Metro Manila is facing a couple of problems. One is its broken, disjointed governance has been something I’ve talked many times, especially here in this space.
Then there is the problem of unchecked expansion to such an extent that it grew beyond its borders in an unofficial sense as neighboring towns and cities began accommodating more people who make the commute to Metro Manila for work or school. We are also seeing new facilities in these places that meant to address the needs not only of their localities but of Metro Manila as well, whether it’s the Philippine Arena in Bocaue, the planned new airport/s in Bulakan and/or Cavite City, or the mass transport projects that connect these places to Metro Manila.
The COVID-19 pandemic only served to highlight this problem and a few others that I did not realize till then. When Metro Manila proper was placed under “extreme community quarantine” quite longer while neighboring provinces such as Bulacan, Rizal, and Cavite had their quarantine restrictions, it highlighted how Metro Manila’s neighboring provinces are very much connected to the metropolis, especially the towns and cities in close proximity with the metropolis and them being suddenly cut off from Metro Manila amounted to some huge losses for people and businesses who have long relied on the metropolis.
Then this year, stricter quarantine measures were reimposed anew in light of new COVID cases being reported, this time not only in Metro Manila but also the surrounding provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite, and Laguna, an area collectively known as “NCR+”. If anything, this measure reinforced the idea of the connectivity between the metropolis and its neighbor provinces, this time by understanding and enforcing the link rather than cutting the metropolis from the rest, albeit in unfortunate circumstances.
All those memes and jokes about NCR+ aside, it does make one rethink of the concept of an “expanded Metro Manila.” Certainly, it has made me reevaluate the old idea I had of possibly including more cities and municipalities to form this “Greater Metro Manila.”
Maybe instead of just adding new cities and municipalities to Metro Manila, maybe we should include the provinces themselves in this Greater Metro Manila?
The current situation
Currently, Metro Manila is its own region, the National Capital Region (NCR). And as with the rest of the country’s regions, the current NCR only serves to group local governments together and not hold any actual sway over these 17 local governments unless it was a Bangsamoro or Cordillera region. It also makes things complicated that these local governments are highly urbanized cities, a classification which under the current constitution, makes them nominally independent from the provinces so you cannot put these cities together under a hypothetical province.
Another complication is the fact that its neighboring provinces are not part of a common region. Bulacan at the north is under the Central Luzon region, while Rizal, Cavite, and Laguna are under the CALABARZON region. That does not even count the fact that Rizal itself is more connected to Metro Manila than the rest of CALABARZON by virtue of proximity. Heck, some businesses tend to group Rizal as part of Metro Manila anyway.
The foundation for a (possible) solution
In conceiving the possible solution that would address the situation as described above, this would have to be based on a basic and most important idea:
There should be one central authority governing Metro Manila (AKA the present core of 17 cities and municipality)
To me, this is a non-negotiable element that should be realized first because it serves as the foundation from which the rest of the framework will be built upon. And without this foundation, we cannot have a successful framework that would address the issues pointed out here.
That being said, establishing such central authority will require a constitutional amendment to address the “highly-urbanized cities shall be independent of the cities” provision. Now there is a provision in the current constitution that allows for the establishment of metropolitan governments but their powers are only limited to the delivery of basic services and do not extend to powers such as long-term planning and infrastructure development. Thus, constitutional amendments are still needed to give these metropolitan governments more authority than what they have.
Expanding the metropolis
Once we have established the central authority, the question now is how to deal with the metropolis’ neighboring areas. One idea being floated is to add the surrounding cities and towns to Metro Manila itself, which was the proposal I originally espoused for Greater Metro Manila. In fact, there was an attempt to do so some years ago when the city of San Pedro in Laguna was proposed to be included in the region years back but it seems nothing came out of it.
The idea behind expansion primarily is to fully integrate these cities and town into the overall planning of the metropolis and provide them the opportunity to participate in the future growth of an expanded metropolis which they will get to benefit as well. The expansion would serve as a buffer to control the flow of urbanization and preserve the unique character of the rural areas.
There are some significant issues that could arise in this situation. For one, there will always be a question as to how far can and should the metropolis expand. That question alone is a contentious topic that will surely raise heated debates alongside the concerns of rapid urbanization. Complicating things too is the sentiment of the provincial governments if they would be willing to “give away” their towns and cities to the metropolis especially if they are rich towns/cities that give some revenue to the provinces or if they serve as the capital of their respective provinces.
Reevaluating the provinces
While the current constitution places the province as the primary subnational administrative unit of the country, its importance is being diminished over the years no thanks to the fact that there are too many of them being made (81 at this time of writing) and that many of the recent provinces were made in reality more because of politics than “better access to services.” If I have to admit, I have felt the same way about how provinces are becoming useless and proposed at one point to get rid of the provinces with regions as the primary subnational unit, followed by the constituencies corresponding to the present legislative districts so the politicians can stop proposing new provinces.
