Natural Disaster-Proof 'Back-Up' City Underway in the Philippines

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An all-too-common sight: Major flooding strikes Manila, the world's most vulnerable city to natural disasters, in July 2018. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

Typhoon Haiyan, November 2013. The Bohol earthquake, October 2013; Typhoon Bopha, December 2012; the Pantukan landslide, January 2012; Tropical Storm Washi, December, 2011; Typhoon Fengshen, June 2008.

As evidenced by the above list of major Mother Nature-inflicted calamities that have occurred just over the last decade, the Philippines is no stranger to typhoons, tsunamis, volcanic activity, catastrophic flooding, extreme heat, rainfall-induced landslides, wildfires and earthquakes. Since 1990, this archipelago-bound nation situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire has experienced northwards of 550 natural disasters that have caused an estimated $23 billion in damages and claimed thousands of lives.

And in the middle of it all is the capital city of Manila — a bull's-eye for natural disasters if there ever was one. In fact, a 2016 global assessment ranked densely populated Manila, home to over 23 million people in the surrounding urban area, as the most exposed city to natural disasters in the world.

Realizing that Manila, a city also hobbled by killer air pollution and crumbling infrastructure, isn't going to magically become less vulnerable to natural disasters as time goes on, the Philippine government has commenced work on a "back-up" capital city that, while not completely impervious to disaster, will be better equipped to literally ride out storms

Dubbed New Clark City — or Clark Green City — this master-planned metropolis located just over 60 miles north of Manila will be able to accommodate an estimated 1.2 million residents when complete. While it boasts some similarities to other purpose-built national capitals such as Brasilia and Canberra, the raison d'être of New Clark City is that of self-sufficient stronghold.

Sprawling across 23,400 acres of a former military area known as the Clark Special Economic Zone in the Central Luzon region, the city will be situated at an elevation that makes it far less susceptible to catastrophic flooding. And if major flooding does occur, the city's primary park will act as a massive catchment basin — a dual-function sponge of sorts. What's more, two nearby mountain ranges will help to shield New Clark City from typhoons. And per the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, this specific locale is less prone to building-toppling earthquakes.

As reported by CNN in an article peppered with flashy design renderings of the in-progress city, if Manila is ever leveled by an earthquake or battered by a tropical storm so severely that the government grinds to a halt (an extreme but not entirely unrealistic scenario), New Clark City will serve as the acting capital city. (Worth noting: Quezon City, the Philippines' most populous city and capital from 1948 through 1976, is technically part of the Manila metro area.)

A thick blanket of smog covers Manila
A thick blanket of smog covers Manila, the dynamic and mega-dense capital city of the Philippines. (Photo: Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

Fewer cars, cleaner air

In the recent article, CNN discusses how the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) — the Philippine government-controlled entity heading this massive undertaking that involves building a city larger than Manhattan from scratch — is taking full advantage of the site's high elevation and seismically safe-ish (more on that in a bit) terrain.

But just as intriguingly, CNN details how the BCDA is starting anew by embracing a design scheme that largely avoids one of the most problematic elements of Manila that doesn't have to do with natural disasters: cars.

A main contributor to the city's hazardously poor air quality, traffic congestion — only made worse by failing roadways and frequent flooding — is one of Manila's most formidable issues. Populist president Rodrigo Duterte, however, has pledged to alleviate his country's transportation-related woes by ushering in a "golden age of infrastructure" to the tune of $180 billion. A 2015 survey conducted by GPS navigation company Waze found that metro Manila is home to the "worst traffic on Earth," edging out Jakarta and Rio de Janeiro for the most-dubious title.

New Clark City will be a smart and car-lite utopia of sorts where pedestrians and efficient modes of public transit rule. "When we build this city, we are building for people, we're not building for cars. It's a big difference," Vivencio Dizon, president of the BCDA, tells CNN.

As taxi driver Edgard Labitag recently explained to the Thompson Reuters Foundation, he's nothing but thrilled about the prospect of New Clark City taking the smog-blanketed burden off Manila.

"Crowding, pollution and traffic — this is what people say about Manila," he explained. "But luckily the government has a plan ... and Duterte is the right man to see it through."

