to, hence the unending clamor for decent housing and spaces for different expressions of intimacy. History shows when there is a deficit of basic kinds of living space, or a lack of regulation, the results are self-isolation or enforced segregation. Those who plan must cultivate the panoramic perspective that allows them to scan and detect these tension-filled hotspots between the public and private spheres, especially where there are multiple claimants to an area in the course of a day, week, or year. Eventually, overlaps between what is considered “in” and “out” must be resolved, because these form the backdrop of an urbanscape punctuated by the landmarks, junctions,and climactic events that edify the city.

Master of synchronicity

The culmination of the juggling act lies in synchronism, when everthing seems a-spin yet hangs together. The orchestrated simultaneity allows people to go about their lives with nary a thought as to the technical preparation and intense political negotiation that had to happen to make the city work. Take any instance hosting the Olympic Games, which are financial and logistical challenges requiring teams of management and design professionals to work together. Or, consider how the same decision -makers who must conserve the 2,768-year imperial heritage of Rome’s ancient quarters ought also to ensure that some concessions to new architecture and residential development be allowed beyond the Aurelian walls, as in fact has been happening since the 1800s. The planner is by no means the star act in this line of performers, but he or she is under tremendous pressure, together with the mayor, the city architect, and the administrator, to keep it all together, as compliments can quickly turn into catcalls when trains start breaking down or when street crime surges.

Urban Planning
Sapphire Road, Ortigas CBD, Pasig. Photo by Lawrence Carlos
 In summary, the planning professional must artfully handle different spaces, each with its own dynamic. He tries to exert control over the rise and fall of parts of the urban territory. He harnesses the ebb and flow, as well as the numerous trajectories of people and materials, through spaces of inclusion and exclusion. He builds harmony and welcomes constructive spontaneity into his design; and these come at the cost of thousands of hours of training, research, and field work.

Amanda Burden, senior city planner of New York, spoke on TED Talks about excellent urban design of public space, citing her 1980s experience of working with a modest budget to set-up a two-block high-quality park as a come-on to investors. She was racing against time, as the waterfront property in question was about to go bankrupt by the end of the year. The gamble to develop a small, but highly -functional and attractive space paid off.

“Design is not just how something looks, it’s how your body feels on that seat in that space, and I believe that successful design always depends on that very individual experience. In this photo, everything looks very finished, but that granite edge, those lights, the back on that bench, the trees in planting, and the many different kinds of places to sit were all little battles that turned this project into a place that people wanted it to be.”

Many years later, she displayed the same thoroughness and attention to detail trying to remake the city’s zoning more transit-oriented; although this time, the challenge required going down to grassroots politics and engaging with stakeholders:

“So how was I going to get this done? By listening. So I began listening, in fact, thousands of hours of listening just to establish trust. Communities can tell whether or not you understand their neighborhoods. It’s not something you can fake. And so I began walking. I can’t tell you how many blocks I walked, in sweltering summers, in freezing winters, year after year, just so I could get to understand the DNA of each neighborhood and know what each street felt like. I became an incredibly geeky zoning expert, finding ways that zoning could address communities’ concerns. So little by little, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, we began to set height limits so all new development would be predictable and near transit. Over the course of 12 years, we were able to re-zone 124 neighborhoods, 40 percent of the city, 12,500 blocks, so that now, 90 percent of all new development of New York is within a 10-minute walk of a subway. In other words, nobody in those new buildings needs to own a car.”

Urban Planning
The high-rise buildings of the Makati CBD. Photo by Lawrence Carlos

We could raise the reasonable objection that New York City has infinitely more resources with which to tackle convoluted technical problems, as well as an educated stakeholder base. Nevertheless, no less perseverance is necessary in the Philippines, where one should consider the following realities that define the urban designer’s juggling act:

  1. Project construction and maintenance, especially for much-needed public spaces, are often tied into the government budget cycle and strict auditing, which limits financing options for design alteration and flexibility of add-on structures.
  2. Stakeholders are no less varied, although may be less vocal or even go unheard due marginalization, while wealthier blocs dominate. The planner must balance their interests, favoring the wider, if less-privileged base of the social pyramid.
  3. The planner is sometimes called upon as an alter ego of the mayor to represent him in time-consuming committees and social gatherings.
  4. On top of all the above is the regulatory system that needs to be mastered, as well as the numerous agencies that need to be co-opted. Also, despite institutionalized standards, there is no assurance that the next person to fill the job will be better than, or as good as the last one.


The planner is a circus juggler. But instead of balls and bananas, he juggles numerous stakeholders’ demands with present, future, and desired realities. He brings objects and people into studied orbit, capturing and captivating, drawing in and letting fly, subordinated to a fixed and deeper purpose. But there can be no perpetual motion machine; every juggler’s show must come to an end. The oddities and arrhythmias of urban living make themselves felt once again. People will persist in their own ways of problem-solving, while waiting for the next artist to pick up where the last one left off, to set things in motion once again in accordance with the grand design. Sometimes, the wait is long. In Metro Manila, too long. 

About the Author

José Edgardo Abaya Gomez Jr. or “Jed” as friends and colleagues call him, is an Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines, School of Urban and Regional Planning. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning. He enjoys outdoor activities and creative writing when his time and means permit.

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