Slum book

MANILA, Philippines - Iskwater. Iskwating. Squatter. Informal settler.

Whatever name you have for them, their conditions remain the same. All over Metro Manila and other urbanized centers in the country, hundreds of thousands of families squeeze themselves into crowded shantytowns and make the most out of the small space that they have.

These aren't recent conditions brought about by 20th century urbanization either. Since the time of the parians during the 1500s, to the Marcoses' Ministry of Human Settlement in the '70s, the Philippine government has long grappled with what to do with the multitudes that have set up hearth and home in abandoned lots, along waterways, beside railroad tracks.

This longstanding urban planning problem is the main focus of the new coffee table book, "Lungsod Iskwater". Put together by Toni Loyzaga's Luis A. Yulo Foundation for Sustainable Development and written by architects Paulo Alcazaren and Luis Ferrer, Benvenuto "Bing" Icamina, with photograps by Neal Oshima, "Lungsod Iskwater" tackles the problem of informal settlement in the country.

The book is divided into five chapters and three pictorial sections.

The first three chapters tackle the history of informal settlement in the country, from its beginnings during the country's two colonial eras all the way to the Marcos years and the post-martial law era.

The two other chapters look at the design and economics informal settling and what lessons can be learned from centuries of "informality".

A timeless issue
"Lungsod Iskwater" took years in the making, but the project collaborators never lost faith in its timelessness.

Loyzaga also referred to the complexity of the subject at hand as part of the difficulties the group faced while making the book. "Informality has a complex and dynamic nature. It was a huge challenge to unite the perspectives of all the writers in the photography, imagery and layout. The images reflect this complexity best," he says.

Alcazaren says that the lack of efficient ways to deal with the problem of informal settlement in the country was what kept him and his fellow authors working on
the project, even as its production and publication began to drag over several years.

"In the Philippines, the basic need of shelter is not being addressed properly. The formal economy was producing housing in forms that were sprawl-based and inherently unsustainable socially and environmentally. The informal economy was producing housing at an increasing rate in forms inherently unsafe or unhealthy," he explains. "Both forms are being produced in a larger all-encompassing context that negated each other's advantages and exacerbated their disadvantages; making a total informality of what should be a formal, rational way of building communities, towns and cities."

Alcazaren also points out the uniqueness of the situation here in the country makes it a compelling subject for a book. "The Philippine setting is distinct in terms of the political context of informal settlements - fractured metropolitan governance, the barangay as a double-edged solution/impediment.

The sustained high population growth also exacerbates the problems of providing shelter plus it has close to supplanted the traditional cause - migration from rural areas - of influx and increase of informal settlers in Philippine cities. There is also the location of Philippine informal settlements in high hazard areas - earthquake, tsunami, landslide, and floods," he says.

'We are all at risk'
Both Loyzaga and Alcazaren hope that "Lungsod Iskwater" will educate the layman about the complexity illegal settlers situation.

"We want readers to have an insight into the scale and scope of the problem after reading the book. We want them to know that no one is insulated from the adverse effects of the current regime of unsustainable urban development. We are all at risk," says Alcazaren.

They also hope that the book catches the attention of those in power and make them seek a solution to the problem at hand.

"The book aims to add to the meager discourse on the subject and help lead to other directions of study, all eventually to produce a body of locally-generated and relevant knowledge.

This should be the basis of any course of actual policies, direction and hopefully action and a paradigm shift in the way we build and live as Filipinos," ends Alcazaren.

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