Metro Manila’s surrounding provinces however have a long history and were never subjected to such machinations, thus having an established unique identity, as well as much of their political boundaries. This is certainly true for Cavite, Laguna, and Bulacan, whose histories go way back to the Spanish colonial period. In fact, these provinces were among the first to rise against the Spanish colonial rule when the Philippine revolution broke out in 1896.
Rizal on the other hand is an anomaly. While it has been around since 1901 as a province, that also meant it was younger compared to the other provinces. It also does not have a unique provincial identity considering that it was actually borne out of a merger of the old provinces of Morong and Manila. Further complicating this is the fact that much of its towns and cities were eventually taken away to form the present Metro Manila in 1976 (which also explains Rizal being more connected to Metro Manila rather than the rest of CALABARZON). Thus Rizal today stands as a province with a historic foundation but whose identity is overshadowed by the metropolis than other provinces.
Another thing worth noting is that these provinces also bear the expertise of managing not only urban areas but rural and forested areas as well. Whether they do it well is another story, but the expertise is there which Metro Manila as it is does not innately have.
Then there is the economic aspect. The cities and towns that benefitted from the economic and demographic expansion of Metro Manila have done much to improve the economy of these provinces which in turn has contributed to the development of the provinces, as well as being able to better deliver services to the rural areas within their jurisdiction.
Taking all these factors together, if these cities and towns were to be included in a Greater Metro Manila, this would mean a loss of income for these provinces which can adversely affect their development, not to mention a perceived threat to their continued existence. Thus, in the question of Greater Metro Manila and expansion, one has to carefully balance the pressing needs of the metropolis with the historic and economic aspects these provinces are keen to protect.
A solution unveiled
So what is the best way to address all these complications while trying to create a better planned and administered Metro Manila and the surrounding areas that have come to be influenced now by the metropolis in one way or another? In coming up with a solution, I came up with the following considerations:
- It should acknowledge that Metro Manila as it is has gone beyond its boundaries demographically and economically.
- It should respect the unique cultural and economic landscape of the provinces and shall strive to preserve them as much as possible.
- It must be bold to present innovative solutions if necessary in order to address the current issues
As a result, I have come up with a possible solution which I have broken down into the following ideas:
- The creation of a new region that will not only be comprised of Metro Manila but also the entirety of the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, and Cavite.
- The new region should have a chief executive or administrator that will oversee its development. This shall require a constitutional amendment.
- The new region shall be empowered to have jurisdiction on matters such as infrastructure, public transportation, waste management, development planning, and other areas within its jurisdiction as may be defined by law. Again, this requires a constitutional amendment.
- The present political boundaries shall be retained so that the provinces can manage the development of their respective areas without fear of losing their cities to Metro Manila somewhere down the line.
- The present provinces and their respective governments shall be retained to oversee the development of the areas outside the jurisdiction of the proposed Metropolitan Manila government.
- The proposed Metropolitan Manila government shall be equivalent to that of the provinces and that the highly-urbanized cities of Metro Manila shall fall under its authority.
- Any highly urbanized city outside Metro Manila shall remain under the jurisdiction of the province it falls under, which shall also require a constitutional amendment (assuming the concept of the highly urbanized city shall be retained). Possible exception here would be if the highly urbanized city and surrounding cities/towns shall organize themselves to form a new metropolitan government.
All in all, this proposal serves to address the evolving nature of the metropolis that combines new political solutions while respecting the present structures and improving on them as well for the benefit of the system and the region as a whole. It is about creating a new, unified structure not by breaking down present systems that may be detrimental in the short and long term, but through cooperation and collaboration that respects the existing diversity.
While I do not consider this proposal to be the end-all in addressing the question of a Greater Metro Manila*, I feel this proposal has adequately addressed the various questions posed throughout this piece. At the very least, it is my hope that this proposal, at the very least, gets to be given due consideration in the midst of the continuing discussions regarding the future of Metro Manila and surrounding areas, not to mention of the country in general.
*Note: Despite introducing the idea early in this piece, I personally feel it is not right to give this proposed region a name of Greater Metro Manila or NCR+ or the like. Such naming conventions do not reflect the diverse history and characters of the included provinces now being included in this possible region. Perhaps a neutral name could be decided for this potential region, in the same vein that Japan named region that is comprised of Metropolitan Tokyo and surrounding areas as the Kanto region rather than “Greater Tokyo” region. Then again, if the provinces would not be opposed to have the region named Greater Metro Manila or the like, I would be fine with it too.