Traffic in Manila
Manila, which was not designed to accommodate the number of cars it currently has, is notorious for having some the most headache-inducing traffic in the world. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

A sustainable city, built from scratch

The ultimate goal is to make New Clark City pollution-free, which the government plans to achieve by not just minimizing vehicular traffic but by also relying on renewable energy sources such as solar and building high-tech structures that test the limits of energy-efficiency. And although massive in size and scope, the construction of New Clark City will have minimal impact on the existing natural environment. The Thompson Reuters Foundation notes that just a third of the total land area will give way to new development while the rest will be dedicated to agricultural operations and open green space for all to enjoy.

Per CNN, the city plan largely avoids clearing trees in the area — a smart move when you consider the myriad benefits urban trees provide to cities: managing stormwater runoff, filtering airborne pollutants and reducing the urban heat island effect.

"Putting green areas on the agenda not only helps with water storage and drainage, but creates community spaces and guides street design in a way that benefits pedestrians and bikes ... so social resilience also gets strengthened," Matthijs Bouw, a Dutch architect who worked on the New Clark City master plan with the Philippine government, tells the Reuters Thompson Foundation.

Speaking to CNN, Dizon also reveals that there are plans to harness lahar, an Indonesian term for volcanic mudflow with a consistency similar to wet concrete, in addition to actual concrete as a primary building material. Considering that the production of concrete requires significant resources and emits a fair amount of pollution, incorporating the locally sourced byproduct of volcanic eruptions will help to lower the overall environmental impact of the city.

When life gives you destructive volcanic mudflow, why not build cities out of it, right?

Manila residents attempting to make their way through a flooded street
New Clark City is located at an elevation that makes it less susceptible to catastrophic flooding, which is a regular occurrence in low-lying Manila. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

So about that volcano ...

The use of lahar as an innovative indigenous construction material at New Clark City does bring up a valid concern.

While strategically sited to avoid flooding and be insulated from typhoons, landlocked New Clark City is indeed in relatively close proximity to the source of the lahars: Mount Pinatubo. While this proximity has its benefits as far as relying less on concrete is concerned, Mount Pinatubo is still an active stratovolcano with a recent history of destructive eruptions. The June 15, 1991, eruption of Pinatubo, which triggered massive lahar floods that killed hundreds and left thousands more homeless, was the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. So there's that.

However, as CNN notes, experts don't believe Pinatubo will experience another major eruption for hundreds of years.

Similarly, there are worries that New Clark City won't be as earthquake-proof as the BCDA makes it out to be. While it's true that the site does not sit on top of an active fault line like Manila does, this doesn't necessarily mean it's completely out of the woods in terms of seismic activity.

As Kelvin Rodolfo, a professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago, tells CNN: "All of the Philippines is subject to earthquake risks. It is a serious misconception that only areas close to faults are at risk."

Google map screenshot of New Clark City area
New Clark City is located in a former military zone roughly 60 miles north of the Manila metro area in the Tarlac province, Central Luzon, Philippines. (Photo: Google Maps)

New Clark City is located in a former military zone roughly 60 miles north of the Manila metro area in the Tarlac province, Central Luzon, Philippines. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

'No such thing as being too ambitious'

As for timing, construction of New Clark City — estimated price tag: $14 billon — is already underway with completion of the first of several phases due to wrap up in 2022. A portion of that first phase, which includes a 124-acre sports complex and some housing for governmental employees, is expected to be ready for the Southeast Asia Games in December 2019. While the games will take place at venues across the region, New Clark City and its new facilities will serve as the primary host.

This first part of Phase 1 development, dubbed the National Government Administrative Center, will be later joined by several distinct districts including a Central Business District, an Academic District, an Agri-Forestry Research and Development District and a Wellness, Recreation and Eco-tourism District.

And when it comes to the sheer ambition involved with building an environmentally sustainable city that will be kept safe from natural disasters in a Southeast Asian nation that's famous for being not safe from natural disasters, Dizon tells CNN that there's no point in being skeptical as to whether or not it can and will happen. Because it will.

"That's the worst kind of attitude we Filipinos could have," he says. "There's no such thing as being too ambitious."

Unbridled ambition aside, Dizon explains to the Thompson Reuters Foundation that deliberate planning is key as to not repeat mistakes of the past.

"We need to strike a balance between fast-paced development that maximizes value for the private sector, and protecting open spaces and making the city walkable, green and resilient," he says. "Traditional development cannot overwhelm or overpower the area. For New Clark City, here lies the challenge."